In today’s Gospel
Jesus encounters the age-old question of
“why do bad things happen to good people?”
Some disciples come to him
as if with a newspaper in hand.
They read off the headlines and say,
“How can you explain this, Jesus?”
Apparently in their most recent news cycle
there had been some Galileans
whom the governor Pontius Pilate had killed,
and in a heinous, gruesome act,
he had their human blood mixed
with the blood of animal sacrifices.
It was sacrilege
against God and humanity
of the highest order.
And over in the town of Siloam,
apparently a tower had fallen unexpectedly,
killing eighteen innocent people.
It was a fluke,
a freak accident,
an “act of God.”
And now the people were demanding an answer.
“Tell us, Jesus. Tell us why this happened.”
In those days people assumed
that if bad things happened,
those they happened to
must have been bad as well.
In other words,
somebody must have sinned.
We’d like to think
we’re so much more sophisticated,
so much more enlightened by now . . .
but are we?
Accidents and acts of violence
continue to this day,
and we still struggle to explain them.
We all remember a day
when not one but two towers fell,
and not 18 but 3,000 innocent people died
on a bright, blue September morning,
and I swear we’ve been trying to pick up the pieces
Only a few weeks ago
I heard about an Episcopal priest
who says he has the power to rebuke hurricanes
and that all our recent storms are God’s punishment
for our moral shortcomings.
To be clear, he wasn’t saying
it was because we’re causing them
by ravaging our planet
and ratcheting up the temperature,
but simply because God gets mad
and people therefore have to die.
This wasn’t Pat Robertson saying this,
but a seminary-trained life-long Episcopal priest.
And just last week after the horrendous massacre
of 50 innocent worshippers in New Zealand,
an Australian senator implied
that while it was all regrettable,
perhaps it was to be expected
since they were Muslims, after all. 1
A short time later that same senator ended up
—literally—with an egg on his head,
thrown by a teenager standing near him
at a press conference.
Perhaps the senator had that coming, too.
My point is this:
bad things continue to happen
to good people and bad people alike,
and to this day,
we are still trying to figure it all out.
So here’s the thing.
When they ask Jesus about all of this,
he makes clear that
none of these people died
because of their sins.
“Do you think that they were worse offenders
than all the others living in Jerusalem?” he asks.
“No, I tell you!” 2
But then he goes and says something surprising.
“But unless you repent,
you will all perish just as they did.” 3
They’re all wanting to know
what those others did—
how they sinned so badly—
that they deserved such a horrible fate,
but what Jesus seems to say is,
“Yeah, but you’re sinners, too.
You’re no better or worse.
You need repentance and redemption, too.”
Isn’t that something?
When we want to talk about society’s ills . . .
when we want to assign blame . . .
Jesus wants to talk about us
and our need for repentance.
“You know, you all are like fig trees,” he says.
You don’t produce any fruit,
and you don’t produce any fruit,
and you don’t produce any fruit.
What you probably deserve
is to be chopped down
and thrown away.
“But I’ve come to help.
I’ve come to dig around your roots
and to spread manure over you.
It won’t be pleasant,
but if you’ll let me do it,
not only will you flourish,
but perhaps the whole garden will flourish, too.” 4
Maybe the point here
is that when we want to understand
why society is so off-kilter,
why things have gone so bad,
we need to look first to ourselves,
and we need to repent.
And here’s the grace of it all:
repentance is not about gaining control.
Despite what many of us have been taught,
repentance is not about
taming your will,
or making yourself holy,
or finally taking control.
In fact, it’s the total opposite.
Repentance is about admitting
that you can’t do it on your own.
Repentance is about recognizing
that you need help.
Repentance is about allowing God
to dig into your roots,
and put manure on you,
and bring you back to life,
even when it’s the hard way.
Our collect today is probably
the most brutally honest prayer
in the entire prayer book, for it says,
“Almighty God, you know that
we have no power in ourselves
to help ourselves.”
Hear that again:
“We have no power in ourselves
to help ourselves.”
Fortunately, what we do have
is a generous God who is
willing to work on us,
willing to dig into us,
willing to make us stronger, honest, more fruitful . . .
if we’ll let him.
Why do bad things happen to good people?
Why is our society, our world, our universe
such a hot mess?
Unfortunately, we’re still trying to explain that,
and something tells me we’ll be trying
for a long time to come.
In the meantime, though, one thing is for certain:
all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God;
all of us are in need of repentance;
all of us need a helping hand.
It begins with each of us.
So in this Lenten season,
and every day:
repent . . .
let go . . .
and let God dig in.
The exact quote was, “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place. Let us be clear, while Muslims may have been the victims today, usually they are the perpetrators.”
Luke 13:6-9, personal paraphraseThe Book of Common Prayer, 218.