March 20, 2022
I am here to tell you that the thing you’re struggling with is because of your sin.
Everything from the weird kink in your neck to your depression, anxiety, your aging parents, your aging, oh and why Ukraine is being invaded… it’s all due to your sin. You haven’t repented of that lie you told in 7th grade, and that’s the cause of all that is wrong in your life.
You just need to try harder. Be more faithful. Stop being so sloppy. Get your life organized and be more professional and do that thing that you’re not doing and just try harder, then the world will be better.
Do you hear how absurd that sounds? Maybe we don’t hear it as that strange though because we hear TV preachers constantly say that the latest national tragedy is due to some sin or another. And notice the sin is always assigned to a particular group of people. It’s about the LGBTQ+ folks or black people or illegal immigrants. It’s never about wage theft, neglect of the poor, lack of love for our neighbor, following idols, you know… sins the bible actually talks about.
Remember after Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005? More than a few preachers said this was because of all the sin of alcohol and permissiveness in the city. That part of the city wasn’t really affected. They never once spoke about the economics and city politics that didn’t fund the city’s levy system.
Jesus blows this sin-and-smite theology out of the water in today’s scripture. There is an incident where Pilate killed a group of Galileans and mingled their blood with the blood of the sacrifices. No other ancient source reports such an event, but it’s not uncommon for bloodshed and acts of violence to happen. Pilate liked to remind the province just who was in control through violence and heavy taxation. Here are some examples of how Pilate maintained control: Pilate killed a group of Samaritans climbing a holy mountain. He introduced Roman effigies into Jerusalem, which would have been graven images to the Jewish people. Pilate seized Temple funds and paid for an aqueduct.
These were not the result Israel’s sinfulness, but Pilates. Pilate, and Rome as an occupying power, were ruthless. Yet the theology that Jesus is speaking against was popular then and popular now. It blames the victim. Jesus’ questions assume the popular notion that sin is the cause of such tragedies, like the Galileans somehow brought the tragedy on themselves. If God is responsible for everything that happens, and God is a just God, then tragedies must be the result of human sinfulness. The problem in such logic is that God is the immediate cause of all events, and leaves no room for human freedom, freedom in the laws of nature, or chaos theory. Jesus completely ignores the whole cause and effect.
Jesus seems to acknowledge that life is uncertain, death is capricious, and that blaming God doesn’t help matters much. It’s absurd. Jesus says, “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Jesus is saying, “If this theology were true, then God has bad aim, for there are way worse people than those who died.” Yet we cannot ignore the warning. That “unless we think differently, then we’ll die like they did.”
Then Jesus goes on to tell a story about a fig tree. There is an unfruitful tree. The owner came looking for a fig, and found none, so he wanted to cut it down. It has been this way for three years, so the owner is fed up. The gardener intercedes, offering to dig around it and fertilize it. Then, if it does not bear fruit in another year, he would cut it down.
Christian interpreters through the years have been quick to see the allegorical meaning here. The vineyard is Israel, the owner is God, and the gardener is Jesus. Jesus’ teachings are the fertilizer and he’s been working the garden for three years, the time of his ministry at that point. This last year, the tree should produce fruit.
Tragedies and death remind us that life is fragile. None of this is guaranteed. If there’s something you’ve wanted to do, places you’ve wanted to go, hobbies you’ve wanted to try out… go for it. Especially if they don’t immediately produce anything. They might be the medicine we need to heal us, especially when we didn’t realize we were ailing.
Lots of things in our life can be medicine. If we feel miserable, and we’re not producing anything, then doing the same thing we’ve been doing isn’t going to work. We’re in a rut and can’t seem to find a way forward. As the band U2 sings, “You got stuck in a moment, and you can’t get out of it.”
Sometimes just speaking something we’ve noticed to a friend is what we needed. Nothing has changed. The problem remains. Yet just naming it is the medicine we needed. Or the medicine was our friend saying, “I have noticed that, too.” Or even the friend saying, “I don’t see it that way.” And in offering their perspective, we feel liberated.
