Text: Luke 13:1-9
There’s a German term word that has no real parallel in English, although I think many of us are familiar with the concept. It’s called Schadenfreude, in short it means gloating at somebody else’s bad luck. I think all of us at some point or another are guilty of this, be it on the schoolyard playground. Perhaps some of it comes out a smug, self-assured pleasure that somehow these people deserved what they got… particularly when it’s someone powerful who has been taken down a notch, or have crashed and burned altogether.
Conventional wisdom tells us that everybody gets what they deserve. I know many who repeat it like a mantra, as a means of trying to make sense of the world around them. Yet, there are so many cases of wild injustice, where people as a whole are persecuted, punished, and treated poorly for no real reason at all. The danger of repeating this saying, is that we come to believe that if circumstances in life are not going well for someone, that somehow they are being punished for it… that God is punishing them for some unknown sin… and therefore they deserve it.
But it’s hard to reconcile when we have plane crashes in Ethiopia with a brand new jet, or a white supremacist attack on innocent worshipers in mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. We have had a mix of responses, some powerful and inspiring, and others that leave us shaking our heads.
In the face of all of this the Biblical story struggles to say something different. We have this mix of the conventional wisdom written in its pages, and yet there is this other voice that valiantly tries to say something entirely different. We hear it in Job… where a blameless, righteous man, who has done nothing wrong, loses everything in his life. He spends much of the book crying out and wondering why. In this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus comments on two contemporary examples and then tells a parable that all call that conventional wisdom into question.
As Luke tells it, he foreshadows of the fall of Jerusalem… the call to change is similar to what I preached on last week. Yet the revealing statement is what Jesus seems to say first… When people tell him of a particularly brutal account of the Roman governor, Jesus draws out the conventional wisdom and drives a nail through it. According to the story, people come to Jesus to tell him what Pontius Pilate had done to some Galilean prisoners. It’s a whitewashed account really; we’re simply told that he mixing the blood of executed Galileans with Roman sacrifices. Yet the symbolic and political impact of this is horrifying. In essence, the Roman governor is desecrating the dead. It’s not enough to simply kill them as troublemakers, but as a way to terrorize the population that rebellion will be met with a fate worse than death.
Jesus asks the question… “Do you think that these Galileans were any more sinful than anybody else because of what Pilate did to them?” It’s a rhetorical question. Of course not! Everyone understood the Romans as brutal occupiers, whose only sense of justice was simply to pacify the population at all costs… If anything, they understood those Galileans to be innocent, unjustly executed by a harsh oppressor. In a way, Luke has Jesus foretelling his own death by establishing Pilate’s brutality, and eventually that it will bring the downfall of Jerusalem itself. He calls them to change their way of thinking… Again, Jesus uses the word “metanoia” –as I mentioned last week, a call to change their mind or heart.
Yet no sooner does he use this concrete example, than he points out another. “Then what about those eighteen people in Siloam, who were killed when the tower fell on them? Do you think they were any more guilty than anybody else in Jerusalem?”
This one is harder… because this was an accident. They could see undeserved punishment under the Romans, but here was a random event. Mechanical failure on a structure that collapsed, killing eighteen people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This one is more difficult, because there’s nobody convenient to blame. In this case, the conventional wisdom would tell them that yes, somehow they must have deserved it, that somehow God was punishing them for something. Yet without even taking a breath, Jesus says no… hardly… they weren’t any guiltier than anyone else!
Jesus then tells a parable… the fig tree. It’s not one that is particularly well known or well-loved because it doesn’t really seem to make any sense. As Luke tells it, it goes something like this:
“6A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So 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. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
This really doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense… Unless we remember what the parables were for… Parables are metaphors for the kingdom of God. It was a way of conveying through story an emotional glimpse of how God sees the world. It’s not an allegory, we don’t read into it who the various actors are… but what their natural twist tells us at the end.
In this fruitless parable, those who want action and results are frustrated. When this tree fails to produce fruit, it is given another chance when everyone else is ready to give up on it. Does it deserve another chance? Hardly! Yet God’s kingdom overflows with something called grace… a world where new opportunities and new chances overflow in the most unexpected of places. God is always willing to give us one more chance… whether or not we deserve it. Whether or not we think someone else deserves it.
But that’s the challenging part. The gospel of Luke isn’t alone only one that tells us this. In the fifth chapter of Matthew we hear something similar, with Jesus telling us that God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45). It may be hard for us to hear, but despite what televangelists might tell us, God does not restrict divine love on those whose moral performance is superior.
Jesus tried to get people to see others for who they are, regardless of the circumstances that they found themselves in. He touched those that others thought were unclean, he reached out to those whom the rest of society had cast aside. He was chastised by many of his contemporaries for hanging out with the wrong crowd… and yet Jesus was never afraid to be seen with the wrong people… in fact, it’s exactly where he needed to be. He doesn’t affix blame, he doesn’t believe that these people deserved their lot in life… and in that he shows us that God doesn’t either.
There’s no room for Schadenfreude in the Christian faith. Taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune is no pleasure at all. The whole point is that it’s not for US to decide who is in who is out, who is righteous and who is unrighteous. As much as we are tempted to, it is not for us to play God… especially in light of that cryptic parable of grace. That God’s love always seems to be willing to give another chance to change when everyone else has given up on us.
In many ways, today’s text serves as a preamble to next week’s scripture… the prodigal son. With the words that we hear this morning Luke begins building a train of thought. He adds story and anecdote together, to build on his point about God’s amazing grace, which all serve as a set-up to one of the best known and best-loved parables of our faith. It is a reminder that what happens to us in life is not rooted in what we may or may not deserve. We don’t believe in Karma… we believe in grace… Amen.