Anglican Episcopal Church Budapest, Hungary
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
“A man had a fig tree...”
How is it possible, we might well be asking ourselves these days, that a brutal war of naked aggression could have broken out in the middle of the twenty-first century in the middle of Europe between peoples who have long fancied themselves to be close neighbors and even brothers and sisters; amongst peoples whose ancestors suffered a so similar fate less than a century ago at the hands of yet other neighbours...? How is such an evil tragedy even conceivable in our world today...?
Good questions; but questions, alas, without any adequate answers. At least, not at the level of logic or rationality. Try as we might, it is simply not possible to explain the enormity of war and the destruction it brings about. Geopolitical, historical, and cultural explanations surely all fall short; sociological conditions and even psychiatric pathology might explain the background and circumstances but fail to answer the question: Why? Evil, it seems, is simply evil; an all too tangible and ever-present reality, as much as we might wish to think we and our generation are beyond such barbarity as military invasion and war.
Philosophers and sages throughout the centuries and in every society have of course tried to explain the phenomenon of bad things happening and human wickedness, invariably without much success. The fact that there is indeed such malevolence in the world is sometimes used as a reason not to believe in a loving God. After all, how could God allow such tragedies to unfold...? In theological circles, it is called the problem or dilemma of theodicy. But giving it a fancy scholarly name does not make the issue any easier to comprehend. As one commentator succinctly notes, “Evil is the most perplexing problem ever faced by humanity.”
It is this perplexing problem which is in a sense the dilemma addressed in today’s account from the Gospel of Luke. The Evangelist tells us almost matter-of-factly of a couple of remarkable incidents recorded nowhere else in the Gospels or even in the secular
literature of the time; incidents which must nevertheless have struck the popular imagination and caused people to stop and think and question. The prevailing view at the time, by the way, and sometimes still today, was that if misfortune befell someone, it must surely be because of their sin. It must be their fault. Nowadays of course, this is called blaming the victim.
According to Luke, “There were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” It is not known, alas, what the Evangelist is here referring to. Was there in fact a slaughter of Galileans at the hands of Pilate...? Nobody knows. And did he somehow mix the blood of the victims with ritual sacrifices...? Again, no one knows. But that Pilate should have done such a thing, as Jesus’ hearers here almost breathlessly relate to him, comes as no surprise to scholars and historians of the period. Gruesome as it sounds, it does seem that it would have been completely in character for Pilate to have done just such a thing. He was in reality a small-time tyrant, but nevertheless ferociously jealous of his territory and prerogatives.
Jesus then mentions, “those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them.” As with the Galileans, there is no record in the secular literature of the time or in the other Gospels of a Tower of Siloam falling and killing eighteen people. Yet even today it sounds familiar. It could happen. After all, housing towers and apartment blocks even today fall from shoddy construction or are consumed in horrific fires, even in the richest of nations, the result in turn of greed, negligence, and corruption.
So what happened to the Galileans and at Siloam is at least plausible. Note by the way that Jesus mentions the events almost offhandedly, knowing not only that his listeners would have been familiar with the reports, but that they too knew instinctively that evil was a fixed part of life. Bad things do happen. The good news, if there is any to be found in the dreadful events recounted by Luke, or consuming our world today, is that such happenstances are not the result of the wickedness of those who suffer and die because of them.
The victims were no better or worse than anyone else. But therein too is found the bad news, if you will. For at some level, Jesus seems to be telling us, we are all sinners in need of repentance, no matter our circumstances or fortune. There is a spiritual Tower of Siloam looming over each of us. And the evil around us, and within us, reminds us of the ultimate goodness of God, and of God’s mercy. For death itself is the result of sin.
Paul puts it succinctly in our second reading from First Corinthians, “If you think that you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” Or, as John Dunne famously admonishes, “Do not send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” For death does not come from the will of a capricious or malevolent god. Repentance is Jesus’ one-word answer to sin and death, a message and response first proclaimed by John in the desert.
It is only in repentance for sin that we learn to live with life and its myriad uncertainties, evils, hazards and, yes, even death. Repentance, in this sense, is more than remorse or sadness at our foibles and misdeeds, or regret that our foibles have been found out. Repentance rather is a coming to terms with the fallen nature we all share; a recognition of our utter dependence upon God for life itself and love.
Jesus concludes his words with the short and somewhat mystifying parable or story of the barren fig tree. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard,” our Lord tells us. The
vineyard owner is ready to cut it down, for it has not borne fruit in three years. Yet the gardener pleads on behalf of the tree for more time. More time is still the gift we all crave, for time is all we have. The clear implication is of course that the owner consented and gave the tree another year. Did the tree then bear fruit in the time allotted to it...? Jesus does not tell us. The story remains, perhaps like the tree itself, like life itself, incomplete yet filled with promise.
That is where we find ourselves this Lenten and spring season; times of repentance, to be sure, but in spite of everything, times of growth as well. Like the fig tree, we too in our lives have been given the gift of time, of another year. But also like the fig tree we do not have forever. God has nourished us, like the gardener of the story, with his love and faithfulness; he has in other words allotted us time to repent and bear much fruit. But what we do with God’s good time, with one year or fifty, is still pretty much up to us.
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs