A friend’s college age son decided to go on a trek through Tibet before starting his junior year. Tibet is a romantic place, but it can also be dangerous. My friend couldn’t help imagining all the terrible things that could happen to him there. What if he loses his passport and gets stranded at some remote border? Gets food poisoning or altitude sickness? What if an insect bite poisons him? What if he stumbles off a steep trail into a bottomless ravine? Or gets swept up in social unrest and lands in jail? Or gets drunk and, in a stupor, runs off and marries the thirty-nine year-old trek leader?
So she set out to minimize or eliminate all those dangers before he even boarded his flight. Her minute preparations made the Secret Service look slipshod. She called me from time to time to obsess, and I tried to be supportive. But one day, I’d had enough: “For Pete’s sake, woman! Just let the boy go! You can’t stop something from happening to him on the other side of the world!”
She burst out laughing. “You can tell you’re not a mother. Look, here’s how it goes: You worry and plan to give yourself a sense of control. That way, God forbid, if something does go wrong, you won’t blame yourself for not having done everything you possibly could. Wait. Scratch that. You’ll blame yourself no matter what.”
You have to blame somebody, blame something. Your boss, bad karma, the system, the stock market, your gene pool, a communist plot, El Niño—or God. And that’s what’s going on in this story from Luke. The talk is about whom to blame for the frightening things that had happened. Maybe it was the victims themselves. Maybe they’d been bad. If they’d been good, they would’ve been spared, right? Maybe God is punishing them?
Most people I know don’t believe that. Still, when disaster strikes, it’s like a reflex—they wonder who did something wrong. Barbara Brown Taylor tells this story: A toddler’s vision suddenly blurs. A tumor is growing in her brain. On the day of surgery, her mother paces the waiting room. It smells of smoke, the ashtray is full. “It’s bad,” she says to the chaplain, “and it’s all my fault. God is punishing me for smoking. I tried to stop but I didn’t. So my child got cancer, and now she’s going to die.” The chaplain tells her God wouldn’t do such a thing, but the mother prefers a God who teaches lessons to bad mothers by killing toddlers to a God who is absent or powerless. If her daughter is dying, Taylor writes, there has to be a reason. And she is willing to be that reason.
It happens all the time. A young man I know recently told his parents he’s gay. And they, who consider themselves knowledgeable, liberal, and accepting, immediately began a frantic search through their past behaviors trying to pinpoint the thing they did wrong in their parenting to cause him to be gay.
When both the dean and the president of Andover Newton Theological School died one after the other many years ago, people at the seminary were convinced that something was wrong with the school itself. They decided we should all take better care of ourselves, as if in return for a reduced class load, a daily hour at the gym, and low-fat lunches God would be obliged to let us all live to ripe old ages.
Whenever something bad happens, we examine our habits, our diets, our relationships, our world-views, our family trees, hoping to find a cause, a reason, an explanation, so that we can stop creating our own calamities. We have an urge, Taylor says, to make sense of the senseless mingled blood and collapsing towers of our lives. There has to be something, someone to blame. And, like anguished mothers in waiting rooms, many of us have a nagging feeling that it’s us.
Jesus asked the people who came to him if they thought maybe the victims were awful sinners and had thereby caused their own catastrophes. Was God punishing them? He doesn’t wait for them to reply. He answers his own questions, and his answer is firm. It is not true to say that God is punishing us when tyrants commit atrocities, towers fall, workers shoot co-workers, babies get tumors, marriages fail, children disappoint and earthquakes ravage some already desperate part of our geography.
Sometimes terrible things just happen. And sometimes someone is to blame for what happens, and sometimes, no one is—and it’s certainly not the case that God is getting even.
And yet, Jesus says, and yet… Just because God isn’t staying up nights plotting castigating catastrophes to even the score for our sinning doesn’t mean we can go on living any way we please. Even though there is no causal cosmic connection between our conduct and the disasters that befall us, he says we still need to repent and change. He says our lives depend on it.
It’s one thing to say that God punishes us for our sins with disasters, or when bad things happen to us it must be because we are bad people. It’s another to acknowledge that our actions have consequences, that our self-preoccupied conduct sends ripples, even tsunamis, into the world far beyond the borders of our private lives, and that our unwillingness to love our neighbor can in fact be fatal.
I think this is what Jesus is getting at when he says we will all surely perish if we don’t change. He urges us to repentance not because God is lying in wait for us, but because too many of us are lying in wait for each other. God is not punishing us; we are punishing each other pretty skillfully, all on our own.
It’s important to be clear about this because some of us may think that once we have rejected the idea of a payback God; once we have consoled ourselves that God is a loving and merciful God who would never do such things to us; once we have disclaimed a direct punitive connection between our failings and the cosmic and everyday catastrophes of this life, that’s all we need to say and there’s nothing more to do. We’re home free and life goes on. But we are not done; there is more.
That “more” is Jesus’ call to repent and change. That “more” is his parable, his invitation to live differently; to tend to one another, not cut each other down; to bless the soil in which our neighbor is rooted, not curse him for breathing and taking up good space; to expect that everyone can and will bear fruit some day, and not despair of anyone too quickly, or at all.
Jesus isn’t playing the blame game, and he doesn’t think we should either; but he won’t let us go without a warning. He warns us that we will all shrivel up, dry out, and perish if we keep on behaving like the owner of the fig and not like the gardener; if our deepest reflex is not mercy, but blame; if our approach to the fruitless neighbor is anger and disowning, not patient knowing love.
If the axe in our hand falls too fast on the struggling tree, soon there will be no trees left at all, no shade, no food, no air, no life–for all alike are struggling, all alike need mercy, all alike require the tender care of Christ to grow.
If you have ears to hear, listen.
Thank you so much for this–it is just what I needed this week to help my preaching. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the deadly tornadoes in our community, and I was wrestling with how to address that anniversary in a sermon on repentance. What a blessing this is!
You’re way too kind. I’ll be thinking of you and yours tomorrow, and Sunday as you gather. What a tender, poignant time…