Luke 13:1-9, 31-35
Why do bad things happen to good people? Conversely, why do good things happen to people who seem evil? Why should a murderer have joy? Why should a gracious person experience deep grief? This is the question Jesus is confronted with in today’s reading. People want to know why God allowed the faithful Galileans to be killed.
Jesus responds by asking if the people who were killed in the accidental falling of a tower were worse sinners and deserved to die. The questions that are being raised go all the way back to Job and beyond. We want to know why there is suffering in the world. We want to know why it comes to us and to those we love and to those we deem innocent.
So, Jesus, ever helpful, answers these deep, heartfelt questions with a parable (everyone’s favorite). He speaks of a fig tree that is not producing fruit and the desire of the owner of the garden to cut it down, presumably to make space for a tree that will produce. The gardener gets the life of the tree extended by promising to rededicate effort to its growth for one more year.
It is tempting to make a metaphor or an allegory out of this parable. To say that we are the tree(s), God is the owner, and Jesus is the gardener- bargaining for more time for us to produce fruit. However, that scenario pits the Father and the Son against each other, instead of seeing them work together out of love for all creation.
Jesus does not say why bad things happen; he skips right over that question. We want the world to make sense- for bad things to happen to “bad” people or for bad things to happen as a direct correlation to bad actions. It is not so. God is in the center of all events, but not the immediate cause of all that happens. God is present in all pain and suffering, but not at the root of these things. Human freedom and freedom in the created order can, unfortunately, lead to pain and sadness. (What is freedom in the created order? It means that some things happen like the growth of cancer cells or natural disasters or freak accidents.)
Knowing that God is present in all things, but not the cause of all situations, Jesus does not answer the questions that we ask, but instead gives us the direction and information that we need to know and to remember. Through the parable of the fig tree, Jesus reminds us that pain will happen to everyone. Everyone will experience loss. Everyone will make a bad decision and experience consequences, sometimes negative and sometimes not. Everyone will (most likely) die. And everyone will experience God’s judgment.
Jesus is reminding his hearers- then and now- that there are things we do something about and things we cannot. For the fig tree, and for us, fruitlessness is not inevitable. Through the Holy Spirit, God is constantly shaping us… using the events that happen to us and around us to bring forth good things for our neighbors, our communities, our families, and… even for ourselves.
God is with us as we weather life’s experiences, but then helps us to grow into the producers that we have the potential to be. When we reflect on God’s grace, then, we have to ask ourselves if and how we are producing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These things grow in us, by God’s help, and we are called to use them to mend the wounds in the world that are caused by bad choices, by poor use of freedom, by accidents, by the forces that oppose God and God’s good work.
Instead of clearing up the mysteries of the ages, Jesus tells us that we are the answer to someone’s question. We are the answer to someone’s pain, to someone else’s inability to make ends meet, someone’s call for help, to the needs for justice, peace, and healing. Jesus reminds his disciples, his hearers, and those who would deride him that we can still produce this fruit without having all our questions answered.
This is what it means to live in faith and to live together faithfully. Our life of faith is living together and living in the world until the time when we have all the answers, but the questions no longer matter. We are not brought together, we are not given faith, we are not believing for the answers. We are together, granted faith, and believing with the questions.
Which does mean that we may become exasperated, on occasion with Jesus, with God, with the Spirit. We may yell. We may rend our clothing. But the difference between living in faith with doubt and not believing is revealed at the end of today’s reading. We can be with Herod, with the religious officials, with the people who demand answers or refuse reason, with those who reject Jesus. Or we can stand with Jesus, with the One who Saves, and say that we do not know all that we will know, but we know enough now, we trust enough now… to continue forward. We can say that we have received enough grace to sustain us into the next step. We can share with one another enough confidence that God is continuing to shape us, feed us, and nurture us into the producers of the fruits of the Spirit that the world so desperately needs.
Jesus reminds us that, on this side of heaven, pain and death are going to happen. Judgment, God’s decisions toward us, is also inevitable. However, these things- separation, loss, and death- do not mean division from God. And they most assuredly do not mean inevitable unfruitfulness. The good news of God in Jesus the Christ is that God continues to use us for good, whether we know it or not. The world is changed through each of us, for Christ’s own sake. And we are gifted with the opportunities to be participants in God’s grace and creativity. We become co-workers and co-creators through the power of the Spirit.
The Lenten season reminds us that the time to join with Jesus is now. We do so, invited by the grace we have already known. The promise of God in Christ to continue working in us so that we might bear fruit is the deepest measure of God’s grace. And while that grace does not answer all our questions, it helps us to live with our questions. The consolation of today’s reading is that we can live with questions and still live in faith.