Third Sunday in Lent, Year C, RCL Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
Does God cause tornadoes and hurricanes to happen so the earth can be cleansed from sinful people? Jesus emphatically answers NO! Yet he never addresses the question, of why. Why do children die at the hands of drunk drivers? Why is there war? Why do bad things happen to good people? In seminary, we studied this topic known as theodicy. According to one book, there was something like seven philosophical ways to answer this question. Each approach seems to fit a particular situation, such as freak accidents as in the tower of Salome or a child being stillborn. The different philosophies sounded good in a particular situation, but they did not work at all in others. The consensus was that there is no single good answer as to why bad things happen. For me, and this is my opinion, the tragic death of people is never God’s wish.
The God I believe in holds up life and love above almost anything else. Most of the bad things that happen are due to human causes. God is not in control of every detail of our life. If so, then where would freewill be? Why did the tower of Salome fall? Because humans are not perfect, and something was unstable; the accident occurred. Why do people die in tornadoes? Not because God sent it to smite them but because we built our homes and business in ways that the powers of nature can cause damage and destruction. Why did young children die? Well, there are no answers that I have ever found satisfying for this question. But what I believe, in the deepest fibers of my being, is that this was not God’s plan. And just because we don’t know why doesn’t mean God wanted it that way. We just don’t know what we don’t know.
In today’s story, Jesus tells us that we cannot determine why suffering and tragedy happen. Though what we can do is look at ourselves. Repeatedly he says, “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” This is hard for people like me who analyze things to the minute level or those of us who like to be in control of our situation. Not knowing can make us feel anxious or out of control. And to be blunt, this is the truth. We are not in control. We are not in control of other people’s actions. We are not in control of the weather or other forces of nature. Our faith tells us that God is in ultimate control. Not that God controls each detail of our lives, but that God is the one who sustains us, and offers us life everlasting.
Judgment is coming, according to this passage. Time is short and we don’t have time to worry about the fate of others, Jesus says. We need to be looking at ourselves first. This reminds me of Jesus’ saying in Matthew, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”[i]
To drive this point home, Jesus tells a parable that likely resonates with most of us especially if you’re a gardener. At first, we may notice that this tree isn’t some random fig tree. The man planted this tree himself. But like most things we plant, you cannot usually just take it, stick it in the ground, and expect the plant to flourish. We often need to till the soil, add some fertilizer, and tend the new plant until it becomes established. In our story, after three years this tree did not produce fruit and the man wants to cut it down. But the wise gardener says let me tend to this tree. “I’ll dig around it and put manure on it.” In the end, we never know if this is a “bad” tree that never produces fruit or a “good” tree. For this is not the point of the story. Instead, we find that the tree receives the gift of another year of life. And the point is we all get second chances. Because of God’s generosity and love for us, we are given the gift to repent. We are given more time to make our lives right with the Lord and each other. And this is Paul’s caution to the Church of Corinth.
Paul reworks the Exodus story to show that God is always with his people. It is through generosity and love that God delivers his people from the land of bondage to the land of milk and honey. On this journey, Paul says many stumbled into immorality and died along the way. This passage may be most notable for offering us advice about our struggles and temptations. Paul says, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing, he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
What is not so readily apparent in these two verses is that the “you” being spoken to is not a singular you but plural. We, in our English language, do not have a plural form of you unless you live in the south where we say y’all. The important distinction here is that we are not being asked to do anything alone. We are told that the burdens we face are never meant for us to take upon ourselves. “A death of a spouse, for example, is also a death experienced by others. And the bearing of the test, the handling of it, is never supposed to be done by an isolated individual; others will always be bearing it with the one who is tested. So, the text supposes that God will not test us beyond what all of us can bear together.”[ii] Just as the Hebrew people were led through the wilderness together, we are to do the same. We are to share the load of our struggles with others. We are to walk through our wilderness times together. This bearing the load seems to be in contrast with our modern tendencies, in which we want to do it by ourselves.
I think we know this to be true. When the tornadoes hit all around us, there was a great outpouring of support, not only from the local communities but across the nation. When wars break out, people come together, work together, moving toward the same goal. Our “Individual” problems may be on a much smaller scale, but they still should involve the help of our friends and neighbors. This is foundational in our Christian faith.
Christ came into the world, became human, like you and me, so that God could form a tangible relationship with us. God could have done it all on his own. Christ could have done all his work on his own . . . but he didn’t. Everything he did involved interactions with others. If we believe in and desire to have an incarnate God, we have to be relational people with one another. We see this in our own lives when a family member is hurting and doesn’t want to tell us what is going on. We perceive the struggle; we feel shut out. And we know the isolation is not helping the situation. When we have a friend who goes to the hospital and doesn’t tell us we feel betrayed when we find out. Of course, our friend says that they didn’t want to worry us, but this is not what happens. Even if there is nothing physically we can do, we can pray, be the listing ear, or emotional support.
Our faith, going back to Cane and Able near the beginning of Genesis, is based on being in a relationship with God and one another. We are supposed to depend on each other even when we feel like we don’t want to bother others or let them know what is going on. Telling people about your struggles is not a burden on them, for in doing so, we all share the load.
[i] Matthew 7:3-4
[ii] The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume X, 1 Cor 10:1-13