Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there so much pain and hurt in the world? These and other questions underlie our gospel reading for this past Sunday, from Luke 13.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Why do you ask that question?” Dr. Wengert would say. Anytime anyone asked a question in one of his classes, my professor—without fail—would respond by asking why the student was asking in the first place. We got so used to it, that by the middle of the semester, we would preface any and all questions with: “I’m asking this question because…”
Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered so much for another subject—history or math, maybe—but in this class, Lutheran Confessions, we were learning theology. And Dr. Wengert proved to us that it did matter why we were asking. If you want to know whether Lutherans recognize baptisms performed in other denominations just because you’re curious, you’re given a different answer than if you’re asking the same question because your cousin just told you your baptism doesn’t count. It makes a difference why the question is being asked.
And we have quite the question in our gospel reading today: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” If Jesus didn’t say it, someone else surely would have. Some folks have come to Jesus with headline news of horror and tragedy. Pontius Pilate has slaughtered a group of Galilean Jews and mingled their blood with the blood of the sacrificial lambs. Meanwhile, the tower of Siloam has collapsed, crushing and killing eighteen people. Underlying these brutal accounts is a question as old as the human race: why? Why did these terrible things happen? Why is there so much pain in the world? Why does a good God allow human suffering?
It’s a question that still plagues us. Why? Why were forty-nine Muslims killed while they were praying? Why were eleven Jews killed while they were praying? Why were nine Christians killed at Bible study? Why do bridges and buildings collapse? Why did the storm kill one person and the person standing next to them survived? Why does one person get cancer, and another doesn’t? Why do children get cancer? We can point to some explanations: to racism, to lack of attention to structures, to how genes mutate. But that doesn’t answer the question of why this person, and not another. Why that flight and not another?
From the beginning of time these questions have plagued us, and still we have no satisfying answers. But that hasn’t stopped us from asking the questions. When unexplainably bad things happen, everything in us still longs to make sense of the senseless.
Luke’s Gospel makes it clear that the people who bring this terrible news to Jesus already have an answer in mind. They are hoping that Jesus will verify their assumption that people suffer because they’re sinful. That people get what they deserve. That bad things happen to bad people. Because if that’s not true, it means that there is no sense, there is no order, about why one person dies in a tragedy and another doesn’t, about why one person recovers from an illness and another doesn’t. It means that we don’t necessarily get what we deserve. That bad things just happen, seemingly randomly. And that thought is terrifying.
But Jesus refuses to say that suffering is a punishment for sin. In fact, he seems to say that asking about the cause of suffering is asking the wrong question. Or asking for the wrong reasons anyway. “No,” he says, “they did not die because they were sinful; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Really? Repent? What does repentance have to do with the inexplicability of disasters, whether natural or human-made? But for Jesus the question isn’t why is there suffering, why are there evil events in the world, but how should we live our lives in light of it?
Are we going to repent—which here really means are we going to see the world in a new way, and let that new vision, new way of seeing, impact our actions—or are we going to turn a blind eye to the pain and hurt and suffering and continue with business as usual? Are we going to let these events affect us, drive us to compassion and care and change; or are we going to say that it’s someone else’s problem, that they deserved it?
And Jesus, as he so often does, refuses to give a simplistic answer to a deep and complex question. He doesn’t try to solve deep troubles with quick fixes. Instead, he tells a story. There was a fig tree that wasn’t producing fruit. Hadn’t been, actually, for three years. The man who owned it told his gardener to cut it down. Why should I waste resources on this tree that won’t produce any fruit?
But the gardener speaks up and asks for one more year. Just one more year. He wants to do what he can for the tree, care for it, tend to it, give it nourishment and assistance, and see if maybe, just maybe, it might bear fruit. I like to imagine that this is actually the third year this conversation is taking place. That each year, the gardener begs a reprieve. That next year, if the tree is still struggling, the gardener will say it only needs more attention and more care.
When suffering happens, we’re left with a lot of questions. We’re left wanting answers that we may never get. But whenever Jesus encounters a suffering person, you never see him asking questions. He never asks what they’ve done. He never blames. Instead he gardens. He provides care and love. And when he comes upon someone the rest of us have thrown out, he insists upon that one’s fruitfulness.
When reading any parable, it’s natural to ask the question—what part do I play? What part do we play? Perhaps sometimes we’re the owner, demanding that others meet our standards, and getting frustrated when they do not. Sometimes, we might be the gardener, speaking up for those who need extra help and love. Attending to those who need our care. But often, I think that we are the fig tree, and God is our gardener. Because God sees the ones that are struggling not as something to be cast aside, but as something that needs more care and attention. As those that need to be lovingly tended. Not ignored, not thrown out.
When we are suffering, God sees. When we are struggling to produce good fruits, God pays attention. When we look around and question “why?” God hears our cries and responds with more care and more love.
There are no easy answers to difficult questions. And there shouldn’t be, because easy answers don’t really respect how difficult the questions are. Jesus doesn’t offer us easy answers. But Jesus does offer us a God who gets down in the dirt and the manure, not seeking a quick fix, but seeking to cultivate. To tend and to grow and to help us in our struggle with difficult things. May we too become gardeners. Cultivators of what God has given us. May God grow in us love and empathy and compassion for others. Amen.