Kate Bowler points out how often we feel like we’re the bad thing. We start apologizing for telling our story, “Thanks so much for listening for so long…” “Sorry, I know this is a lot…” We try to change the subject. We feel like maybe this is our fault. I love that Kate reminds us that it’s a gift when we see humanity shine through all the pain, and that vulnerability makes us more—not less—beloved. People’s pain is not only a burden. It is an opportunity to scoot up close to the deepest parts of who we are and what comprises our humanity. Telling our story or listening to another’s story is good medicine. Just what we needed. It makes us feel less alone. Like we’re not the bad thing.
Sometimes the medicine we need is a vacation. For those of you with jobs, the daily grind has ground you down. For those of you retired, maybe the routine has lulled you into an unfruitful place. Maybe just going somewhere, or interrupting the routine will help provide the medicine you need. Maybe… just maybe… a healthy dose of rest… or laughter… or some small change is the medicine needed for your healing.
That thing you’re dealing with may not be due to some supposed sin. Jesus is uninterested in those questions. Why would God punish you for whatever you’re doing when there are way worse people and things going on in the world? Is God that petty? Or does God just have bad aim with the whole smiting thing?
One would think, if it’s true that God immediately punishes human sinfulness, then there would be no domestic abuse, abuse of children, or human trafficking. Those warmongers, hate groups, and corrupt politicians and exploitative business practices would be gone. So maybe that theology is wrong and is stressing us out. Maybe we need to think differently about this God we’re following. That’s where our repentance needs to come from.
God has given us the fertilizer. We have the teachings of Jesus. We have the witness of the apostles and church history through the years. We have our mentors and saints in our lives that have poured into us. We are not bereft of council. We have a kaleidoscopic super abundance of fertilizer.
If you feel you are striving and all your efforts are bearing no fruit, maybe stopping is the best medicine. Nothing is an option.
If you feel like you are stuck in an endless cycle of grief, anxiety, depression, emotional distress, then those aren’t good fruits to bear. Maybe talking about this cycle is the best medicine.
Maybe watching a standup comedian or one of your favorite comedies. Laughter is the best medicine, they say. It’s good to laugh at the absurdity and pain we go through. It’s good to take joy. As Kate Bowler states, “Joy is the oxygen we need to do hard things.” Living is hard. Do something that brings joy. Kate is fight stage 4 cancer. To keep herself strong in the fight, she hosts random parties. She once hosted a ketchup party. She bought all the different brands of ketchup she could muster, and then had her friends try them out and see which was the best. Maybe today, you could throw your own party. Or take a walk, see if you can find buds on the trees. Take stock of the birds coming back. I saw a grackle the other day! That means spring is close!
If you feel like God is tempting or testing you, please hear these words from James 1:13-14, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does God tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire…”
Maybe it’s our desires that are tempting and testing us. Our desire for things to go exactly like we expect or plan them to, with no room or flexibility for chaos and other people’s free will. Maybe it’s our desire to be higher up the ladder, better than we are, fitter, stronger, happier—maybe that desire is what is blocking us from producing the fruit.
Lent is a great time to stop. Just, stop.
For three years, God has come to the tree expecting fruit. This year, Jesus is tending to our needs. Tilling the soil. Restoring. Fertilizing. Snipping away dead branches. Birds are already singing in our branches, providing us with a beautiful melody, a song for our lives. We are awash in grace, love, music, beauty and art.
Why would we put God in the place of a wrathful, petty miser when God has come around and wants to share a meal with us? When God has placed such tender moments to fertilize us to produce the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control?
I look out from my place here… and I see an orchard ripe with those fruits. And those fruits are the medicine that can heal a hurting world. May you stand strong, church. And may the birds who need your medicine find rest in your branches. For God’s eye is on the sparrow, and you know that God watches over all of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke and John, Volume IX. Page 270
 See devotional #16, Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie, Good Enough; 40ish devotionals for a life of imperfection. Pages 92-94.