Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/tVTsqxEFZ-g.
Lent 2C 21st February 2016
Jesus fasted forty days in the desert and Satan came and tempted him. Jesus did not allow Satan to influence him, even though the things that were offered were very tempting. The privations of hunger and solitude were not enough to break down the honour of Jesus. Jesus, tempted as we are, continues to respond in the way that he has learned from his Father. And as he left this time of tempting he went out to serve others, to greet them with compassion, to heal and to include, which is one of the aspects of his healing. Jesus is of course our model, and not just an example to follow but as it says in the Psalm, our light and salvation. So how are you going with your Lenten walk? As you pray and journey what are the temptations that you are facing? Well, they may be many and varied and I am very happy to talk to each of you about the things that are concerning you this Lent. One of the great temptations that comes to mature Christian people is that of self righteousness and judgement and we have today in the Gospel that is set a very interesting set of questions and answers and then a parable which might be helpful to us if we are struggling with those things.
To put the passage in context a little Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem and he is drawing huge crowds. Just before this passage he has been telling the crowd that they are failing to read the sign of the times. And then he talks quite specifically about judgement.
Then we come to this passage where some people, presumably from the crowd talk to Jesus about something that is troubling them. Now, I think that we are all troubled about whether or not the things that happen to people, they somehow deserve, and the questions around natural or manmade disasters seem to continue to perplex us. In the particular instance that is raised with Jesus Pilate, who was a particularly cruel leader, has had some people killed. Was this suffering a result, somehow, of their own personal sin? Now this is a very good question for us to consider in our own political climate, isn’t it? We could ask the exact same question- is the plight of people locked up on Manus and Nauru where they are suffering and some of them dying, a result of their own sin? Jesus then throws another idea into the mix with the mention of a disaster, which may have been man made as the result of shoddy workmanship, or may just have been a freak accident like the destruction of a building by a force of nature- let’s just imagine for a moment that a willy-willy came through and destroyed a building utterly! Jesus asks the crowd if the people who have been killed in these incidents were worse sinners than everyone else. And this is a very good question isn’t it? And Jesus answer is an unequivocal- No! This raises another question also very topical- do people suffer because they bring it on themselves? Well, surely the answer to that is yes and no. We all know people, like my brother, who have smoked like a chimney and then died of lung cancer- did he bring that on himself? Well, very possibly. But this raises the question, what about the person who has never smoked and dies of lung cancer? Another question that has been really important to our society over the last little while has been around the victims of domestic violence. We have decided as a society that there is never an excuse for violence, though the perpetrators have been blaming the victims for the whole of history. So, what I think Jesus is saying here is that tragedy of any kind is not a judgement on the person involved, or indeed on those around them. Sin and calamity may be linked, sometimes we get what we deserve in life, and sometimes we see people who we think should be punished get off scot-free. The link that Jesus says we cannot make is between calamity and judgement. We are all sinners and we all deserve judgement, Jesus tells his listeners to repent! The people killed in tragedies are not being judged for their sin- because if they were we would all be killed. I have heard that when the little church was blown to smithereens it was suggested by some that it was a judgement by God. Whoever said that had not read this passage carefully and it was a cruel and unjust thing to say. We must be careful never to blame the victim just because they are a victim.
The case of a natural disaster makes this clearer, doesn’t it? In the case of any catastrophic event, be it fire, flood, earthquake or mudslide, everyone suffers, more or less, in a random fashion. It is not a judgement of God. Do you remember the terrible earthquake that affected Haiti? I heard good Christians say that it was a judgement on the people of Haiti because they practised Voo-Doo. Now, if this was true it would have shown us an unfair and capricious God, wouldn’t it? What about all those who had never practised Voo-Doo in their lives, what about all those who were good Christians, what about the innocent babies who had not yet had time to commit any sin? It’s easy to see the flaw in the logic there, but sometimes harder when it is closer to home. And our great tendency as human beings is to find someone else to blame whether or not someone is at fault. The woman you gave me made me eat it, it was the snake…
But if we are not to see disasters and other bad things as judgement from God, this begs the question about whether or not God is in control. Is it God who sends the earthquake and if not, why not? Is it God who brings tragedy on a family? Is it ‘all in God’s plan’, as we are so often told? Well, I do not believe in a puppeteer God, who pulls the strings to make things happen, and I am sorry if that disappoints you. I believe that we have a broken world and in that world bad things happen to both good people and bad. And indeed as Jesus points out to us here, we are all sinners. I believe in God, the loving father, who allows this world to run on waiting for us all to repent. I believe in Jesus, the suffering servant, who walks beside us and weeps with us in our distress. I also believe in God the judge.
Jesus turns to the business of judgement after calling us to repentance. But do you notice that it is not in this passage about a negative catalogue of faults but rather a positive harvest of fruit? We will be judged on the fruit that we bear. We are all sinners, but we are also all people called to bear good fruit. In this little parable it is important to see that the tree has had a bit of time, three years, which I believe is long enough for it to have bourne some fruit, even if only a little. But the tree has not shown any positive signs. The gardener, however suggests that with a little more care it may bear fruit and obtains a second chance for the tree. Aren’t we glad that our God is a God of second chances? As we think about this parable in Lent, it is a great opportunity for us to examine ourselves and look for fruit among our own branches. It is not enough to pride ourselves on the things that we have not done, we must be bringing forth fruit. And so that we understand what that fruit might look like let us continue Jesus’ metaphor, and examine the whole idea of a fruit tree. A fruit tree, when it is mature enough, brings forth fruit, but the fruit is not for itself- is it? It is for others. And the gardener tends the tree to enable it to do its best- sometimes pruning is necessary, and not just once but over and over again. Sometimes it needs feeding in addition to the sustenance that it gets by having its roots deep into the dirt. Sometimes it might even need some special care, spraying for brown rot or an application of white oil. But the ultimate purpose is not for the fruit tree to have beautiful glossy leaves, to be a beautiful shape, to provide shade or anything else, it is to bring forth fruit that feeds and delights others. And each tree is called upon to bring forth its own fruit, of the species and variety that it is, unless of course it is one of those clever grafted ones that brings forth several different things! And perhaps you are one of those, able to bring forth many different fruits. The point is that only you can show forth your fruit! The judgement of God is about our fruit, but God gives us a second chance.
There is a warning here, however. God won’t wait forever for fruit. This is linked with Jesus’ earlier statement about the fact that we will all die, sooner or later, in tragic circumstances or of old age in our own beds. We are all mortal and death is the great leveller. The way to be judged as worthy is to bring forth fruit.
This judgement is, as I said, a positive one, as an examiner once said to me at a flute exam, we want to see what you can do!
Let me conclude with some words from Psalm 27, the beginning and the end,
The Lord is my light and salvation, whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
In all the complexities of our world, with its tragedies, its annoyances and its joys, we are assured of our great God’s love for us. And in response we are called to bear good fruit, fruit that will last.