20th March 2022 – Suffering
Isaiah 55 vv 1 – 9 Come to the Lord and quench your thirst
Luke 13 vv 1 – 9 Repent or perish. Parable of the fig tree
- Introduction. I consider that I have been more patient than either the owner of the vineyard or even his worker who cared for the vineyard with its fig tree. When we moved here, we came with a sapling Brown Turkey fig tree in a small pot and planted it in a much bigger pot to confine its roots. This required digging a hole some 20 inches deep, involving cutting through a steel reinforcing bar of the concrete floor of the former car workshop on the site of our newly built house. After a few years our fig tree started fruiting. Year by year it produced an abundance of promising young green figs, perhaps as many as 200, but in 15 years, only about 3 or 4 ever grew to full size and ripened. About two years ago, I cut it down and dug out its roots. After a chapter in Luke 12 of challenging teaching of Jesus, we come today in Luke 13, to two very challenging scenarios which Jesus presents to his sceptical and unperceptive hearers, followed by his parable of the unproductive fig tree. After looking at each of these three aspects of today’s gospel reading, I plan to cap my sermon with reference to Isaiah’s wonderful invitation, which formed our first reading.
2. Pilate and the Galileans. The first scenario is an awful incident in which the Roman Governor, Pilate, had for some reason we do not know, killed a number of Galilean people who had travelled to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the temple. It seems that in the very act of making their offerings, Pilate had put these people to death, so that their blood became mixed with the sacrificial offerings. A totally abominable and outrageous event. Many people would have taken the view that these people must have been particularly sinful, for God to allow this to happen to them. This would have been a common view of the time. In a perfect world, in which those in authority acted justly, such a view would be correct. We are however very aware at the here, moment that rulers do not always act justly. Innocent people suffer.
3. Collapsed tower. The second scenario that Jesus presents to his hearers, was that of the collapse of a tower resulting in 18 deaths. Because there was no direct human cause of the collapse and no Health and Safety Executive to investigate the collapse, it would all the more be seen as an act of God, with perhaps blame attaching to the builder, only if it had been built recently. His hearers would be all the more likely to infer that God had punished these 18 people because of their serious sin. Today, we would have an investigation, as for example in the case of the serious Scottish train accident in 2019, during a time of very heavy rainfall. The inquiry didn’t immediately place all the blame on the train driver or line controller but found that there had been a construction failure some time back, an inspection failure, a lack of good maintenance. I had some experience in my RAF days, of conducting inquiries in more minor incidents. One sees the superficial, mistaken attitude very clearly in the incident of the man born blind when the disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” (Jn 9 v 2). Jesus counters this attitude in his answer, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” (Jn 9 v 3).
4. Suffering today. How do we view the relationship of suffering and sin today? I believe, in line with Jesus’ teaching, that the answer is complex. We live in a world of suffering. We are only too aware of it at the moment, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But such actions are going on all the time somewhere in the world, either of invasion by one country into another, or civil war and conflict within a country. Examples are to be found in Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Myanmar and elsewhere. Refugees are fleeing all over the world. This is not new, of course. Jesus with his parents had to flee to Egypt, because Herod the Great saw Jesus as threat to his throne and so ruthlessly killed all the young children in Bethlehem. In all these conflicts innocent people are hurt and killed, either directly, or through subsequent famine, starvation and lack of work, with consequent mental and physical illness. Sometimes though, suffering arises through a person’s life style choices. The UK Health Secretary stated recently that about 40% of the NHS expenditure arises from conditions brought on by a person’s life style (DT 9th March p 2). We need to take greater responsibility for our own life styles. The answer to suffering is indeed complex.
If the answer were simple, as seen by many of Jesus’ hearers during his time here on earth, if there were a direct correlation between sin and suffering, we would become a people lacking in compassion. We would say of another’s problems, “Oh God is punishing him or her for some sinful deed in the past and therefore far be it from us to interfere in the process of God’s punishment”. By contrast, in the present situation in the Ukraine, we have great compassion for what we see as the outrageous, illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine.
5. Repentance. Jesus doesn’t say that the Galileans killed by Pilate or the 18 people who died in the collapse of the tower were sinless. Rather, he says of the Galileans, in a question to hearers, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way?” Jesus follows up both incidents with a clear “No!”. Jesus tells his hearers after the account of each incident, “But, unless you repent, you too will perish.” The Greek word for repentance, is ‘metanoia’, literally meaning, ‘a change of mind’. If one reads the previous chapter in Luke, I think that it would be fair to say, that Jesus is both calling them to change their minds about himself, to recognise that he is God’s Messiah and also to change their minds about the future kingdom of God. In general, they failed on both counts, resulting in the Roman siege and downfall of Jerusalem in the period 66 – 70 A. D.
6. Invitation. Let’s finish on a positive note by referring to our first reading, from Isaiah 55, with the wonderful invitation, beginning, “Come all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” Through the prophecy of Isaiah, God invites people to turn to the Himself, to seek him and the spiritual nourishment that he can provide. Our life styles need to be based on physical, mental and spiritual inputs as an integrated whole. I like to get up before breakfast and start the day in prayer and reading the Scriptures, using Common Worship Morning Prayer, I get my mental challenge in writing sermons, in the lightning protection work that I do and, with Julia, doing the crosswords in our daily paper. I get my physical input by cycling and gardening. We must each work out our own pattern within in our capabilities. Let us though particularly in this season of Lent seek the Lord and strengthen the spiritual aspect of general, our lives. Our relationship with Jesus should be the foundation of our lives, in a joyful and fulfilling relationship with God, enabling us all the better to face the challenges and suffering of this life. “Come all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” Let us together be a fruitful fig tree in the Kingdom of God.