I preached this week at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York, and it went something like this.
Third Sunday of Lent (Year C)
- Isaiah 55:1–9
- Psalm 63:1–8
- 1 Corinthians 10:1–13
- Luke 13:1–9
1 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them:do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground? ’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” (Luke 13:1–9 ESV)
On the first of November in 1755, earth off the coast of Portugal shook. Shook rather violently, for somewhere between three and six minutes — not a cute little 20-second earthquake like I regularly enough experienced growing up in California — and in that shaking destroyed much of Portugal’s capital, leveling ancient buildings and killing many thousands of people.
And if that wasn’t enough, about 40 minutes after the shaking started, the city was inundated by a tsunami, which swept through its devastated lowlands and destroyed much of what remained of the harbor. Fire then ravaged the city for days. It was something of an apocalypse, an unveiling of the end. Judgement, and destruction, the wrath of God in pitiless nature.
Portugal, seat of a globe-spanning empire, from Brazil to Macao and dozens of points in-between along the coasts of Africa, the Middle East, and India, was ruined. Never again would this little country, which had pioneered Europe’s maritime exploration and conquest of the world, matter.
The earthquake was felt across Europe, as far away as Finland. And it was thought about, too. If you remember, November 1 is not an ordinary day in the church calendar — it is All Saints Day, a day where Christians remember the dead, and pray for them. Portugal was a wealthy, Catholic country, and while some said this reflected God’s judgment upon Portugal’s sinful ways, others noted that Lisbon’s red light district was one of the least affected and least damaged parts of the city.
And this earthquake really influenced how we moderns began to think about sin and consequences. Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire began to conceive of tragedy like this in more naturalistic terms — the way we think of them today. In his poem reflecting on the Lisbon earthquake, Voltaire considers the sins of the world:
And can you then impute a sinful deed
To babes who on their mothers’ bosoms bleed?
Was then more vice in fallen Lisbon found,
Than Paris, where voluptuous joys abound?
Was less debauchery to London known,
Where opulence luxurious holds the throne?
But how conceive a God, the source of love
Who on man lavished blessings from above
Then would the race with various plagues confound
Can mortals penetrate His views profound?
Ill could not from a perfect being spring
Nor from another, since God’s sovereign king;
And yet, sad truth! in this our world ’tis found
What contradictions here my soul confound!
And finally, he considers the mystery of it all:
Mysteries like these can no man penetrate
Hid from his view remains the book of fate
We cannot easily impart meaning to accidents like this, the French writer says. We cannot assume that because Lisbon was destroyed by what was then only understood as “an act of God,” we cannot know anything about Lisbon. About the Portuguese. About their faith or their deeds, or about the content of their hearts. No doubt they loved, and hated, and sinned, and were as virtuous as any other people that had ever lived. They no more had their destruction coming than all the other people across the world who woke up that morning and whose cities were not leveled by massive earthquakes.
The earthquake was not God’s vengeance upon a sinful city. But European Christians had long believed that the natural calamities — plague, famine, earthquakes, and the like — were God’s judgement. Sin and heresy and disbelief weren’t just matters of personal conscience or behavior that put the individual at risk. They put the entire community, or even nation, at risk, because they might provoke God to withdraw his favor and his protection. At Benjamin Kaplan wrote in his book Divided By Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe …
For Europeans, every town and village had a spiritual dimension: more than a convenient, worldly arrangement for human cohabitation, it was a religious body—a “corpus Christianum.” Viewed through the prism of Christian piety, its unity was an expression of Christian love, its peace godly, and its provision of mutual aid an exercise in charity. The communal welfare it existed to promote was spiritual as well as material. Indeed, the word welfare and its cognates, like the Latin salus and German heil, meant both, for no one dreamed the spiritual and material could be kept separate. God rewarded those who deserved it, and the blessings he bestowed included peace and prosperity in life as well as salvation after death. The fate of entire communities, not just individuals, depend on divine favor. Gaining it was therefore a collective responsibility. Protestants and Catholics did not differ on this point, except where Protestants focused their prayers and hopes on the divine will, Catholics directed their supplication also to the Virgin and saints.
