Those are large, global tragedies, but we all know that terrible things can happen in our own lives. Some of us may experience violence in our own neighborhoods, even in our own homes. Some of us may have been the victims of racism, political oppression or terrorism. We may have suffered as the result of natural disasters, poverty, famine, and disease. Terrible things can happen no matter how good you are, no matter how faithful, no matter how hard you pray. This can lead some of us to doubt and to despair. What are we to make of this? How do we cope with this reality in our spiritual and religious lives?
Here are two scripture readings that address these questions, two of the readings for March 3rd, 2013.
This gospel reading begins with people telling Jesus about a terrible event - some Galileans put to death in an atrocious way. The people who told Jesus about this were probably seeking comfort. Judging my Jesus' response, it seems they had already comforted themselves by saying, “Those Galileans must have done something bad, so God let this bad thing happen We are good. Nothing like that could happen to us.”
This is an old idea rooted in the ancient covenant (a set of promises) that God established with Jewish people. Basically, if they followed the rules, God would protect and provide for them. If they didn’t, all bets were off. This was a satisfying theology so long as things went well - it meant they were good and righteous.
But then disaster struck. Foreign powers defeated them, destroyed the temple and forced Jewish leaders to go live in Babylon. They had to live among the very people who had ruined their holy of holies, the very people who had killed their sons, brothers, fathers. Given the belief in that covenant, people began to question whether they had done something wrong, to deserve such a tragedy. It is hard to imagine they could have done anything to deserve such a fate.
We still see this religious reasoning today. When something terrible happens to others we wonder if God is punishing them, and when something terrible happens to us, we wonder if God is punishing us. Why is this idea still around, so many centuries later? I can think of three reasons.
First, we want to think we can prevent terrible events. If they only happen to bad people, then by being good we think we can prevent them. It gives us a feeling of control in a world that can often feel chaotic and out of control.
Second, we are meaning-makers. We look to find meaning in the world and in the events of our lives. Whenever something happens, especially if it is negative, we want to understand why it happened – what does it mean? We want things to make sense in a world that includes meaningless tragedies.
Finally, I think we want the world to be just, with good people rewarded and bad people punished. And of course we want to be counted among the good, feeling smug that we are better than others and so favored by God. We want justice in a world that can sometimes (or often) be unjust.
It makes sense that this ancient religious idea persists. However, it has two unfortunate consequences. First, it casts guilt on people who most likely have done nothing wrong and blames the victims for the trauma or tragedy. Surely no one could think the children and teachers in Newtown, their families and friends and parents, did anything to deserve such a terrible thing. It seems wrong to suggest such a thing.
The other problem is that this theology makes God out to be a terribly cruel, not at all like the God of my experience, or the merciful God in our reading from Isaiah. This theology makes God out to be some sort of monster, when many people experience the Sacred as quite the opposite.
Returning to consider the gospel reading, people are disturbed about what happened to the Galileans and thinking they deserved such torment. Jesus sets them straight right away, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you;”
Jesus says the same thing about the eighteen people who died when a tower fell - they were no worse than anyone else. He says that the victims of disaster were no worse than anyone else, including those who asked him about what happened. He denies that old theology emphatically, and he denies it twice.
He does tell those around him to look to their own spiritual health, especially if they are congratulating themselves that they are somehow better than the victims of both tragedies. If they are doing that, they had better get right to the work of repenting. I think Jesus is saying that it’s spiritually deadly to believe others suffer because of something they did and that you are better than them if you suffer less than they. If you’re tempted to believe that, start repenting.
And if you think about it, he’s also saying, “If you are suffering, please do not believe that God is punishing you.” Now sometimes we suffer as a consequence of our own actions – like when we take a stupid risk and hurt ourselves. I’m not talking about those times. Those things are our fault I’m talking about not blaming our selves for suffering that has nothing to do with what we did.
After this rebuke, Jesus goes on to tell a symbolic story about a fig tree in a garden. The tree has not produced any fruit. I wonder if this tree might represent those spiritually barren people who blame victims for tragedy. Such people, like the tree, do not bear the fruits of the spirit. What are the fruits of the spirit? In his letter to the Galatians Paul says the fruit of the spirit “is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Such fruits could not possibly come from believing people who suffer deserve that suffering.
However, the parable suggests that can change. The gentle gardener says, "Perhaps we need to dig around the roots." I see this is rooting out that harsh theology. Dig that up, get it out of the garden. How can a tree bear fruit with that strangling its roots? And then put a little compost around that starving tree. Maybe when we break that oppressive theology down it can become a compost that that nurtures life. Then we’ll see if that tree doesn’t bear some fruit. Let’s give the tree another chance.
Given this view of things, it is no coincidence that one of the readings paired with this one is that selection from Isaiah. In the gospel there’s a barren fig tree and in Isaiah an enormous feast. At this point in Isaiah, the terrible thing happened a generation ago - the destruction of the temple and the exile.
Early on Isaiah said this happened because they had strayed from the covenant, but here he’s saying something different. I wonder if suffering changed him. It can have that effect – it can soften people. I see that movement in scripture – the more the Jewish people suffered, the more compassionate they became and the more their theology changed. You start to see an increasing belief that God is merciful, a Good Shepherd who walks with you through the valley of the shadow of death.
In this reading from Isaiah the first generation has died, and a new generation is being released from exile. They can go back – but they are used to living in Babylon. They have never even seen Jerusalem. Isaiah is trying to persuade them to return to Israel and rebuild the temple. He’s tried just about every means of persuading them, and here he promises if they go back it will be like such a feast, so that even those who have nothing will have plenty to eat.
He promises that God will renew the covenant and raise them up from their lowly position. He assures them that even those who have strayed from the covenant will be granted mercy. There is life after tragedy, Isaiah assures us. There is forgiveness after wrongdoing. It must have been hard for the old guard to believe this so Isaiah (speaking for God) explains, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” There is a higher truth. It is always better to be compassionate. There is a more evolved theology – that God never wills our suffering, but instead is the gentle companion.
This is good news, indeed. It frees all who are oppressed from any belief that they somehow deserve that oppression. It frees all who suffer tragedies and traumas from believing God is punishing them. It frees those who believe others deserve the evil that befalls them to grow more compassionate hearts and souls. It frees all of us to become like fig trees that bear good fruit, the fruits of the spirit - love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And when we bear such spiritual fruit, it is like a feast laid out before us, a feast we can all share.
In the words of the poet May Sarton, Help us to be ever faithful gardeners of the spirit, who know that without darkness nothing comes to birth, and without light nothing flowers.