For the past few months I’ve been teaching a Sunday morning class called “Talkback,” which I describe as, “a candid conversation between the pulpit and the pews.” It started as “Sermon Talkback” when I was doing a series called “Christianity 101” and thought people might have some follow-up questions about God, the Bible, Sin and Salvation, Heaven and Hell, but it turned out those were only some of the questions they had. Since then we’ve talked about almost everything you can imagine, and it’s been life-giving. But every time I’ve hosted something like this, where people are free to ask anything they want, someone will eventually ask, in one way or another: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It is the most perplexing theological problem or our time.
But not of Jesus’ time.
In Jesus’ time people didn’t ask why bad things happened to good people. They didn’t believe bad things happened to good people. They believed bad things happened to bad people, and if something bad happened to you it was because you had done something that deserved God’s punishment. I can still remember the Sunday school class where a woman shrugged her shoulders and said, “I just always thought that God did all the good things and the Devil did all the bad things.” That’s a simple solution, but not a good one. It makes God and the Devil equals, and they are not. But the solution in Jesus’ time was not much better. People in those days assumed that God did everything—good and bad—and what you got depended on who you were. Was God rewarding you for being good, or punishing you for being bad?
So, in Luke 13:1-9, when some people ask Jesus if he has heard about this incident in Jerusalem—where some Galileans were apparently cut down and killed by Pilate’s soldiers while they were in the very act of offering their sacrifices in the temple —they are not asking him why this terrible thing happened to these faithful and observant Jews, they are asking him what these people did to deserve such punishment. You can tell by the answer Jesus gives. He says, “Do you think because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” “Well, yes,” they might have said. “That’s exactly what we think. I mean, God is responsible for everything that happens, good and bad, right? Didn’t he use Pilate’s soldiers to punish these sinners?” And Jesus must have looked at them for the longest time before saying, “No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all perish as they did.”
And if this were “Talkback” someone would already be raising her hand and asking, “What does Jesus mean repent? Repent from what? And what does he mean by the word perish? Does he mean that if we don’t repent from our sins we’re going to be killed?” But before anyone can ask those questions Jesus offers another example: “Those eighteen on whom the Tower of Siloam fell,” he says (and we really don’t know what happened. The Pool of Siloam was in the southern part of Jerusalem. Presumably a tower in the city wall had collapsed, killing eighteen people ). “Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” “Well, yes,” someone says. “They must have been. Otherwise why would God punish them in this way?” “No,” Jesus says. “I tell you; but unless you repent you will all perish just as they did.”
And with these two examples Jesus brilliantly addresses every bad thing that will ever happen to us. He addresses moral evil, which is what happens when people shoot, and stab, and kill each other, and he addresses natural evil, which is what happens when earthquake, fire, and flood kill us. Those Galileans? They suffered from moral evil. Pilate ordered his soldiers to kill them. Those eighteen? They suffered from natural evil. That tower simply fell.
According to Jesus, bad things don’t happen to good people and bad things don’t happen to bad people, bad things happen to all people. It’s not that God does it to them, it’s not that the Devil does it to them, it’s simply that we live in a world like this one. I think what Jesus is trying to tell us is that in this world life is short and uncertain, that we never know when it will end. And I think that’s what he means when he says that we will perish “just as these people did.” We won’t be killed by foreign soliders, necessarily. We won’t be crushed by falling towers, necessarily. But we will, necessarily, perish, and the word Jesus uses means that we will be “lost, ruined, destroyed.”
And isn’t that a hopeful word? Just when you think Jesus is telling us that we’re all going to die and there’s nothing we can do about it he says, “Unless. Unless you repent.” And we have to ask:
“What does that mean?”
I’ve told before that there are two Greek words for repentance. One is epistrephein, which means “to turn around,” and the other is metanoia, which means “to change one’s mind.” And I probably don’t need to tell you which one Jesus uses here. He’s already said, “Do you think, because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” and, “Do you think, because these eighteen perished in this way they were worse offenders than all others living in Jerusualem?” “No,” he says. “If that’s what you’re thinking you’d better think again. You’d better change your mind about why people suffer. You’d better repent.”
