To understand today’s story in Luke’s Gospel, we have to know that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. His radical teaching about God is becoming apparent. A great opposition to him is developing among the Pharisees and their friends. His followers should sell their possessions and give the money to the poor to have treasures stored in heaven. Their lamps should be lit as though waiting for their master. He has come to bring fire upon the earth. “Do you think I have come to bring peace? No, but division.”
Did the disciples respond with a sense of urgency about his mission? They seemed to miss the point. He told them, “You know how to interpret signs of changing weather, but do you know how to interpret signs that the kingdom is upon you?” He talks like a man who knows his time is running out. It was just about then, when his preaching about the kingdom had reached its ultimate presentation, that news of a tragedy came.
Some Galileans had been caught and killed when they were making customary religious sacrifices. To insult them further, the Romans had mingled their blood with that of animals they had intended to sacrifice. Their blood had been used deliberately to desecrate their own sacrifice. There was no greater calamity. These particular Galileans might have been zealots, that is, revolutionaries, but Jesus was not sympathetic to their attempted revolution against Rome.
Jesus did not sidetrack himself with a debate about politics. The news was shocking and Jesus found a way to make a lesson for all. Those who reported the news had a hidden agenda. What they were really asking was this: since their lives as revolutionaries were out of line with their religious profession, did God have a hand in the whole business to punish them for their wrong-headed politics? Jesus replied, “If you’re worried about whether they were such sinners that God had to have a hand in their dying, or if you think you are better than them because you have escaped a similar fate until now, you’re missing the point.
“Or if you’re concerned about the guilt or innocence of those people who died when a tower fell recently at Siloam or any such modern accident, you’re missing the point.” Jesus ignores the question of whether anyone was more guilty or more deserving of punishment than someone else. He says that unless you come to the more fundamental question of repentance, you will perish as they did.
The thing Jesus is concerned with is not whether we can answer all the riddles that life can present us, but whether we are ready for the kingdom when it comes. Questions about God are not answered in the same way that we answer questions in mathematics or nuclear physics or medicine or psychology. If you like reading directions, there’s a book called How Things Work, whether a leaky faucet or your lawn mower. I wish there was such a book for God. Some people claim the bible is such a book, but the bible makes no such claims for itself.
Rather, what God is all about, what the Bible is all about, and what life is all about, is not whether we can understand why some tragedies happen. The important question is, “Are we ready for the kingdom?”
There is no end to tragedies that we and those people talking to Jesus could call to mind. A woman who gives no invitation of any kind is assaulted by a cruel man; a teenager is knifed in her classroom, an innocent person is killed on the highway by a drunken driver, or a mine caves in or a whole town is contaminated with poisoned air. Or just mention – Syria, or domestic murders.
Jesus makes no effort to explain why these things happen. It is always precarious to give credit to God for intervening, or to blame him for not intervening at other times. Yet there are people who try to speak with certainty about God’s decision to take action or refrain from action.
I once read a story about a narrow suspended foot bridge that fell in the river below, taking some pedestrians to their death. One was a bishop. Someone explained that God was responsible because the bishop was on his way to visit a woman with the wrong thing on his mind, and God took his life in order to save him, rather than to let him live and commit a mortal sin.
That’s rubbish. Our God is not so little, and so limited and so Gothic that we can fence him in with reasons we can understand. God’s ways are not our ways, and he is beyond our understanding. If there is one thing about God I am certain of, it is that our petty human reasoning is not up to taking God’s measure.
And saying that we understand God is slightly more presumptuous than thinking we can make the earth spin in the opposite direction. Jesus is saying that God is more concerned with other matters than whether we understand him and the world. He does not think we need to know more than he has told us. God has not written his autobiography, though he has given us a glimpse of himself in Jesus of Nazareth.
On that day when Jesus was asked about the Galileans who died at the tower in Siloam, he spelled out just how God feels about response to the kingdom. The question is not whether we can look around us and find order and meaning in world events, in the lives of people, and so understand God. The question is not whether there is some relationship between guilt and salvation, or whether God punishes us here on earth or the hereafter because he’s sick of our petty sins.
Jesus puts an end to the question of God’s intentions in relation to unexplained catastrophe, and turns the whole thought about God into a new question for his questioners, making them look to themselves and the future of God.
It is not an act of God that some have been struck down, and that we have escaped. And what does your escape mean? It means that you have time to be true to your trust, true to the gift of the Kingdom that God has given you.
Like a tree that must bear fruit according to its own kind, so we who know God are on the threshold of his kingdom, must bear fruit for the master. Those people who came with news about Galileans thought that God was angry with the victims. After all, they must have been such terrible sinners because of how they died. Then it would follow that those asking were certainly not as bad. But Jesus said those who were anxious to rush in at such a moment and speak with authority about God, would themselves perish unless they repented.
Life with God is like the fig tree that won’t bear fruit. Ample opportunity is given to bear fruit, with soil enrichment and tender care. But eventually it must produce fruit or it will be cut down. Life is a trust, and woe to us if we are faithless and fruitless with that trust. A.J. Cronin told the story of a doctor who started his career by trying to secure better working conditions for people in a Welsh mining town. He seemed to get nowhere, and lost heart. He finally decided to look out for himself, with the result that he soon had a fashionable practice and a large income.
Then his wife died, and in her purse he found pictures of himself that she had carried. These were not recent pictures, showing his prosperity, but when he was a knight in shining armor, helping people in desperate straits. With the pictures were letters from grateful miners. Suddenly, these mementos showed him the man he might have been. Only he knew that he had betrayed his trust.
We need not be afraid of whether God will interrupt his other activity to bring some senseless tragedy upon us because of his righteous indignation and disappointment. We should be dreadfully concerned with whether we are being true to the trust God has laid upon us.
In Cronin’s story, the doctor drank himself into a stupor, but he woke up remembering. Then he faced truth and said to himself, “You thought you could get away with it. You thought you were getting away with it. But you weren’t.” God isn’t going to throw a thunderbolt at us in anger and punishment. But we may become so blinded and wrong-headed that we can throw life away. God will not reach out to punish with tragedy those who disobey. More often, he lets us live and suffer the consequences of our own refusal to be true to the trust he has placed upon us.
We are all on the way to Jerusalem with Jesus. Christian discipleship doesn’t ask “What has God done for me?” But rather, “What have I done for him?”
We already know how God sent his son, how he lived and died, and how he rose.
What we know, too, is that God has planted and watered and nurtured and loved and
cultivated. Now in the time that remains to us, are we satisfied with the fruit that we
are already bearing?