I don’t know about you, but when I am feeling sick to my stomach, I end up dwelling on a mental list of everything I have eaten in the last 24 hours. It is almost a compulsive practice, as I keep going over the same list over and over trying to find a cause for my current misery, “no it couldn’t have been that,” or, “ah yes, it must have been that.” Sometimes it is a fruitful endeavor and I learn important life lessons, such as the fact that orange juice and coffee are not an acceptable substitute to breakfast. Other times it gets me nowhere, leaving me frustrated that my pain and discomfort is seemingly without cause.
I think that this practice is almost instinctive. When something goes wrong in our lives, when we find ourselves suffering, in pain, or experiencing emotional distress, we try to identify the cause of our suffering. Sometimes we are successful and can do something to correct it, sometimes we identify the cause and there is nothing we can do about it—but at least we find some comfort in the knowledge. Other times, we can’t find the cause of our suffering and are left feeling bewildered, frustrated, and angry.
Inevitably we extend this practice into our faith. When we experience suffering—and here I mean something much more than heartburn after a bad breakfast decision—when we are confronted by disease, the loss of loved ones, financial insecurity or ruin, hunger, abusive relationships, or the abuse and disdain of others, we want to know why. When we are confronted by suffering, we want to know why. We want to know why God is afflicting us, asking ourselves, “God, what have I done to deserve this?” More often than not, we can find no reason for our suffering, so we tell ourselves that God must have a reason or that God is preparing us for something else.
Too often we do the exact same thing when we witness suffering in others, assuming that they must somehow deserve the pain and affliction that they are experiencing. Pain and suffering become an indication in the public mind of immorality. I hear stories from time to time of parents with children born with severe sickness or physical disability being told to their face that they must have sinned that their children would be afflicted so—as though God would punish a child for the actions of the parents.
More commonly though, we find this sentiment in discourse around the poor and the problem of poverty. In fact, we often here this very rhetoric from our politicians around election time—poor people are poor because they are lazy, because they are Godless, because they waste their money on alcohol, or because they are just bad people. While you won’t hear too many people say that God made someone poor as a punishment, the underlying assumption is there—the poor deserve to be poor.
Certain diseases carry a similar stigma—depression, mental illnesses, diabetes, and addictions—correlating in the public mind with varying forms of immorality. Even modern day natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes fall victim to this blame game, as certain ideological extremists attempt to blame them on their choice of moral shortcomings.
Whether we blame or give credit for handing out these punishments to God, karma, or the universe, the tragic end result is that we tend to heap abuse on those who suffer the most and are reluctant to spend too much of our time, energy, and resources alleviating the cause of their suffering. At the same time we accept, without question, the moral quality of those who are successful.
This is what Jesus is trying to speak to in today’s story. Two local stories captivate the imagination of the crowd gathered around him: the execution of several Galileans by Pilate and the tragic death of eighteen people when a tower collapsed on top of them. They were violent and senseless deaths and the crowd was desperately trying to make sense of it all. Jesus sees the question written on their hearts, “What terrible things must these people have done to deserve this?”
Why do we do this? Why do we need so strongly to assign a cause for the suffering we experience and the suffering we see others experience? It seems that we are stuck with a difficult choice. Is it worse to believe in a God that metes out punishment and reward for our actions, even when we can’t always figure out what it was that we did to deserve it? Or is it worse to live in a universe where bad things happen and people suffer for no apparent reason, while others find great success and comfort while not necessarily doing anything to deserve it? It can feel like these are our only two options, and for many people the second option is far worse. So instead, we opt for a troubling theology because at least we can make some sense of it.
Jesus sees that the crowd is struggling between these two options, that we struggle between these two apparent options, and so Jesus troubles the waters and shakes things up a bit. He answers their question, “Ha! You are all as bad as they were and deserve the same!” From this answer we know for certain that Jesus did not have a Public Relations Manager. If he had, Jesus might have lived a bit longer and his response may have been stated more positively as, “You are no better than the deceased,” or “the deceased were as good as you are.” Instead, Jesus shocks his audience, drawing their attention to a third way which he describes in a parable.
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So, he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ The gardener replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
One way that we can read this passage, and perhaps the most common way is by assuming that we are the fig tree, Jesus is the gardener, and God is the vineyard owner. It certainly isn’t the most attractive image of God that we have, impatient and eager to dish out punishment upon those who don’t perform as expected, with Jesus trying to appease and talk God down from hastily made decisions.
Another way, a different way, we can read this passage is by assuming that we are both the fig tree and the impatient vineyard owner, and that God is the gardener. When there are parts of our lives that are filled with suffering and not fruitful, we are quick to judge ourselves, eager to cast that part of ourselves out, despising ourselves for deserving this suffering. We’re even less patient with our sisters and brothers around us who are suffering and in pain. “Stop being lazy, stop feeling sorry for yourself, stop living on my hard-earned money, stop taking up space in the vineyard!” But God intercedes for us—God intercedes to us—saying, “wait, slow down, I am not done here, there is still something possible.”
This is the third way that Jesus offers to the crowd gathered around him and to us here today. God does not sit on high handing out punishments and rewards for our actions and behavior. If God did, we would all end up like the victims in today’s story. This is not to say that our actions don’t have consequences, they do. Sometimes those consequences inherently cause suffering—like drinking coffee and orange juice as your breakfast will give you heartburn, or lying to your spouse causes broken relationships and distrust—but not because God wants us to suffer. Nor do we live in a universe where we are afloat in a sea of randomness, where we experience suffering and joy without reason, left without God to navigate through.
We worship the creating God, who saw the formless void before creation and saw what it could become, saw the earth and stars, saw the birds and the fish, saw the women and men who would love and fight, who would make decisions that would bring about great good and great suffering. We worship the God of potential, the God of new beginnings, the God who always sees what can still yet be.
God does not cause suffering, but God does meet us in our suffering, and God does see the potential within us even when we feel far from fruitful. The God we worship is big, unimaginably big, and there is nothing we can do that is outside of God; we are never lost to God. Now please don’t hear me as saying that we can make lemonade out of the lemons that life hands us, because that is not what I am saying at all. Bad and tragic things happen to us, and good doesn’t always come of them. We make decisions that effect other people, and those decisions sometimes cause great suffering—good doesn’t come of those decisions either. In those times when we feel lost and in pain, we are not lost to God. God knows the changing potential, the changing possibility, and the new creation that is within us at every point in our lives. God knows that with care and attention, we can bear fruit; we can be created anew, wherever we are in our life.
As Jesus addresses the crowd gathered around him today, as Jesus addresses us, he calls us to do the same. As Christians, we are called not to look at the world in judgment. As Christians we are called to try and look at the world through God’s eyes and see the potential that it contains; to see the potential that we contain. As Christians, Jesus calls us out to look for the Kingdom of God that is hiding right beneath the surface, to look for the new creation just waiting to burst forth and to do everything within our power to care and nurture that potential, to help build the kingdom and to help grow the new creation.
Preached by Adam Yates