Beyond What's Fair

Turn on the television news or pick up a newspaper in any given week and you will find a report on some catastrophic tragedy somewhere. Only the locations change. Tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis--all of them wreaking havoc and altering lives. And behind them, left unreported, are the larger, but somehow less visible and dramatic, tragedies, like the 30,000 children who died this past Wednesday of hunger, roughly the same number who died on Tuesday and Thursday somewhere on Planet Earth, and every other day, too, every day of the year. In every one of those deaths, families or loved ones every one. And at some level, every one of those grieving people probably asked the same question: "Why?" It just doesn't seem fair. What had any of those folks done to deserve such tragic deaths?

In Jesus' day, there was no question about fairness. The assumption was that disease, suffering, and death bore a direct correlation with human sinfulness: the greater the sin, the more likely the misfortune. And to some degree, like it or not, we still think this way. "Calamity strikes and we wonder what we did wrong," says Barbara Brown Taylor. We scrutinize our behavior, our relationships, our diets, our beliefs. We hunt for some cause to explain the effect, in hopes that we can change what we are doing and so stop whatever has gone (or is going) wrong. "What this tells us is that we are less interested in truth than consequences," Taylor says.  "What we crave, above all, is control over the chaos of our lives."[1] It was no different in Jesus' time. People longed to understand and control misfortune. So the crowds asked Jesus about the Galileans slain by Pilate, and they wondered about those who were killed when the tower of Siloam collapsed. What had those people done to deserve their fate? Might those tragedies have been prevented?

Jesus knows what they are thinking; and we have to say that, at first, he seems less than pastoral in his response:

Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--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 does not really argue with the popular equation of sin and death.  What he seems to want to emphasize is that death is always close and not necessary controllable or explicable. Death happens, he says.  It can happen when you're praying. It can happen when you're standing under a wall. It can catch you by surprise. And though you might intend to repent of sin at the end of your life, what's to say you'll have the time to do so? Jesus sounds less compassionate than we expect he would be; but as Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, Jesus is not aiming to comfort the crowd; he wants to challenge them:

...Jesus touches the panic they have inside of them about all the awful things that are happening around them. They are terrified by those things--for good reason. They have searched their hearts for any bait that might bring disaster sniffing their way. They have lain awake at night making lists of their mistakes.

While Jesus does not honor their illusion that they can protect themselves in this way, he does seem to honor the vulnerability that their fright has opened up in them. It is not a bad thing for them to feel the full fragility of their lives. It is not a bad thing for them to count their breaths in the dark--not if it makes them turn toward the light.

It is that turning he wants for them [-- that repentance --] which is why he tweaks their fear. Don't worry about Pilate and all the other things that can come crashing down on your heads, he tells them. Terrible things happen, and you are not always to blame. But don't let that stop you from doing what you are doing. That torn place your fear has opened up inside of you is a holy place. Look around while you are there. Pay attention to what you feel. It may hurt you to stay there and it may hurt you to see, but it is not the kind of hurt that leads to death. It is the kind that leads to life.[2]

To make that point, Jesus tells a parable. It is not exactly a warm and fuzzy parable. In fact, it is a parable that underscores God's judgment and the need for repentance. He tells the story of a fig tree that is not producing and how the landowner has grown impatient with its inability to bear fruit. He proposes cutting the tree down. But the gardener argues for a one-year reprieve. Let me work with the tree for one more year, he asks, and then, if it does not produce fruit, we can cut it down. Here is a parable of God's justice in conversation with God's mercy. Alan Culpepper says:

The parable of the fig tree invites us to consider the gift of another year of life as an act of God's mercy. John the Baptist declared that the ax lay at the root, poised to strike. Any tree that did not bear fruit would be cut down. In Jesus' parable, however, the gardener pleads for and is granted one more year. The year that Jesus proclaimed, moreover, "the year of the Lord's favor," would be a year of forgiveness, restoration, and second chances.[3] 

In another Day 1 sermon some years back Barbara Lundblad cut to the chase:

_Jesus is the gardener, isn't he, she asks. He refused to give up on those who are living in the vineyard. Maybe the vineyard is the whole earth. Maybe it's the church. Maybe it's your life and mine. Jesus isn't giving up on any of us--you, me, the church, the whole earth. There's hope in this parable--don't cut the tree down. But there's also urgency--give me one more year.

