Scripture Readings: Isaiah 55.1-9

Luke 13.1-9

Rushing to judgement?

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 its 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 might sometimes ask ourselves: what has she or he done to deserve this? When a politician or a celebrity gets into trouble, there is often- in this age of 24 hour news and social media- a real rush to judgement. Within hours, judgements and comments are 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 that they think this person deserves this (or not).We seem to be more judgemental than ever.

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 (than is found in the Good News Bible) 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.

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 chafed under foreign, Roman, rule, and Pilate was not the most diplomatic of governors. Protests and riots were not uncommon. 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.

And we still find ourselves asking those sorts of questions. In 2013, a group of British churches- including the Church of Scotland- published a report entitled The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty[1]. 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 the poor have done something to deserve their poverty. They didn’t do anything to deserve it- it isn’t their fault.

‘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’[2].

Judgement, says Jesus, is for God alone: as the prophet Isaiah says of God:

‘My thoughts. are not like your, and my ways are different from yours’[3].

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.

And yet here we are, living in a rich country, in which many people, through no fault of their own, have to turn to food banks in order to feed themselves and their families. Here we are, in one of the world’s great trading nations, seriously facing up the prospect of what both the Trade Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry, this week described as a ‘national emergency’[4], in which all our trade is put at risk, and we could face shortages of supplies of food, medicine and other essential supplies. We are a long way from Isaiah’s vision, where food and all the necessities of life is available to all who need it. We all need, individually, as a nation, to hear Jesus’ call to turn from our sins. Time to stop judging and blaming others- time, rather, for us to look within ourselves, and ask ourselves what it is we need to repent of.

So the next time you are tempted to make an instant judgement about a person, or a group of persons- stop yourself. 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. Compassion, care, love- these are true fruits of faith, not a rush to judgement. The only people we should be judging are ourselves. For as St Francis of Assisi understood, ‘It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, in giving of ourselves that we receive’[5].

Ascription of Praise

To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2019 Peter W Nimmo

After sermon: Hymn 540 I heard the voice of Jesus say

Notes

[1] see https://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/comment/2013/03/07/the-lies-we-tell-ourselves-ending-comfortable-myths-about-poverty

[2] Luke 7.37

[3] Isaiah 55.8

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/mar/21/heads-of-tuc-and-cbi-write-to-may-pleading-for-a-brexit-plan-b

[5] CH4 528