It is a common refrain I seem to hear more and more often these days, “Isn’t there any good news?”. All over the news programs and newspapers are stories of catastrophic events. Blizzards, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, famines, earthquakes and Tsunamis all wreak havoc in different locations all over the world and in their wake lives are changed. Often times this havoc is left unreported or under-reported as our news media moves on to the next big story. What is left behind are the survivors who grieve the loss of families, loved ones, homes, businesses and communities. Loss and grief ultimately leads to the question: “why?”. What had these people done to deserve having their lives turned upside down?
In Biblical times, it was common for people to associate disease, suffering and death to human sinfulness. The greater the sin, the more likely the misfortune. And unfortunately, even today, there are many that still think this way. We desire to have control over the chaos in our lives and so we hunt for some cause to explain the effect. It was no different in Jesus’ time. People wanted to understand and control misfortune. At the beginning of the Gospel reading from Luke, it lists a series of tragic events. The first being the death of some Galileans at the hands of Pilate. Because their blood was mixed with their sacrifices, it is probable that their deaths occurred in conjunction with their worship in the temple in Jerusalem. Then there was the death of those who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them. The tower was probably part of a secure fortress meant to keep people safe but the accidental collapse lead to the death of eighteen people. The crowd, wondering what these people had done to deserve such fate, asked Jesus, “do you think these were the worst offenders in Jerusalem?”. Jesus’ answer was simply no. Death happens; it can catch you by surprise when you least expect it. It can even happen when you are praying or when you are standing near a tower. Death is always close and not necessarily a controllable event. Jesus reminds the crowd that we can’t put everything off until tomorrow and we need to repent. Then he tells the parable of the fig tree. The landowner has grown impatient with a tree that has failed to produce fruit for three years and he asks the gardener to cut it down. The gardener asks to work with the tree for one more year, digging around the roots and feeding it with manure, and if it then does not produce fruit, he would cut it down.
At first I saw no connection with the original story but if you look deeper, when the gardener (Jesus) asks for another year of life for the tree, he is mirroring God’s mercy. Just as the gardener refused to give up on the tree, Jesus isn’t giving up on us either. The gardener intends to nurture the tree along, just as Jesus does everything he can to nurture us so that we too can live and bear fruit. In the parable, His passion to live in us is marked with a sense of urgency; the gardener has one year. This sense of urgency challenges us to look at our lives and dare to ask the hard questions: Am I so busy that I am not making time for God in my life? Am I withholding forgiveness for old wrongs? Am I doing everything I can to love my neighbor as myself? These are the tough questions of our Lenten burden and asking such questions moves us towards repentance. But we find it difficult to let go of old hurts and the tragedies in our lives and in the world. We continue to focus on how things can be so unfair. We want to believe that no one should need to suffer, that we should be able to go through life without feeling the effects of unfairness or injustice, but this need for answers distracts us from trusting in a God whose presence makes tragedy and suffering and those unanswerable questions bearable. The notion that that only good thing happen to good people and bad thing happens to bad people was put to rest when Jesus was nailed to the cross for our sins. The more crucial question is, can you trust God to be God and can you love God without linking the love to the good or bad things that come your way?
There are no easy answers, but in the presence of God we know in Christ we get a God whose love in our lives challenges and enables us to live without all the answers. God is willing to dig around our hearts, patiently encouraging us toward repentance and faithfulness and fruitfulness. We get a God who has given His whole life to us, so that we might come to learn how to give our lives to God more fully. Is this the year for us to bear fruit?
1.) Does the news media’s constant focus on catastrophic events contribute to the feeling that there is less good news in the world than there used to be? What else lends itself to this type of feeling?
2.) How do you think the impact of news media moving from one event to the other without giving a voice to the victims impacts our view on life?
3.) With all the suffering going on in the world, how can we give a voice to victims of catastrophic events and how can we be witnesses to God’s compassionate love to those in need?
4.) How do you feel about associating sin with punishment from God?
5.) Does asking ourselves the hard questions lead to repentance? How can our self-analysis not lead to just more bad news when we fail to love as God has first loved us?