Suffering and the Fig Tree

Yesterday’s readings were troubling. If you weren’t in church, take a look at Luke 13:1-9. In this reading, Jesus addresses that age-old question of why the heck bad things happen. Why is there suffering? Some people have rushed to tell Jesus about a tragedy—Pontius Pilate has apparently murdered a group of Galileans near or in the temple. The implication, though unstated, is clear: those Galileans clearly got what they deserved.

It’s a common impulse when faced with tragedy. We see it in TV preachers today. Some calamity befalls a group of people, and Pat Robertson and his cronies are quick to blame the people’s sin. 9/11? Check—we deserve what we got because we have strayed from being a Christian nation. Hurricane Katrina? Check—it’s all the sex and immoral behavior in New Orleans that caused that little problem. Newtown shooting? Check—Mike Huckabee blamed that on the fact that we no longer have prayer in schools.

Although these are obviously heinous examples, in some ways I understand the impulse to claim that suffering is a punishment for our sin. In our reading from 1 Corinthians, Paul certainly strays down these lines. He recounts past tragedies and links them to sin. Moreover, we better watch out, lest the same thing happen to us. Suffering, whether earned or unearned, comes from God, so we can read it as a message—either to punish us or to test our faith.

Like I said, I understand the impulse of these thoughts. Thinking this way means the world is fairly easy to understand. Bad things happen, but there is always a reason. But, as Christians, we have to go back to Jesus. When he hears of the Galileans who have been murdered, and the implication that they deserved it somehow, he asks the crowd a question: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” His answer is a resounding, “NO!”

Suffering and tragedy is not some type of punishment from God. In some ways, it’s easier to live in a world where it is. Because as awful as the proposition that God causes suffering is, the alternative is also scary. If the Galileans didn’t deserve to die, then that means innocent people were killed for no reason. If New Orleans didn’t deserve Hurricane Katrina, then that means utter devastation and chaos descended upon thousands of innocents. And if it could happen to them, then it could happen to me. It’s a harder reality to live in.

But I think that this is the reality that Jesus is pushing us to live in. That’s not to say that sin doesn’t come into the equation. Indeed, after Jesus says that Galileans’ perishing wasn’t caused by sin, he calls on his audience to repent. Even though this tragedy wasn’t a punishment for sin, sin played its part. Pilate, in murdering the Galileans, was full of sin. Seeing the ways that sin causes suffering, and repenting (or turning away) that sin can help to alleviate some of the suffering.

The opening question remains, then, “Why is there suffering?” To some extent, there is suffering because of sin. Not that is a punishment for sin, but that we live in a broken world. People are often motivated by greed, fear, and hatred instead of love and caring. This can’t account for all suffering, but it certainly covers a good chunk of it.

But I’d rather ask the question, “Where is God in suffering?” If God isn’t the cause of suffering, either in punishment or trial, then does God have anything to do with suffering at all? For that, I think we should turn to Jesus’ parable of the fig tree.

The tree wasn’t bearing fruit, and the owner of the tree wanted to cut it down (punish it). But the gardener balked, and demanded another chance for the tree. He would tend it carefully, put manure around it, and hopefully it would bear fruit.

Where is God? God is there in the manure and muck with the suffering tree, hoping and trying for some redemption and healing. God is there wading through the crap with us, giving all the love and care that God possibly can to bring about hope and new life.

Does God cause suffering? I’m absolutely with Jesus on this one—NO! But God does see our suffering, and God does understand our suffering. Because God is always there in the mess alongside us.

(I highly encourage you to read the blog post that David Lose, president of the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, published on this passage. I owe a lot of inspiration to him. You can find it here: http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/lent-3-c-suffering-the-cross-and-the-promise-of-love.