If you are good, you will get a treat. That works for my dog. It used to work with my kids, back when the treat they wanted was something I could afford, like an ice-cream. It does not work so well now that they want electronics.
If you are good you will get a treat. That is the positive side. If you are bad, you will get punished; that is the negative side. I must admit that my dog cowers when she hears the sound of a newspaper being rolled up – she knows.
Is this the way the universe works; rewards and punishments on the basis of good or bad behavior? Is this the way God works?
The answer is in this text from Luke’s gospel. Apart from the Easter resurrection texts, this is one of my favorite – one of the most important texts in the New Testament – for me. This is one of those incidents in the life of Jesus that Luke alone recorded – perhaps one that motivated him to write a Gospel, even though Mark already had; Mark did not have this – and neither did Matthew or John. But it is crucial, and I think we are lucky that Luke wrote it down for us.
There are two tragedies under discussion in the first part, then warnings from Jesus, and then a parable. It all fits together to make one point: No! There is no relationship between tragedy or survival and moral behavior. None. In Jesus’ theology (which I take to be correct) we should never make that ugly coupling of suffering and punishment, nor of success and divine reward.
Let’s follow this important text together.
Somebody reports to Jesus that some Galileans were killed in the very act of offering animals for sacrifice – their blood mingled with the blood of the lambs on the alter – a horrific scene.
What is more, their deaths were political. They were slaughtered by people acting in the name of, and at the direction of the Pontius Pilate. This could mean only one thing: this was Rome’s counter-insurgency in action.
Those Galilean Jews must have been (or were suspected as being) part of the Jewish resistance to Roman rule – perhaps Zealots. In other words, these men were executed for being terrorists.
Their goal was to make Palestine ungovernable; Rome’s goal was to make examples of them. The Roman strategy was to be more terrorizing than the terrorists – and they stopped at nothing – even using public crucifixions for the same purpose. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Pilate was infamous for this kind of brutal suppression of opposition.
What did the people who reported this to Jesus think about those Galilean Jewish terrorists? What did they expect Jesus to think of them? After all, Jesus had not joined the Zealot resistance – perhaps he was expected to say, “Yes, they got what they deserved: this horror was God’s judgment.”
No! He uncoupled that horror from sacred retribution, saying,
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
Then Jesus adds to the discussion a second horrific event. Apparently a tower, part of the defensive wall of Jerusalem collapsed and killed 18 people. Why would that tower fall?
We do not know anything more about this than what we have right here, so this is speculative, but it is entirely possible that this defensive tower came down in the same incident as the first: perhaps there was a failed rebellion against Rome which was crushed, and in the process, a tower in the wall came down – or was taken down.
Whether part of an insurrection or not, 18 people were killed. And Jesus asks the exact same question about them: .
4Or 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? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Jesus was saying, “their deaths were not God’s judgment – even if they were Jewish terrorists and even if I am completely opposed to their agenda.”
But now to the problem here: what is all this business about repenting or perishing? Does this not mean that if we do bad and fail to repent, God will punish us – make us “perish”?
No! This is exactly what Jesus says is incorrect! Then what does it mean? Simply this: Jesus could see the utter futility of the Zealot movement and predicted its total failure – which was exactly what happened.
In 70 AD, which was probably within the lifetimes of some of the people standing there that day, the Roman army would come in to smash the Zealots and they would not stop at mixing their blood with the animal blood at the alter and smashing a tower: they would smashed the entire temple!
One more important fact to remember: the word “repent” literally means to change one’s mind. The implication is clear: the ones reporting the tragedy and probably some of those listening to Jesus sympathized with the resistance. Jesus is warning them that if they do not end their violent quest, they too will perish in the process.
Repent or perish: change your mind or prepare for the (natural?) consequences. He says, unless you repent, (change your thinking), you will all perish just as they did.” Notice he did not simply say that they would perish, but perish “just as they did” at the hands of the Roman army.
