The Tower of Siloam, a Fig Tree, and the Problem of Pain

A Homily for the Third Sunday in Lent

Texts: Isaiah 55:1-9; St. Luke 13:1-9

Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who tends to us as a loving gardener, that we may bear fruit worthy of repentance. Amen.

tower of siloam
The Tower of Siloam, 18th c. Dutch engraving

A few weeks ago, storms ravaged several towns in Alabama and though that same system passed through Macon, our members escaped unharmed. Is it because we are somehow more highly favored than our neighbors across the state line?

Today, we gather to worship without fear of violence – a small comfort that, after repeated attacks in Egypt, the Coptic Christian community lacks, and after years of war and racist attacks, and in the immediate aftermath of the attacks in New Zealand, many Muslims are reminded that they lack. Is it because God loves us more?

As we speak, large portions of the Midwest are covered by surging flood waters. It has claimed human lives and devastated entire farming communities. And yet our weather here in Macon has been impeccable. Is it because we are blessed while those in Nebraska are cursed?

We could spend years upon years listing all of the ways in which this world is simply not fair, the resources unevenly allotted to one nation rather than others, the tragedies that have befallen one community but not the next, the violence that plagues one region while others live in peace, and still, after those innumerable decades, we would have barely scratched the surface of life’s injustices.

This is the question that Christ puts to the disciples today: Pilate murdered a group of Galileans; is because these victims were more sinful? A tower collapsed and claimed eighteen lives; is it because those eighteen people had done something to uniquely invoke God’s wrath? “Why,” Jesus asks the disciples, “do bad things happen to people?” Good people, bad people, either way – sinner, saint, or both – tragedy strikes all the same..

There are some throughout history and even today who would say that God is wrathful and, through short bursts of anger, warning us – that we are receiving better than we deserve and we had better heed these signs. Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, terrorist attacks – all are part of God’s alarm system. “Everything happens for a reason: so that God may, like a parent with a violent temper, teach us a lesson.” These self-styled theologians would suggests that the tornadoes in Alabama, the murders in New Zealand, and the flooding in Nebraska are God’s doing, a shot across the bow to get our attention. This is how preachers like John Piper see the world. It’s also just plain wrong. It is a blasphemous lie, a heresy.

No less an authority than Jesus Christ, the Son of God, states it plainly today: God does not inflict suffering on others simply because they are sinners. The Galileans murdered by that tyrant Pilate, the eighteen killed by the Tower of Siloam, the fifty Muslims murdered at Christchurch by an unnamed right-wing terrorist, the towns ravaged by recent storms in Alabama, the people of Flint without clean water, the starving refugees on the Syrian border do not suffer because God is angry at them.

Just so, we have not been spared simply because God has favored us more or because we are somehow any more deserving of love.

It’s a scary thought. We want the world to make sense. All of the violence, all of the chaos, all of the suffering – there has to be a purpose behind it, right? Some grand, divinely ordained plan? We want to say, “Everything happens for a reason. The world makes sense; it’s not all violent chaos. God has a plan.”

But truth be told, if such carnage is a part of God’s plan, then count me out. I want no part of it.

The perils and divisions of our life are the result of a sinful and fallen world. This is not the world that God intends for us but rather a cosmos caught up in rebellion against God’s good will. All of creation was damaged in the fall, bringing destruction into the world. Death comes for us all, saint and sinner alike.

What does the Lord intend for us, if not a divine meritocracy? A place where all are cared for. Isaiah drives this point home – with no money, come and buy! The Lord is merciful! God’s ways are not our ways – they are loftier, beyond our comprehension.

So often this text is used to justify the image of a wrathful God – a proof text for a divine being who does send awful punishments, who causes suffering by bringing down the Tower of Siloam, or sends tornadoes and terrorists to take life. Ultimately, it’s used to explain why an all-loving and all-powerful God could send people to an eternal and torturous hell. “We simply don’t understand why a loving God would cause eternal torment because his ways are above our ways,” these preachers say.

But Isaiah is not talking about wrath! The prophet is painting a picture of a God whose divine love is so overwhelming as to be baffling! The Lord who invites those without money to come and buy food, who abundantly pardons, is the God of life, the God who desires not the death of sinners but that they may turn and live. This is the God who takes note of a wandering Aramean, who lifts up the lowly, who feeds the hungry, who is born among the oppressed, who puts the last first. This is not about what we can do but what the Lord has promised to do for us! And these ways are indeed not our ways! They confound our greed, insult our pride, and baffle our angry rage.

Then we come to Jesus’ response: “… but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” As he so often does, Christ puts it in the form of a story: “It’s like a fig tree that doesn’t bear fruit. The landowner orders it to be cut down, but a merciful gardener intervenes: Give it another year. Then, if it doesn’t have fruit, sure, cut it down.”

fig tree
The Fig Tree, 17th cent. Dutch engraving

This story, like Isaiah’s words, is so often interpreted as a threat: You are that tree, and God wants to cut you down. Do good, or the Lord will cut you down. Read your Bible, go to church, share your faith, or be destroyed. Believe the same way we do, confess the faith we tell you to, or go to hell.

How does this mesh with the God who chose cowardly and doubting Abram, the God who invites the hungry to come and buy, the Incarnate Lord who just said God doesn’t send disaster as punishment? How does this text do anything but put the onus on us?

We cannot bear fruit on our own, but if we open ourselves up to God’s grace – to careful tending, to be fertilized by the Spirit – then we may, by God’s grace, bear the fruit of true repentance.

When we were baptized, we received the gift of the Holy Spirit, that wild dove, that tongue of fire, preparing us for ministry. When we were baptized, we were made a part of Christ, that we may participate in God’s saving work and bear the fruit of repentance – not of our own doing, but of God’s. This is not a way for us to earn our salvation or to prove it, but to cooperate in it. By grace, we are being saved – and being sent out to share this salvation with the world. Death comes for us all, but in Baptism, we are given the grace to live anew in Christ – and to share that same grace with others.

God is surveying the landscape of our lives, nourishing us, and pruning away the parts that are unproductive. The Lord is tending to those areas that may bear fruit and chopping down our selfishness and pride, cultivating us that we may be transformed for the sake of the world.

And, when disaster strikes, when blood is shed, when children go hungry, when the storms rage, when Death comes, we who have been planted in the garden of the Lord, are prepared to bear good fruit and show God’s redemption to a world in need.


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