Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 3 March 2013: Year C, The Third Sunday in Lent
Patience and welcome
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
‘What have I done to deserve this?’- words I’m sure we have all cried at some point in our lives. Yet most people when they say that today don’t really mean it. Most people don’t believe that there is a God who will punish us for doing wrong. But as people are more aware today of other religions, the idea is creeping back. You hear people say, ‘Don’t do that, that’s bad karma’, which is a word folks have picked up from Buddhism and which they probably don’t really understand. It’s a kind of half belief in a malevolent fate which brings bad things in it’s wake for those who do wrong. But few are really quaking in terror at the thought that there might be divine punishment for being bad.
But alongside ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ there is another question which we like to ask, one which perhaps we’ve been asking a lot recently. Not, What have I done to deserve this?’ but ‘What has he done to deserve this?’. We all seem to find the news more entertaining when we people are caught out, when people apparently get what we think they deserve. Whether it’s a Catholic Cardinal or an hitherto obscure Liberal Democrat politician, or an Olympic athlete who’d previously been a national hero- whoever it is, when we hear about someone in public life getting their comeuppance, many of us are hooked. What did he do wrong? What are the accusations? How will be punished? What did he do deserve all this public shame and humiliation?
We might think this is all a product of the 24 hour rolling news culture, with reporters desperate for spectacular stories to fill the airwaves and the column inches. And it’s all surely made even worse by the Internet. Last week I read about Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation on my mobile phone before it appeared on the BBC, because I am signed up to email from the Scottish Catholic Press Office. Within hours, judgements and comments were being made, because nowadays, if you want to react to the news, you don’t have to write a letter to your newspaper, post it, and hope the editor will print it in a day or two. You can comment instantly- on the web page you read the news, or on Facebook or Twitter. For many people seem to have an overwhelming rush to judgement, to tell the world their answer to the question, ‘What did he do to deserve this?’
But the human urge to judge others has always been around. Centuries before Facebook and Twitter, Jesus was asked to pronounce judgement on a recent news story.
A more literal translation of the first sentence in today’s Gospel reads ‘At this time some men came and told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices'(1). We don’t know much about the incident in question. We do know that Palestine in the First Century was a volatile place. The Jewish people had lost their independence. Instead of having their own government, they were ruled by the Romans, with Pontius Pilate the Roman governor in Jerusalem. There’s evidence that Pilate wasn’t the most diplomatic of governors, but in any case it was easy for the occupiers to spark protests, especially in matters of religion. So it sounds as though Pilate had got into a dispute- perhaps over religion- and ordered Roman soldiers into the Temple precincts to kill worshippers, so that their blood would mingle with the blood of the animals they had been sacrificing.
So some people ask Jesus about the incident- and from his answer we can work out that what they were asking him was, ‘Were these people more wicked than other people, and that’s why this happened to them?’ And he talk also about another disaster that’s was in the news, when eighteen people were killed when a tower fell down at Siloam, a district of Jerusalem. In each case, those who died were Galileans, from Jesus’ part of the country. And so people have been crowding round Jesus to ask, ‘You’re a Galilean- What do you think?’
When we are being compassionate, we do not stop to wonder if the victims of tragedy somehow brought it upon themselves. And we are often appalled when hear people making such remarks. A few years ago, an American TV evangelist claimed that the terrible earthquake in Haiti was God’s punishment on that nation. And when the AIDS epidemic started, there were those who thought that was some kind of judgement of God. Such statements are crass, cruel, and lacking compassion. They are also very bad theology. When Christians think about evil and judgement, we look to the cross- where God himself takes on any punishment our sins might deserve.
Today we might blame the massacre on Pilate being a bloodthirsty tyrant, and the tower collapse on faulty workmanship or bad design. But most of the people of Jesus’ day believed that when a bad thing happened to someone, it was a sign of God’s judgement upon them. So when people asked Jesus about Pilate’s massacre and the tower collapse, he detected an unspoken implication in their question. They were really wanting to know ‘What did they do to deserve this?’ And they were deadly serious- it wasn’t just a rhetorical question.
We might think that we are beyond asking those kinds of questions. We don’t think that suffering is God’s judgement for sin, do we? Perhaps not- and yet perhaps there is secular equivalent. We do sometimes blame people for their troubles. It can be easy to make assumptions about unfortunate people- in fact, it seems to be on the increase recently. Some of our newspapers are worse than any mad TV evangelist, as they claim that most disabled people are shirkers, or that most of those in benefits are doing very nicely, thank you very much. Blaming the victims is easy- and lets us off the hook!
Last week, a group of British churches- including the Church of Scotland- published a report entitled The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty. It revealed that 13 million people- including 3.6 million children- live in poverty in the United Kingdom today. The report includes stories like this:
Neil… was a long-distance lorry driver until ill health meant he had to give up work. He’s in danger of losing his home because of the Government’s planned benefit reforms. “I was a proud man, I always worked, but I can no longer afford that luxury. Benefit changes reduce my ability to eat properly. I can’t afford to keep the fridge on all the time, and I can’t afford to heat my home all the time,” he said. “I feel like my children and my friends no longer look up to me because I have nothing. I feel like a failure. I don’t feel like a person anymore.”
