Worse Than These

Third Sunday in Lent  |  Luke 13:1-9

Worse Than These

When I was young my father told me the story of a lady who grew up not far from where he did. She was what the people of their time called simple, though there is nothing simple about living with mental and developmental challenges. As a girl she loved school, and she loved riding the bus. Measured by her test scores, she was perhaps the worst student in the school, maybe in the county. Measured by her devotion and her enthusiasm, she was the finest pupil they had.

Long past the years when she was eligible to attend, she would get up and ready herself, and she would go and stand beside the dirt road along which her family lived, along which my father’s family lived, and she would wait for the bus. And for a time, they let her ride to the school and let her sit in the classes she loved, until modernity caught up with them all. One morning the bus no longer stopped for her, was not allowed to stop for her, and she was left crying, in shambles, as she watched it go.

Stopping her going was the right thing to do, by all the rules, but that did not make it any less wrong.

Photo by Granny
Photo by Granny

There is a sort of religious thinking, I would not grant it the title of theology, that says when something is wrong or simply different about us, when we are sick, when we have financial setbacks, when our children are somehow not like the majority of other children (as though being in the majority were something to be sought after,) that it is our fault. We hear that we are not right with God, that we should repent, that it is God’s just judgment.

Take my father’s neighbor, the girl who loved school. Given her challenges, just getting up and getting dressed, meeting a schedule and following her routine were magnificent achievements. Her plain joy in simply going to school was a blessing to everyone who saw it.

Of course, some people looked askance and thought that her existence was the judgment of God. Had her parents been better Christians, such thinking goes, their daughter would not have been born so.

Oh, it is not the sort of thing such people usually say straight out. They imply, suggesting that with prayer and commitment, most of all with repentance, God may yet heal, or change, or lift a burden.

Never mind the implication that a child is a burden. Let’s save that one for another day.

Let’s look at the idea that such challenges are the judgment of God. The idea is a corollary of simplistic notions of original sin: someone, not us, did something wrong, and so God, painting with a broad brush, judges us all. It is the flip side of the prosperity gospel: good health, possessions and wealth are the blessings of God upon the faithful. Anyone can understand the attraction of the concept. It makes it easy to explain why bad things happen—they deserved it, didn’t they? And it flatters those who have health and wealth—see how God rewards the faithful?

There are a lot of very good arguments against such thinking. Most are expressed in subtle ways by eloquent theologians.

I have two arguments. Neither is subtle.

First, anyone who believes that disease, or any other such thing, is God’s doing should go to the children’s ward of a hospital, stand at of the bedside of a child, any child, and try to pinpoint the particular sin that resulted in that child’s condition. It doesn’t work, and in the end such thoughts make God into a monster, the sort of tyrannical being nobody could or should endure. Frankly, people who think that way should be worried that they might convince God to go along with them, and then where would they be?

Second, Jesus didn’t think so. In the passage from Luke’s Gospel, he asks whether the victims of Pilate’s oppression, or those killed by a disaster, were worse people than those who had lived, unscathed. We don’t know the particulars of either incident, but it doesn’t matter. Jesus was making a point. He was talking about the same fallacy, that bad things only happen to bad people. Anyone paying attention to business and politics knows better.

“Did you think they suffered because they were worse sinners?” asks Jesus.

Then he tells a story about a fig tree that doesn’t fig. Three years of watching it, not a single fig, so the man tells his gardener to chop it down. (Never mind the implied wealth of the household, with an owner and a gardener and all of that. Think of it as a metaphor, or even an allegory—three years of Jesus teaching, God watching our response, and that sort of thing.) The fig wasn’t an ornamental plant. It was there to do something, but it didn’t. The gardener, being patient and fond of the plant, suggested adding manure and giving the thing one more year of opportunity.

It’s a word of warning and of grace. Warning, clearly, because the gardener—we may read into the story what we like for this role, a gardener, time, death, karma, God—may decide we aren’t worth keeping. We use up matter, take up space, consume and produce energy. Something in the universe is measuring return on investment.

It’s a word of grace because there is more time to make our existence worthwhile. I’m not talking about the future, since that is always a little dodgy. I mean the present. We get today to be a decent human, today to produce something decent, to be caring. Putting off giving a fig is a dangerous business.

One more season. One more year. That might be what we have—one more year, a season, a decade, one more day in the garden to give a fig. And the stuff that life dumps on us? We may find a way to use it, even if we don’t care for the way it smells at the time.