Near Cowra, NSW 2011.

Victims, Punishment and Love

Sermon for Sunday March 7 2010
Bible: Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’

6 Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” 8He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’

As a kid I remember being in trouble with my Dad. I did something wrong. What I also remember was that he was not cross with me for doing wrong.  He was disappointed in me, because I could have done much better.  Understand this; I had done wrong.  Yet it was not the wrong that bothered him. He was upset because he knew I could do better. I think that understanding about right and wrong is one of the great gifts he gave me.

When we grow up, we develop moral insight.  A very early insight is that if we do the wrong thing, we will get into trouble. That’s very important.  Otherwise we would get scalded, or burned, or run over.

But later we understand more.  Doing the right thing can bring us a reward.  We progressed from being good because we would get into trouble, to being good because we would get a donut at the end of Sunday School.

Later we understood that moral good has to do with what is good for society.  We are good because life works better for us, and for our neighbours. So my Dad would cut the thistles out of our bottom paddock, not just because that was good for our wool crop, but because if he didn’t, the thistles would be washed down the creek to other farms, as well.  We pick up the glass outside our house on the foot path, not just because it looks messy, but because other people might tread in it, and cut themselves.

The church has grown up in its understandings, just like you and me.

The people of God used to think God was a very harsh father.  Numbers 14: (18) The LORD is long-suffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation.

In 1 Chronicles 21 David decided to hold a census. That long suffering God of great mercy was displeased, and killed 70,000 people in Israel...  to punish David.  Is this the God we know?

But over the centuries Israel’s understanding grew: In Jer. 31:29-31 "In those days people will no longer say, 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.' Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes--his own teeth will be set on edge. "The time is coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah."

Jesus shows us more of this: He called God Abba; Daddy. God is a god of Love.  Jesus also said what we heard in the gospel this morning.

there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.

Jesus says, “It’s not their fault.” People do not suffer a tragedy because God is angry with them. It just happens. You will have noticed, one tragedy is at the hands of an evil man; Herod. The other, is an impersonal tragedy; people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Were these people worse than any other people? The answer is No!

This is a great growing in our understanding of God.  God does not smack people down for their sin.  God loves us. God wants us to do better.  In the parable, Jesus the Gardener asks God the owner for time to make the fig tree fruitful, and the owner gives him time.

We see love and mercy in this picture of God. We see that same love and mercy in Jesus, in the way he loved and healed the sick, and poor, and the outcasts.

But then the text highlights a fundamental contradiction in our theology. How could a loving god, who was God over Everything destroy someone?  If God’s love is so great, surely that love would overcome our sins and shortcomings. Surely it would be able to attract us and heal us.

My wife demonstrates this love:

There are some lovely new street trees near our house.  We found last night that someone has been trying to set fire to the mulch around them. I suggested that some little *** needed a good swift kick you know where. And Wendy said to me, “Or maybe we could see they are a really sad and hurting person, and need some help.” That’s love... love is about healing, not punishing. Perhaps there will be a need for repayment, for reparation, but love is about overcoming the evil by transformation and healing, not by punishment and destruction.

Yet the text says, “Unless you repent, you will all perish, just as they did.” Our whole being, it appears, is at risk if we do not repent, if we do not turn and go another way in life. It seems to contradict the notion of a loving God. How do we make sense of this contradiction?

I want to suggest to you that the reading today places us at a real growing point in God’s revelation to us. Jesus’ word about the people Pilate killed, and the people the tower fell on, is still very challenging.  There are still people who think that each person who died in the Haiti tragedy, was being punished by God, or that it’s proper to punish the innocent for the sins of others.

If that’s what we think, then I guess we won’t have any trouble at all with the idea that God will also cause us to perish, if we don’t behave. But if we find that ‘God punished them’ understanding of Haiti repugnant, where can we go?

Perhaps we could understand the text as saying, “Actions have consequences.  If you cross the road without looking, you’ll get run over by a bus! So be careful. Repent, go another way so you don’t find you have spent all your life rejecting the love of God.”  It’s not God that’s going to punish us; we’ll punish ourselves.

Or perhaps  we might recognise that the tiniest bit of faithfulness before God in our lives, leads to startling rewards, and an undeserved richness .  Living the way God wants means we get some pretty good donuts. (Our Sunday School teacher has used donuts wonderfully!) So we might deal with the contradiction in the text bys suggesting Jesus is not warning us about punishment so much, as begging us not to miss out on the blessings of God.

But still, at the back of all these ideas, is the basic understanding, in our popular, plain reading of the text, that God may punish us to the point that we perish.  It is ingrained in our thinking as much as the ancient Israelis just knew God punished a person to the third and fourth generation of their offspring.  It was hugely difficult for them to get past that idea; and just in the same way, it is hugely difficult for us to get past the idea that God will cause us to perish.

Our whole understanding of right and wrong, is that God will punish someone... it’s only right.

Except that this idea of being punished to the point of abandonment by God contradicts what we know about love.

Even we humans know it.  When a man commits a terrible crime, and his father disowns him, we understand.  We know the pain and shame that can drive us to reject a loved one who has acted appallingly. And yet there is a part of us which is disappointed when it happens.  We know that a loving father, as much as he disapproves, as appalled and disappointed as he may be, doesn’t abandon his son.

Is there something about God and Love which we don’t understand?  Is there something so transforming that it would take us utterly beyond the model of reward and punishment which is ingrained into our way of thinking?

---

When people stood up and said the innocent children of Haiti were been killed as God’s punishment, most Christians didn’t need to think about it.  We just knew that’s wrong.  We knew God’s love is not like that. We might not have been able to articulate it, but we knew that understanding of God has not yet felt part of God’s enormous love for us.

I wonder if one day, someone will stand up and say people will perish if they don’t repent, and we won’t even have to think about it.  We’ll just know that’s wrong.  We’ll know God’s love is not like that. We will not take that idea from the text. We will have met enough of God’s enormous love for us to know God is not like that.

In the meantime, while the slow growing up of us, and the gentle revelation of God work themselves out, there is something we can do. We can love God now, as best we are able.  We can love each other as best we are able.  The best way to understand Love, is to live it. That way, even if we have no words to explain the contradiction, we will be able to live past it. Amen.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!


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