But the report says that there are myths around about what people are poor, and goes on to expose the myths about ‘them’. For example, many people think that those living in poverty are lazy and don’t want to work. But most children who live in poverty are from working households. A survey showed that over 80% of the UK population believe that ‘large numbers falsely claim benefits’. In fact, fraud costs less than 1% of the welfare budget; and if everyone claimed what they were entitled to, the welfare system would cost around £18 billion more. The reports calls upon politicians and media- and the rest of us- to learn about the realities of being poor in this country, and not to peddle the myth that ‘it’s their own fault’- that they’ve done something to deserve it.
‘These Galileans- they’re troublemakers, aren’t they? They caused the riot, they were punished by God’. That’s the kind of thing, perhaps, which Jesus was hearing. But Jesus having none of such myths. He turns on those people who want to talk about bad news. ‘You think that because they were killed, it proves that they were worse sinners than anyone else. And I suppose you think the same about the eighteen people killed when that tower fell on them? Well, you are wrong. You are all going to die as well one day, if you don’t turn from your sins!’ Jesus is telling those who judge others that they themselves will one day be judged.
Jesus rejects totally the thought that we should look at the misfortunes of others and imagine that what is happening to them is God’s judgement on them. It is not for us to make such judgements, as one of the most important sayings of Jesus, found in both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, makes clear: ‘Do not judge others, and God will not judge you’ (Luke 7.37). Judgement, says Jesus, is for God alone: as the prophet Isaiah says, ‘My thoughts.. are not like your, and my ways are different from yours’ (Isaiah 55.8). So we should not concern ourselves about other people’s sins, but we should weep over our own failings. And so Jesus turns the question against the questioners: ‘do you think these people who died were worse sinners than anyone else? Absolutely not! The same thing could happen to you tomorrow. You also are sinners!’
But then, having reminded us all that we are all under God’s judgement, Jesus goes on to weave a lovely tale. As always, he takes a situation which would have been familiar to his listeners. So- here is a man, a landowner, walking in his vineyard. It is a lovely vineyard, which earns him plenty of money. But there is one thing in it which is not perfect. There is a fig tree in his vineyard, and the owner looks at it to see if there are any figs on it. There are none, so he calls in his gardener, and says, ‘There are still no figs on this tree. And there have been no figs for the last three years. So cut it down- it’s a waste of space. It’s using valuable soil, and producing nothing in return. Take it away!’
But the gardener still thinks he can do something with this fig tree. ‘Let me keep it for one more year’, he says. He’s going to use his skill on the tree to see if he can make it bear fruit- he’ll dig around it, aerating the soil, adding extra manure. ‘One more year’, he says, ‘and if that’s no good, then we’ll cut it down’.
This is a story about all of us. It is about how God has planted us in this world, given us advantages and gifts, and expected us to bear good fruit. But we don’t. When we should bear fruits of compassion and caring, instead we wither under negative attitudes- selfishness and judgement. We wither away.
But the Christian message is a ‘Gospel of the Second Chance’. God is patient with us, and wants us to change. ‘Leave it, sir, just one more year’, says the gardener. ‘Our God is merciful and quick to forgive’, says the prophet Isaiah. If we stop judging others, stop pretending we are morally superior to anyone else, and admit that we need God’s grace, then God offers us a second chance. And with God’s help, we can bloom with fruits of love and kindness and compassion. We just need to allow God to nourish us.
Our Gospel parable talks about a tree given a second chance, in the hope that it will bear good fruit it is nourished. Our Old Testament passage also gives us a lovely picture of God nourishing his people. The prophet Isaiah offers to the people an invitation and a promise:
Come, everyone who is thirsty- here is water!
Come, you that have no money- buy grain and eat!
Come! Buy wine and milk- it will cost you nothing!
Why spend money on what does not satisfy?
Why spend your wages and still be hungry?
Listen to me and do what I say, and you will enjoy the best food of all. Listen now, my people, and come to me; come to me, and you will have life!”
This vision is of a world in which poverty is eliminated, and in which all people, regardless of their ability to pay, get to enjoy God’s good gifts. People are not judging one another, but sharing with one another. This is God’s invitation to us- to share and enjoy with each other the best of God’s gifts.
So the next time you are tempted to make an instant judgement about a person, or a group of persons- stop yourself. Rather than judging, why not try to find out more about them? Instead of rushing to judgement, show some compassion. For Jesus, the worst kinds of people were those who judged others, and, by implication, thought that they were better than others, and who enjoyed nothing better than judging other people . But that kind of an attitude-selfish, judgemental grumpy- is the sign of a withered spirituality. Compassion, care, love- these are true fruits of faith, not a rush to judgement. For as St Francis understood, ‘It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, in giving of ourselves that we receive’ (CH4 528).
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo
Notes: (1) W Barclay, Daily Study Bible: Luke, p172