No one can be allowed to sin. Or disbelieve. Or even confess wrong faith. Because my well-being, our well-being, our lives and our children’s whole future hinges upon it.
We see a version of this today whenever a Christian leader blames a natural disaster on the acceptance of homosexuality or the legality of abortion, who wonders if Americans have sinned so much that God has “withdrawn his hand of protection” from the United States.
Because we seek to understand what happens to us, want to find meaning in what seems so meaningless. We ask “why?” And unsatisfied with Voltaire’s answer — “we cannot know why” — we make stuff up.
We still do this as individuals too. My foster daughter Molly struggles sometimes with the whole idea that “God has a plan for your life.” Hers has been a difficult life, full of violence and abuse and neglect. And she’s struggling with what any of it has to do with God’s “plan for her life.” Why God might inflict such suffering, or let it happen? What does it mean, her suffering? Is it the judgment of God on a life so sinful that she should not even try to have faith or save herself? Because she believed that for a while, gave into that belief and lived for a while as someone who felt her life was beyond redemption.
What does it mean that bad things have happened to others? To me? Because it does feel like the judgment of a cruel and capricious God. A God who does not love us. A God who does not care at all.
That’s the question Jesus deals with today. When earthly misfortune strikes, what does it mean? That those who perish are somehow more cursed than the rest of us? To have a tower fall upon you, or to be murdered by the government in some kind of sacrifice — and consider what becomes of Jesus as he answers that — is that a sign that God doesn’t love so much, or views you as such a sinner that you need an extra punishment? Because only material success in this world is a sign of God’s love and favor?
I have to tell you, I love how Jesus answers questions like this. Because frequently when he is asked tough questions — who is my neighbor, will those who are saved be few, did those who died at Pilate’s hands deserve it? — Jesus never really answers the question ast hand. He turns it around, and instead of giving people the noun they want, or the yes or no they seek, he does something very different. He tells a young lawyer what it means to be a neighbor — to give and accept help from strangers and enemies. And here, he doesn’t worry about whether someone perishing in a tower collapse — or an earthquake, or a flood, or even suffered abuse and violence at the hands of others — had it coming, or was somehow more deserving of suffering and death than the rest of us.
“You all are sinners, and you will all perish. It hardly matters how. Or where.” Jesus says.
Which may not be a word of comfort. But it is the truth. It is … good news. I promise.
Don’t worry whether someone had it coming. Or not. Do not busy yourself speculating about the fate of others, and do not pronounce the condemnation of God upon them and their lives. You, repent! Turn away from sin and toward God! Bear good fruit!
And that’s the point of the parable Jesus tells us. There’s a fig tree that bears no fruit, hasn’t for three years. The owner of the tree wants to cut it down, but the vinedresser says wait, with a little extra care, a little more attention, this tree could bear fruit. Give me a little more time, another year, and we’ll see if this tree can and will bear fruit.
God wants you to repent, to turn to him, to bear good fruit. Fruit for the kingdom. God does not want you to perish. And God is willing to give you the time, the attention, the special care needed to bear that fruit. Because you are all, sisters and brothers, truly beloved of God.
I don’t have an answer to the suffering of the world. I cannot tell you what any of it means. I cannot tell Molly what God’s marvelous plan for her life is. Because I cannot even tell you what God’s marvelous plan for my life is. Much of the time, I’m not sure there is one.
But I can speak to a purpose — to my life, to Molly’s life, to your lives — a purpose bigger than the suffering nature seems to randomly inflict upon us, a purpose bigger than the pain and suffering we so willingly and easily inflict upon each other. A purpose Jesus spent most of career living and preaching about. And that purpose is to love — family and neighbors and strangers and enemies — as God loves us.
As God has so loved the world.