O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.
These words from our Psalm set us on a right path to consider today’s readings. Were it not for this portal into the meaning of what we have heard today, we might err into questionable theology.
The author of Luke tells us a story about people coming to tell Jesus of an atrocity where Pilate had his soldiers mix the blood of worshiping Galileans with the blood of the animals they had sacrificed.
These victims would have traveled a long distance to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem. This, of course, is the only place where sacrifices could be offered.
Jerusalem apparently is dangerous for more than just prophets.
You can imagine the level of hysteria that must accompany such a story. It really doesn’t take much imagination; all we need do is listen to some of the more creative explanations of current events.
My most favorite recent example was last summer when people got in their cars and drove to Texas because the President was going to take over the state, which was the explanation of the military exercises that the U.S. Army was conducting there.
Jesus finds himself in one of these mob scenes where to point out the fallacy of the report only exposes him to charges of traitor, because the natural course of human events is to paint the enemy as a brutal non-human creature.
There were reports in the Second World War of German soldiers throwing children into the air to shoot them and not so long ago in the Iraq War the story was that Iraqi soldiers were invading hospitals and taking premature babies out of their incubators and leaving them exposed to die.
Of course none of these events happened. The two contemporary reports were proven to be specious and as a matter of fact, there is no record from the time of Jesus that substantiates the sacrifice blood-mixing story, not even the other Gospels.
So what is this need to demonize?
Why must we have other evil people to blame?
What do we gain?
Jesus’ response is to ask if these people were worse sinners than other Galileans. He goes on to ask if they were worse offenders than the eighteen who perished when a tower they were constructing fell on them.
Again all apparently innocent victims, but in this case there is some reason to believe that the accident might have happened since the wall of the city at the gate at Siloam takes a turn that might require a tower for the defense of the city.
But Jesus’ point is that unless the people who are telling this story repent they will perish in their innocence just as these others have.
There are two concepts that are mixed up in this story. It was widely held, it actually might still be a rationalization, that people who experience harm are being punished for something.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ disciples ask him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ And each of us may have been tempted to ask, “Why me?” when unexpected trouble visits us.
Possibly the worst of the passages from today’s readings is from 1 Corinthians. Paul writes, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength...”
How often have we heard someone tell a friend or loved one who is suffering, “God will not give you any more than you can handle.” And maybe you have been the recipient of this advice and wanted to scream.
This may have been a great way to encourage a person in the first Century, but it’s purely bad theology for us today. It encourages a victim mentality.
Whereas we should not test God, by asking for favors or being placed above others, I believe that God does not purposely test us.
Just as we have received the gift of free will from our Creator God, I believe the entire of creation also must move as it is compelled based on the physical system that God Created. A system that people like Einstein continue to explain to us.
The question to ask is not, “Why me?” but, “Where is God working in the situation in which I find myself.”
To ask this question gives us many more options to find creative and positive outcomes from our misfortunes. It opens the way to peace of mind in the middle of our personal suffering. In reality it is a parallel question in the quest to see the face of God in others.
But Jesus tells a story about a landowner and the tenant farmer who has planted fig trees. This was according to the custom of the time a wealthy man who lived in the town, who probably did not visit the land that often. He, “had the tree planted.”
The Fig tree that grows in this part of the world bears fruit 10 months of the year. The sequence in the life of this tree is that after it is planted it takes three years before it bears fruit. Then according to Leviticus, the first three years fruit is forbidden. The fruit if the seventh year is considered clean and must be offered to the Lord.
Our landowner has come looking for fruit for three years, which now makes ten years, and it seems hopeless that there is none. But the Gardner urges mercy. Give the tree more time and he will give it more care.
In fact this story is not about fig trees, but the oppressive occupying rulers from Rome, Pilate to be exact. Jesus insults him by saying that what the tree needs is manure.
He calls on the people who are distraught about this story of brutality toward pilgrims at the Temple in Jerusalem to stop focusing on the political situation with Rome and instead to be concerned with their spiritual needs, that the oppressors are not worth our attention and concern.
He’s not saying to submit, but to focus on being merciful to each other, to find God in the midst of suffering. Judah has been occupied for many years by different foreign nations.
Remember when Jesus is accused of being “King of the Jews” by Pilate, he responds, “You say that I am.”
At this time in History, there was no delineation between politics and religion. It was all intertwined. The separation of Church and State is a modern invention of the Founding Fathers of the United States.
Where we do see a separation in this story is between the lives of two cultures; Rome and Judea.
I have been binge watching the preceding five seasons of Downton Abbey in preparation for watching the final episode tonight. I was tempted to watch all of them when they became available, but I have been using as much discipline as I could muster to watch only one a week.
What I have noticed in this binge watching experience is a story that contains wars, personal conflict, adultery, murder, betrayals, loyalty, romance and personal sacrifice; all in the service of showing the decline of the British Country Home Aristocracy and the oppressive system of the servant class.
By far the saddest moment in the entire series was the death of Lady Sybil. For those of you who can remember, it was for me worse than the death of Jenny in Love Story. And yes, I was one of the male voices in the theater that audibly burst out, “oh God, NO!”
Anyway, what I noticed in Sybil’s death was how everyone pulled together in the grief. Characters who had been rivals for the entire series to that point were consoling each other.
For me the lesson is that when it comes down to it, regardless of the things that seem to divide us, we are all human. We all have the same desires to live meaningful lives. We all want to be nurtured by a loving God, free to love others.
So if we were to take the advice of Jesus based on his story of the Fig Tree, we would be merciful to each other and give our relationships more time to bear good fruit. Fruit worthy to offer to the Lord.
The one God that unites us together as family and
supplies us with abundant grace. For you see, the alternative is to curse God for our misfortunes and miss the blessings that life has to offer.
If we eagerly seek this God, we will not thirst.
For your loving-kindness is better than life itself;
my lips shall give you praise.