Luke 13:1-9 – God, the Constant Gardener
Around the turn of the last century, a young couple, Sid and Ada Cope of Newtown in Sydney, had their first child, a little boy. Ada’s breast milk, however, did not come and when the baby was three days old, having been feed gruel by his grandmother as an alternative to breast milk, he died of convulsions. It was a time when significant numbers of children perished in their first year of life – there were over 100 deaths for every 1,000 live births at the beginning of the twentieth century in Australia, a figure that has dropped to 4 deaths for every 1,000 births in recent years – but the child’s death was felt no less keenly for that. Sid and Ada, their extended family and their neighbours grieved for the little boy.
The story goes that one day the local Anglican priest was walking along their street, and he was asked what would happen to the little baby’s soul. Would the child be in heaven? He asked, “Was the child baptized?” “No,” they said, “there wasn’t time for that.” “Well then,” the minister said, “Without baptism there is no salvation and the child will not be in heaven.”
It was a response that changed the course of Ada’s life and the lives of others.
Many of you have had tragedies on a similar scale in your lives and my hope is that you have had better pastoral care and more thoughtful theological responses than this example. But these questions – as this fascinating little passage from Luke this morning shows – are persistent questions. Why is there so much suffering in the world? Or, more specifically, is this suffering connected to our behaviour? Does God cause suffering? Is suffering or disaster a form of punishment?
I say fascinating because these few verses, verses 1 to 5, read like a national news broadcast, coming from Jerusalem, sometime in 27-29 AD, or perhaps we’re talking Sky News with the description of their blood mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. And then there is the second section about the fate of a fig tree which the writer of Luke clearly feels is related to the first. Now, there is a danger in trying to answer the question of why there is suffering from just one passage, particularly one that people may find as obscure as this, but there are a number of things which Jesus says about suffering here, things which are consistent with Bible’s teaching about suffering elsewhere, which we need to listen to, to incline our ears, as Isaiah says, so that we might live.
Firstly, suffering is not sent by God as punishment for sin. Perhaps we need to hear that again. Suffering is not sent by God as punishment for sin. It is also said twice in the text! Firstly in Jesus’ sharp response to his audience regarding the Galileans who were killed, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you!” And in relation to the tower of Siloam tragedy, “Do you think those Jerusalemites were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you.”
No. Suffering does not come as punishment for sin. It could not be clearer than that. But sometimes – particularly in the first rush of fear or grief – this is a hard thing to understand. Sometimes we fall back on this much simpler divine cause of effect way of understanding the universe – and perhaps, for a while, we need to. But this is not, Jesus says to us, how God, the God who calls us to live, behaves. No, Jesus says. No, I tell you. The God who makes an everlasting covenant of steadfast, sure love with us does not send suffering to punish us.
There is a second message here, however. Just because suffering is not God’s punishment for sin does not break the connection between suffering and sin. The murder of these Galileans is clearly sin, as is, very possibly, the series of decisions that led to the collapse of this tower.
Attaching blame to the victims, however, conveniently distances that sin from ourselves, from our own actions and motivations. It locates sin over there. When sin is really located here.
In the early twentieth century, The Times of London, invited famous writers to answer the question: “What is wrong with the world?” In response, they got many long essays spelling out both the problems and, as a bonus, the writer’s assessment as to who was to blame. God, the Devil, the Church, the Communists, the Fascists, White people, Black people, the Jews, the Germans, the Chinese, the Americans, women, men, the ‘older generation’, ‘the young people of today’. G.K. Chesterton, wrote: Dear Sirs,I am.Sincerely, G.K. Chesterton.
It is nonsense, Jesus is saying, to say those Galileans were worse winners than all other Galileans, for all Galileans are sinners. And it is nonsense to say that those 18 residents of Jerusalem were worse offenders than all others, for all living in Jerusalem are sinners. All of us sin. All of us are sinners. Whether it is murder in the first degree or cutting a small corner here or there, it is all sin. For this reason, Jesus says again – twice, “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Unless you repent you will all perish as they did.” Jesus calls us to turn from blaming God for what is wrong with the world and to look at ourselves instead and ask for God’s help and salvation.
This is what the word we translate in English as repent means; it means to turn, to turn from one way of thinking to another, from one direction in life to a new and different direction. Luther said that the life of the Christian is a life of daily repentance, a life of constant turning from the world to God and then back again from God to go into the world. As the old monk says, “We fall, we get up. We fall, we get up. We fall, we get up.”
For the third thing we need to hear in this passage is that God is a God of grace and forbearance and steadfast love. That God is a God of life. A God of the second chance.
Commentaries often turn this parable into an allegory. God is the landowner and Jesus is the gardener. But nowhere in Luke do we find a picture of an angry God being placated by a merciful Jesus. Instead, Jesus tells stories of God as a father who scans the horizon day after day looking for his wayward son, who runs to meet him and embrace him, or as a woman who sweeps her house all night looking for a lost coin and then who throws a party costing more to celebrate than the coin she found.
Commentator David Lose suggests that the landowner represents our sense of how the world should work. We want things to be ‘fair’. ‘Bad things’ should, therefore, happen to ‘bad people’ and ‘good things’ to ‘good people’. (Except when it comes to us!) “So perhaps the rather peculiar gardener is God, the one who consistently raises a contrary voice to suggest that the ultimate answer to sin isn’t punishment – not even in the name of justice – who isn’t beneath loosening the soil around us and even spreading manure in the hope that we may bear fruit. Why? Because God loves us and wants the best for us.”
This period of Lent is traditionally a time of recognising that we are all impacted, all implicated, by a world of sin, that our time in this world is short, but that repentance is a call – not to be filled and tormented by guilt – but to be fruitful. Repentance is a constant patient growing in love, a willingness to open ourselves to the work of God deep within us and around us and to embrace the gift of our salvation.
In Isaiah 55 we heard a clear and unambiguous invitation to drink and eat at God’s table, to be nourished without cost and without price. But what is also unambiguous is that this good food is found in seeking God. Those imperative verbs: Come. Listen. See. Seek. All imploring the listener to come and find in God what is good. Why do you spend your money – or your time, or your energy, or your talent, or your good soil – on what does not satisfy? Why do you spend time on things for which there is not even hope of fruit? Fertilize what may yet produce. Nurture what is good.
This is the part of the story of Ada Cope that I like. Having been told that her child had died outside of God’s grace, she did not stay at that church, but she did not abandon her search for the God of life and grace either. One of her neighbours, a Mrs West, took her to Dulwich Hill Baptist Church where, it’s said, she found ‘peace and assurance’ in Christ.
Those of you who have participated in a discussion group as part of our Baptist Values series will know that we have been talking about our personal connections and background in the Baptist movement, and this story, the story of Ada Cope, is my story.
Her decision to find a church that would nourish her faith led to the faith of others being nourished, including her niece, Florence Castle, who grew up with an aware that life is a gift, given to be lived in fruitful repentance, fertilizing and nurturing the good that we can, and who passed this understanding onto to her seven children, and the fourth of whom, my father, passed it on to me.
God invites us this Lent, and each year we live, not to ignore the headlines in the news – flood emergencies, war… – not to make others the scapegoats for sin – but to repent ourselves; to keep doing the good we are called to do – to keep living the lives of fruitful repentance we are called to live.
And we are not alone. God, our constant gardener, watches over us, abundantly pardoning, says Isaiah, desiring abundance, says Luke; digging around our roots, spreading manure and waiting for blossoms to form and fruit to come.