Could it be this simple? Could Jesus be saying, “Unless you change your mind about why people suffer you will die thinking that God is punishing you, and that’s just not true!” Death is not God’s punishment. Death is simply what happens when someone cuts you down with a sword, or a huge stone tower falls on you. As Jesus himself would find out soon enough, death is what happens when they nail you to a cross. But it is not God’s punishment. If that’s what you’ve been thinking you need to think again. You need to change your mind. You need to repent. God is not against us; God is for us. “Then why,” someone will ask, “does he let us die?” as if that were the worst thing that could happen.
Ah, that’s where I wish we could see things from God’s perspective! I believe that if we could we would see that death is as natural as sleep. It’s not always as peaceful, but it’s as natural. I think I’ve told you before that my older daughter didn’t like going to bed at night. I’ve always assumed it was because she thought she might miss the party, but there may have been some deeper reason. Whatever it was, she did not “go gentle into that good night,” as Dylan Thomas might say. She raged, raged, against the dying of the light. Her little sister, on the other hand, loved a good nap, and when she got sleepy she would sometimes toddle into the nursery and climb into her own crib. She knew there was nothing to be afraid of.
I believe that from God’s perspective death is as natural as that: as natural as sleep, but as I said it is rarely as peaceful. Most people don’t go to bed after celebrating their one hundredth birthday and then just not wake up the next morning. Some of them suffer terribly, and that’s when we ask why. Jesus himself asked that question while he was suffering on the cross. Death is rarely as peaceful as sleep, but it is just as natural. On Ash Wednesday the minister makes the sign of the cross on your forehead and says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a way of reminding us that we are mortal and that we will die someday. These earthen vessels will return to their former state, and there is no guarantee that they won’t be smashed to pieces in the process.
“This is just how it is in the world,” Jesus might say. “People die.” It’s not the way it was supposed to be, but it’s the way it is. If someone cuts you down with a sword, you’re going to die. If a tower falls on you, you’re going to die. But here’s the truth: you’re going to die eventually, even if you live to be 110! There is no way around it. The question is not whether you are going to die, but how, and even though that may be a fascinating question it doesn’t really lead to fruitful conversation. Which may be why Jesus stops talking about death, and starts talking about fig trees.
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard,” Jesus said; “and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. And so he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none.’ Which would have been remarkable, because fig trees are abundantly fruitful. In that part of the world they can produce as many as three crops a year. This little tree has missed nine opportunities to bear fruit! So the man says with good reason, “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” But then the Gardener speaks up and says, “Not so fast. Give me one more year. I will dig around the roots and put on manure. Then if it bears fruit, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” And again, this is remarkable if only because fig trees thrive on neglect. You don’t have to dig around the roots. You don’t have to put on manure. You just leave them alone and they will bear up to three crops a year. A fig tree is, almost by definition, fruitful. But not this one. And if it were not for the intervention of this hopeful gardener it might already be cut down and tossed on the fire.
It’s as if Jesus is holding up two pictures in this passage: one is a picture of how things are in the world and the other is a picture of how things are in the Kingdom. In the world people are cut down in the act of worship, they are crushed by falling towers, fruitless figs are tossed onto the fire. But in the Kingdom someone holds up a hand and says, “Wait! I believe this fig tree might do something yet, and I will give it every possible chance to bear fruit.” In the Kingdom someone holds up a hand and says, “Wait. I know this person hasn’t shown much promise, but I believe there might be some good in there yet.” In the Kingdom there is this Gardener, this Savior, who sees our value and wants to spare us, who believes in us even when we can no longer believe in ourselves. And he not only offers us eternal life (which should set us free from our paralyzing fear of death), he offers us abundant life (which should make us willing to take some risks).
In the first part of this passage the question is not whether you are going to die, but how. In the second part of this passage the question is not whether you are going to die, but whether you are going to live. Are you ever going to become what God made you to be? Are you ever going to drive your roots down into the rich soil of his love? Are you ever going to spread your leaves toward his light and his life? Are you ever going to relax, and let the sap flow, and let the fruit grow? The good news of this passage is that it’s not too late—for any of us. The bad news of this passage is that someday it will be, and before that day comes we need to do something.
We need to repent.
If you listen closely you can almost hear that hopeful Gardener saying, “Wait. Give her another chance. Give him a little more time. There’s some good fruit in there, I know there is.” And for the moment at least—it’s true. The ax hasn’t fallen, not yet. The death blow hasn’t come. What will we do with the life we’ve been given? Because in this passage the worst that can happen is not that we will someday die,
But that we might never live.