You know how awful looking pink eye is? Well, years ago, when my girls were in or nearing their teen years, I came down with it, pink eye--and also a bad cold. So, I felt bad and I looked worse. I had to work on Sunday, though. Suffered through Sunday school and worship. Later in the day, one of my daughters and a friend of hers, wanted to see a movie. I said I would take them. I didn’t feel like seeing the movie myself, and since they probably didn’t want me to accompany them anyway, my thinking was this: I would drop them off at the movie theater, go home and nurse my eye and my cold, and pick them up when the movie was over.
I actually did go into the movie theater with them. I bought them their tickets. Said goodbye. Then, darn it all, before I could make a quick exit, I ran into a couple I knew from church. Barbara and David. They were there to see a different movie—same theater. But their movie didn’t start for awhile, so they had time on their hands. They wanted to chat. I tried to beg off politely, but they didn’t get my subtle hints. Patience is not one of my strong suits. Finally, finally, I broke free of them. I drove home and took a nap, before heading back to the movie theater.
Ok. So like I said that was Sunday afternoon. Early Monday morning, feeling better, my pink eye almost cleared up, I made my regular Monday morning car trip to drop off the girls at their several schools. I heard on the car radio that the police had closed off a major thoroughfare in McLean. There had been an accident. A little time after that, I heard that there had been a fatality. A pedestrian had been hit by a car. It was background noise, really, to the usual Monday morning drill.
Back home, I dressed for work, then drove to the church office. When I opened the front door, I was greeted by the church secretary. She said that Barbara, movie theater Barbara, had been hit by a car. She had been crossing the street in front of her house returning home after her morning constitutional. Barbara was the fatality I had heard about on the radio. The woman I had talked with just the day before, Barbara. The same Barbara I had been impatient with at the movie theater. That Barbara.
And all the sudden, you know you hear something like that, so unexpected, so impossible, and the air gets knocked out of you. You have to sit down. You can’t talk. When you can finally think straight, it’s in questions: “How can it be that Barbara is dead, when I just saw her yesterday? Why Barbara? And then down the line after you have exhausted all other questions, that question that has theological overtones for sure, “If Barbara, why not me?”
Those questions are apparently as old as scripture. Certainly these are questions that the friends of Job entertain, in the book of Job. These are the question that Jesus’ followers bring to him as he travels throughout Galilee teaching about God, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. They want to know why bad things happen to good people, or specifically, why some worshipers, in the midst of making sacrifices to God, were murdered by the Romans, their blood mixing with the blood of the slaughtered animals. And they want to know why some innocent people at the tower of Siloam, a defense tower in Jerusalem, near the pool of Siloam, were killed when it toppled to the ground. And, finally, they want to know, if it happened to those Galileans, is it possible for them to avoid the same seemingly nonsensical fate?
The Arabs have a saying, Insalla, which means God willing. We should all be using that phrase, Insalla, or its English equivalent, I think. It reminds us just how unpredictable our lives really are. “See you tomorrow, God Willing. We will be worshiping at Scottsville United Methodist on Tuesday, God willing. Let’s meet for coffee at Baines, tomorrow morning, God willing.” In other words, Let’s make a plan and follow through if a tower doesn’t fall on me or you, or if neither of us gets hit by a car first.
You’ve also maybe heard the phrase, “There but by the Grace of God go I.” I use that phrase myself sometimes. The phrase was coined by John Bradford. He was a Protestant English clergy person living in the 1500s. He served as a chaplain to King Edward the Sixth. The story goes, that one day John Bradford was standing roadside in London, as a group of sorry-looking men marched by, led by guards, on their way to execution. His exact words were “But for the grace of God, there goes John Bradford.” Some years later, after King Edward the Sixth died, Mary Tudor, a Roman Catholic, assumed the British throne. For his Protestant leanings, John Bradford was executed by Queen Mary, aka Bloody Mary. So apparently, by the grace of God, John Bradford was saved once, but not in the end. In the end, he was burned at the stake. I know I am clergy, and I am supposed to have some insight as to why God allowed THAT to happen, but sorry. No answers are forthcoming.
