A Sermon for Covenant
“Does God Cause Our Suffering?”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
Third Sunday of Lent
March 3, 2013
Kyndall Rae Renfro
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
This text was a conundrum to me all week. Perhaps, if you were able to give it a read on Lectionary Tuesday, it perplexed you too.
First Jesus seems to be saying how wrong it is to blame tragedy on sin. Do you really think the Galileans who were killed by Pilate while they were making their sacrifices in the temple were worse sinners than the rest? No, of course not! Do you really think the 18 people killed at random by a falling tower were more guilty than the rest of us? Of course not!
Then Jesus says the oddest thing of all, “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Wait a second. What? “These tragedies are not the result of sin,” Jesus says, “Now repent or you will die too.” He just said those people died through no particular fault of their own, and now we must repent . . . or else? These statements seem to contradict.
This is when it sure would help to be present with Jesus when he said these words. We lose things when we can’t hear the tone, when we can’t see the look on his face or read his body language. Was there a note of irony or sarcasm in his call to repentance, as if mocking the idea that repentance should be based on fear of death? Or is he telling the people to repent, not in order to escape an unnatural death (because that could happen to anybody), but repent in order to bypass the death of your soul? Or is he saying, repent from your prejudices against these injured parties, otherwise you are no better off than them?
There are a number of ways we could try to interpret this odd pairing of statements. I’ll try one interpretation on for size, and you can tell me whether you think it fits.
There is very little we know about these two incidents—the killing of the Galileans by Pilate or the tower of Siloam—other than the brief comments Jesus makes here. There are no ancient newspaper clippings to fill us on what happened and why.
But as you know, when bad stuff happens, people talk. Form opinions. Come up with some kind of explanation to make human suffering seem less absurd. Usually, we’ve just got to point a finger at somebody in a scramble to make sense of the senseless.
Often we’re looking for reasons that the same bad thing couldn’t possibly happen to us. Random tragedy makes us feel so much more insecure than tragedies we can explain, so the explanations abound. It seems to help if you can talk your way back into feeling safe when the world goes crumbling down.
This, I think, is where Job’s friends got their sense of self-righteousness. Remember Job? How he suffered more terribly than we can possibly imagine, and his “friends” show up to insist that Job must have done something to deserve this. If only he will repent and turn to God, he will be rescued!
I suspect the friends feel so strongly about Job’s guilt because if Job isn’t guilty, then that means no one is safe. They had known Job to be such a good solid guy, but that must have been a false impression, otherwise every good man of faith is susceptible to destruction, you see? There must be something Job was hiding, some sin he was harboring that he is now paying for. He got it wrong somewhere. Sometimes we buy into this logic about ourselves—we must have screwed up in order to be suffering such and such—if we could just self-correct, we’ll never have to face anything so ugly ever again.
Only Job contends that he has done nothing wrong. Despite all the disaster that has fallen upon him, he maintains his integrity before God. This creates an outrage among Job’s friends, who, as Scripture says, “are very angry with Job for justifying himself rather than God” (Job 32:2).
Where does Job get the guts to do that, to call himself righteous, even if it means making God sound unjust? I’ve wondered for awhile about this debate between Job and his friends, because both sides are equally certain that they are right. How do you know when you’re speaking God’s truth, or when you’re just being pig-headed? Job’s friends look like they are defending God’s justice; Job looks like he’s just defending himself. How worthy a notion to defend God; how pompous a notion to stick up for yourself, right? Only at the end of the book of Job, God tells the friends, “You have not spoken what is right, but my servant Job has” (Job 42:7). How did they get it so wrong?
It seems to me Job’s friends argue based on fear. They couldn’t afford to be wrong, because then their own fortunes and families would be at stake. Their own hard efforts at righteousness might not pay off unless they can prove Job’s unrighteousness.
But for Job, fear isn’t a part of the equation. He’s already lost everything. He doesn’t hold onto his sense of integrity to try and win something or hold onto something. He holds onto it because it is the truth, his truth, the only truth he can really know in the midst of the absurdity of severe suffering.
It also seems to me that Jesus is always finding a Job in every sufferer to the undying frustration of the Pharisees. Jesus is always sticking up for the oppressed and the downtrodden, and this is deeply discomforting to our religious sensibilities and our sense of security. Why does he keep speaking up on behalf of those who are supposed to have got what they deserved? And then he is always looking the safe and secure people in the eye and calling on them to repent! He’s got it all backwards! We’re not the ones who need repentance; it’s them!! We’re the blessed ones.
I tend to hear sarcasm in Jesus’ words, “Repent, or you too will perish,” because religious scrambling out of fear doesn’t solve anything. Suffering happens, not to punish the guilty, but just because it happens. Not because God is unjust, but because there is chaos in this world still yet to be redeemed. We don’t repent our sins because God is cruel; we repent because God is kind. Repentance is turning to the source of good amidst the pain.
What I hear Jesus saying is, if something horrific happens to you, that horror is not God! God is always the one who intervenes on behalf of the sufferer. See, God is like this:
One time there was this little fig tree and it hadn’t produced any fruit for three years. Its friends and acquaintances gathered round and said, “What a useless plant! Let’s chop it down. It’s wasting space, taking up good soil. What a nuisance. It’s in the way. It’s pathetic.” The friends thought it their job to police things, cut out riff-raff, keep up a clean appearance. So they harassed the little tree and called it names. The little fig tree quaked and hung its head in shame.
But then along came a humble, quiet gardener with dirt-stained kneecaps and soil under his fingernails. No one ever suspected he was a god, he seemed so common, so inconspicuous, maybe even a little mixed up in the head. But he spoke up on behalf of the fig tree, “Give it more time,” he pleaded earnestly while the others were grabbing for their axes. The little figless fig tree barely dared to hope.
“I’d like to help,” the gardener added, “See I’ll dig around it, I’ll fertilize.” The axe-holders sneered. The gardener set his face. “Look, if there’s no fruit a year from now, you can take it. But give me a year,” he bargained. The fruit-police put down their axes and clubs and lumbered off.
The gardener bent his knee and began to tenderly prune the branches and gently pat the earth, “There, there. I’ll fight for you again next year if need be, my little tree, but for now, let’s focus on how to help you blossom. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. I’m here.”
And the little fig tree knew, that despite its frailties and feebleness, it had been fortunate enough to see God, for it is those who suffer who see with heaven’s eyes.