But, they may have countered: this is not so clear. The Galileans perished, but we will eventually win; we have sleeper cells all over Palestine ready to join the battle; actually we are having a great deal of recruiting success – we are not perishing at all.
This is exactly why Jesus tells the fig tree parable. The point of the parable is this: just because nothing bad is happening now, that should not lead you to the false security that you are on the right path.
The owner of the orchard wants to cut down the unfruitful fig – just as Rome who owns Palestine, wants to cut down the rebellious Jews. But perhaps they will learn a lesson from the example of those Galileans – we are willing to give them a chance – but next year at this time, if they have not changed their thinking (repented) we will cut them down.
Do not feel like God is smiling on you just because things are going well today – that is the lesson of the fig tree parable.
So, let us put these pieces back together: there were some terrible tragedies – people were killed. Jesus proclaims: that tragedy was not God’s judgment.
On the other hand, there are people who seem to be getting off scott-free. That must not be interpreted as God’s blessing. Jesus uncoupled the events of life from God’s reward or retribution.
Why did those teenagers die, crushed under their own school in Enterprise at the hands of the tornado? Were they guilty of something? Jesus would say, NO!
Why did 3,000 people die when the Trade Center towers were brought down: was this God’s judgment? Jesus would say “No!”
The same is true with Katrina victims, same with the murdered Amish girls, same with the deaths of soldiers and citizens in Iraq, same with the deaths of Sudanese in Darfur, the same with every suffering and every death. It is wrong to read divine retribution into our suffering. Jesus said it is wrong.
Jesus was not being novel here – this is the message of the OT book of Job. But it is a difficult lesson for us. We learned so early in life that if you are good you will get the ice-cream, and if you are bad you get the rolled up newspaper that it is hard for us to understand that God does not work that way – but we must grow up in our thinking and be adults. Suffering is not God’s punishment.
And neither is the success of the fig tree necessarily God’s reward. Now, we are Protestants, and we have inherited ideas from our Protestant ancestors. Sociologist Max Weber wrote about us and invented the term the “Protestant work ethic” to describe us.
He asserted that the Roman Catholic Church assured their faithful of salvation by providing the mechanisms of the Church – the mass, the sacrament of penance, the last rites and so on. Protestants had abandoned these and by doing so, had no way to really know who would be saved.
They found evidence of their salvation in their earthly success. If they worked hard, they believed, and lived frugally, then they would be successful, and their success in life would demonstrate that they were saved; God was smiling on them.
This is exactly what Jesus is saying is incorrect. The fig tree may be living today but perhaps it is just on borrowed time – the evidence of your eyes is no evidence of God’s thinking at all.
Isaiah said it so well, “8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”
God does not work that way. He actually causes his rain to fall equally on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt. 5:45) – the crops of both grow up in the field. And so it is impossible for us to separate the wheat from the tares (Matt 13:24, ff.).
Then what’s going on in the world? Why do people suffer; even, or especially good people; innocent people; children?
No one, to my satisfaction, has answered that question. Perhaps the answer is beyond our understanding – part of that “my thoughts are not your thoughts” I do not pretend to know.
But one thing I do know – and this too is directly from Jesus: God is love. God is just. God is not a tyrant, nor even an abusive parent. God is good. God is merciful.
So why should we be good? What is the basis for Christian ethics? It is not fear of punishment – but, according to Calvin, it is rather that we live lives of goodness out of gratitude to God our savior and our redeemer.
People of God, believe the good news: in Jesus Christ we are forgiven. And we are not being punished by God – what a horrible idea. Believe the words of our Lord Jesus; uncouple the link between suffering or success and God’s retribution.
And live in the confident joy of the everlasting love of God, who came to us as one of us, lived among us, and suffering as we do – hunger, fatigue, sorrow, pain, humiliation and even death, like those Galileans, like the kids in Enterprise, Alabama, like the Sudanese.
In the name of the Father. and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.