Could this be the year? We can hear that as a threat [she says]. There's not much time left. Indeed, some evangelists press us with the question, "Where will you be if you die tonight?" But Jesus' parable moves in the direction of promise more than threat: "I'm going to do everything I can to help this tree live and bear fruit...I'm going to find every way possible to get to hearts that are hard as packed down soil." While we're speculating about why certain people died at Pilate's hands or why the others were killed by the falling tower, Jesus, the gardener, is working on our hearts. Yes, those stories were real. They were as real as every tragedy we can name....Such realities remind us that our time is finite. Stories like these dig at our hearts. They get to us with the truth that we can't keep putting everything off until tomorrow._

But being scared to death can rob us of all hope [Lundblad says]. Life can then seem utterly arbitrary--if I die, I die. There's nothing I can do about it, so why try? Into the midst of such despair, the gardener comes. Don't cut the tree down. Let it alone for one more year. Jesus, the gardener, wants us to live. His passion is marked for us by great urgency--don't wait! Look at your life and dare to ask the hard questions: Am I stingy in my love for others? Am I withholding forgiveness for old wrongs?....Am I so busy making a living that I've forgotten to make a life? Jesus digs at us with questions like these....Such questions, like the parable of the fig tree, move us toward repentance....

Could this be the year for such turning? That's the question we should be asking about ourselves, I suspect. Is this the year for us to bear fruit? Is this the year? But, often, all we can think about when we hear of tragedy is what happened, and why, and how things can be so unfair. Such questions are common questions, but ultimately they have a way of distracting us from the question.[5]  The question does not concern how bad things can happen to good people like us, or the good folks beset by tragedies around our world.  The Lenten question--the cruciform question--is "How do we stand before God?"[6]  

Many folks have come to believe that any difficulty, any struggle, is wrong and unjust. Will Willimon says that we want to believe that no one should need to suffer...that you can somehow go through life without bearing the effects of unfairness and injustice.  That, he says, is "because a long time ago we stopped trusting in a God whose presence makes tragedy and suffering and unanswered questions bearable."  Our difficulty is that we don't want God, Willimon says; we want answers, and many of us will go wherever we can find easy ones.

"Why?" we ask. "Why did this happen to them? Why did this happen to me?" Probably for no good reason. Bad and good things happen all the time. As Willimon rightly argues, the notion that only good things happen to good people was put to rest when Jesus was put upon the cross. The more crucial question is, in all circumstances of joy and pain, can you trust God to be God? Can you love God without linking such love to the good or bad things that come your way in life? 

There are no easy answers to life's tough questions. The Church of Jesus Christ is not built upon easy answers. Instead, it is built upon a singular recognition that in the presence of the God we know in Christ we get a God whose love in our lives challenges and enables us to live without all the answers, a God who is willing to dig around our hearts, patiently encouraging us toward repentance and faithfulness and fruitfulness. We get a God who has given God's whole life to us, so that we might come to learn how to give our lives to God more fully.[7] Beyond what's fair, that seems to me to be a pretty good deal.

O God, our source and our ultimate destination, give us such confidence in your grace that we may live fully, unafraid, turning toward you day by day by day...until we bear your fruit. Amen.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, "Life-Giving Fear," Christian Century, March 4, 1998, 229.  I am grateful for the citation and for some of the substance of this sermon to Carla Pratt Keyes and her unpublished paper on this text, presented to the January 2007 meeting of the Moveable Feast in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

[2] Taylor, cf. note 1.

[3] Culpepper, 272.

[4] Barbara K. Lundblad, "Could This Be the Year for Figs?" Day 1, March 18, 2001.

[5] William Willimon, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." A sermon on Luke 13:1-5, Perkins Lectures at First United Methodist Church, Wichita Falls, TX, 1987.  Transcribed from notes by Carla Pratt Keyes; cf. note 1.

[6] Carla Pratt Keyes.

[7] Paraphrasing William Willimon and Carla Pratt Keyes.