In our scripture reading for today, Jesus does not give an answer as to why God allowed those Galileans to die, either. He does suggest, though, that their death was in no way an indication of God’s vengeance. They weren’t any more deserving of what befell them, and by extrapolation, Barbara wasn’t any more deserving of what befell her, than we are of what may befall us. Well, THAT is at least a thimble-full of good news--or is it? As someone has said, Jesus giveth with one hand here, but then before we can even breathe one slow and deep sigh of relief, he taketh away with the other. “If you don’t repent, the same thing could happen to you.” What? Excuse me?
And then he is off and running, giving us a parable about a fig tree, which really, doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything. “ Ok. So what does a fig tree have to do with the price of cabbage, Jesus?”
I have been struggling mightily with this text this week. I have asked myself, “Is Jesus just being extremely vague here, or are we to blame for not being able to understand his message?”
I hate to say this, but I think the problem might actually lie with us. Sorry. We have been raised on visions of heaven and hell. We are expecting to hear Jesus say, ‘You my followers, know this: If you do all that I command you, I will reward you with successes beyond counting on earth. And, know that when you die, for sure you will have a place in heaven.” We were taught that in Sunday school and maybe at our parents’ knees. That is part of God’s message to us, right?
Well, apparently not. At least that is not what Jesus is saying here. Many theologians today —astute theologians, actually, theologians who have really dug into the Greek and Hebrew versions of the Bible, don’t buy that understanding of Christ’s message at all. We have conveniently borrowed from other faith traditions, and maybe imagined what we would LIKE Jesus to have said. Certainly the Jews, in fact, and Jesus was a Jew, did not have any kind of a concerted vision, or a doctrine or dogma concerning an afterlife.
Instead, Jesus was preoccupied with the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, which was a then current reality as it is today, but has a future quality, too. As one scholar says, “The theme throughout the Bible is that of people bringing the Kingdom to earth with a new system of justice, fairness, uncorrupted rule, and inclusion of all becoming One.”
So, back to our scripture reading, The Jews want to know why God would allow the death of innocents, but Jesus doesn’t entertain that question. Instead, he instructs them to repent. The Greek word here is Metanoia. Metanoia doesn’t mean walking on your knees up the steps of Chartres Cathedral, lying on a bed of nails, or giving up chocolate for Lent. Metanoia just means to turn from. So, in today’s passage, Jesus is saying, “Turn from your preoccupation with self preservation. Nothing you do will ultimately make a difference. You too could die tomorrow.”
And then Jesus asks them, and us, to consider a fruitless fig tree. Just as it is a fig tree’s purpose to bear fruit, it is our purpose to bring in the Kingdom of Heaven. “Don’t worry about that which you have no control over. You have your marching orders, now get busy!’ And then because he thought we might need some added incentive, he suggests that just as the owner of the fig tree will not wait forever for the tree to produce figs, God will only wait so long for us to bring about the Kingdom here on earth. How long will God wait? Well, it’s already been 2,000 years. Good thing I’m not God. For sure I would have given up on us by now. Remember, patience is not my strong suit.
So, just to reiterate: Don’t waste your time stressing over how you can avoid getting hit by a car, or having a building fall on top of you. Instead, says Jesus, focus on what you can do to alleviate pain and suffering, And I personally will hope that even small acts go some way to that end—bringing in the Kingdom-- hauling groceries at the food bank, taking a loved one to a doctor’s appointment, making a meal for someone who is sick--these immortalize us. They are the mustard seeds that grow into trees, and the small amount of leaven that when mixed with flour makes many, many loaves of bread.
Barbara’s death was sudden, yes just like the innocents in our story for today. If there is a heaven, and I continue to believe that there is. Barbara is certainly there, and those Galileans, too.. Maybe they are looking down on us right this minute—studying bald heads, and the tops of our shoes. I don’t know that for certain, though. What I AM certain of is that Barbara lives on in the lives of her children, her husband, the people she loved, and a lot of other people who benefited from her good will and generosity—including me.
No way was she a barren fig tree. And so it is, hopefully, for each of us. Amen