When it comes to Jesus, we don't always get what we expect -- but we always get what we need.
retold by Deborah
Then some of those present told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?
“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam collapsed -- do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?
“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Then he told this parable:
A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.
So he said to the gardener, “What's going on? For three years I've looked for fruit on this fig tree, and still: nothing! Chop it down! It's a waste of space.”
He answered, “Sir, give it one more year; I'll loosen the soil around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, great; but if not, you can cut it down.”
Our passage begins as Jesus is told that many innocent people were murdered by a powerful ruler…. which gives this a disturbingly contemporary feel, and we react in typical contemporary fashion: instantly we are on the offensive, angry, upset; aligning ourselves with the victims, pronouncing condemnation and issuing demands for vengeance. That hate-filled, evil Pilate, attacking faithful souls during worship -- he is the one who must be destroyed!
It is a natural, noble human impulse: compassion for those who suffer, alongside a desire for justice. We want to make things right, and, if we cannot, there must be someone who can. And, in this case, rightfully, the person who is troubled by this tragedy brings it to the Lord.
I imagine, as this terrible attack is lifted up, all eyes are turned to Jesus. Silent, waiting, expectant; this man, if he truly is the Son of God, the Messiah of justice and righteousness, will surely act. Tradition states that he shall be a powerful military leader — is this the moment when he will denounce Pilate, demand his overthrow, call forth an army and lead us to victory? Perhaps at last we shall be united against a common enemy!
You can almost hear the angry murmuring; the vibrating anger, the thrill of violence, the terrifying throb of hatred, anxious to be unleashed. Compassion, hideously -- demonically -- distorted. Be our Messiah: let us use your authority to do harm.
But Jesus will not be tempted. He will not allow evil to commandeer the souls of the people, nor lead him into the path of death and destruction.
He does not look at what is far away, but at what is near at hand. He looks at the people standing before him with deep and holy compassion. What about those Galileans? He asks, Were they at fault for having been where they were at that time? Of course not -— no more than those who happened to be in Siloam when the tower fell.
In short: “stuff” happens: human violence and failings, natural disasters and structural collapse. Life on this earth is perilous; dangers lurk all around us. There are no guarantees of health or happiness or perfect justice. The rains fall on the good and the bad.
That's not what they wanted to hear. The hoped-for permission to unleash their destructive impulses did not come (you can almost hear the demons dejectedly flapping away). And thus, this event turns out to be the healing of a multitude!
But this is no answer to our perennial human concern with (in)justice. Why? Why do good folks suffer along with the bad? Why do evildoers often enjoy long, healthy lives? Why doesn't God do something?
The devil essentially asks this question when he tempts Jesus to throw himself off the temple roof: “Surely the Almighty will 'lift you up,' and His angels won't let you so much as stub your toe. Isn't God supposed to protect the good? Show me that He can and that He will.”
Jesus, however, turns the question from what God can do to what he ought to do: Why should I challenge God? Shall I choose to (literally) throw my life away? Is it for me to demand a miracle?
It is an answer, but it isn't the answer we want.
We want God to micromanage life: to make it “on earth as it is in heaven.” We want safety, security, decency, fair play, and justice to roll forth like a mighty river … with no responsibility on our part; nothing to do with how we think and act and speak. It works great — because that way, when bad things happen, God serves as the ultimate scapegoat: it must be His fault for failing to act.
Which brings us back to Jesus, his answer to the devil, and his response to the reports of the deaths in Jerusalem and Siloam.
He simply asks What about you?
Jesus doesn’t get caught up in anger or outrage or the assigning of blame — those distractions and deflections we love so well. Instead, he directs our attention to the here and now: specifically to our here and now.
That's definitely not what we want to hear.
It's no wonder that a lot of people hated Jesus, and that some who had followed him walked away. Loving and compassionate He may be, but He never fails to call out our predilection for sin and self-satisfaction.
But as for those other people? They have some serious issues.
Jesus cuts through the fog of misdirection and asks the question that really matters: What about you? Those people at the temple and those in Siloam had no warning of their deaths, no time to prepare, no time to make amends, no more opportunities to speak words of kindness, to do what is right and good. What makes you think you're any different?
Don't delay and don't delude yourself. Cease scowling at others, and take a good hard look in the mirror instead.
But do not be afraid, it is not yet too late. There is time to turn away from fear and hatred, and live in joyful courage and abundant compassion. There is time to uncover the radiant Light in your soul and, as the Gospel song says: let it shine, shine, shine!
We have so much power to guide and sustain others, to bring light and hope into their lives and into our world -- what a pity, what a loss, what a tragedy! if we should waste this precious gift.
In any moment we can choose to comfort and encourage, to bless and to heal -- and any moment may be the last one that we have this opportunity.
Some while back I spoke with a woman who, during our conversation, said mean, hurtful things about a person whom I know to have always been kind and generous to her; never known for her graciousness, on this day she was particularly spiteful. Shortly afterwards the woman died and now what I remember are those ugly words and hateful attitude as her “last words and testament.”
What a terrible memorial. I would hate for people to think of me like that. Imagine how disappointing it is for God when we behave in that way. How very hurtful, and sad for God. What a waste. What a loss.
On the other hand, another woman recently died — a beautiful, transcendent soul whose memory is a blessing; the sorrow at her passing is eased by the joy of the times we spent together; and I think often of her encouraging words, and her generous spirit. Hers was a life lived in the Light.
What a remarkable difference between these two lives!
We have the power to comfort and encourage, to bless and to heal — and we ourselves may very well be the ones most in need of healing. These are perilous times, our souls are at risk; we are daily faced with temptations to hate and destroy, to condemn entire communities and even whole nations as wicked and unworthy of our compassion.
Like those in the crowd calling out to Jesus, focused on conflict, ready to do violence, seeking divine approval for outrage and vengeance, we are in danger of succumbing to those demonic desires: to ugly attitudes and vicious behaviors that damage hearts and minds and souls — and bodies.
But do not be afraid, for we also have wonderful opportunities to comfort and encourage, to bless and to heal: to be radiant, caring, compassionate Christtians — bringing His Light into a world enthralled by fear and hatred, destruction and death.
What a remarkable difference we can make!
May we choose wisely, and faithfully, courageously follow our Lord Christ.
In Christ's abundant love and compassion,
Use your divinely-given power for good -- and do not delay!
A Prayer to reflect upon in times of conflict.