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.

A Subtle Shift

Memory is a tricky thing. Long after an event, we are left with our memories of it. Tree Book TreeMore to the point, we are left with our memories of the details, what people did or did not do, what certain people said or perhaps left unsaid. The past is gone, but our understanding of it is very much alive, growing, changing.

The same is true of stories. That is what memories are, in a way, a collage of imprinted and recorded actions, words and feelings that have been formed into a narrative in our minds, our story. Though we think the past has happened, in our minds it is still happening. The past never stops changing.

Take one of the most famous of stories, Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. It may be no one knows just how old the story is. The final written form, so far as the scriptural version is concerned, was recorded centuries ago, all the bits jotted down. Yet, it keeps changing.

Ask anyone familiar with the story, and that includes many people who think that they really are not, and each person will tell you a slightly different version. Among those who are familiar with the story, you will hear something more fascinating: they will add something to it.

Take the serpent, who in later retelling becomes the devil. It isn’t the devil in the original story. It is just a wily serpent, a wild animal, more crafty than any other, but an animal, one who talks. We shouldn’t be surprised that the serpent talks. After all, a little later in the story, God is walking like a human being would walk in the garden.

The point is that there is a subtle shift between what we actually read and what we say is in the story, just as there is a subtle shift in our memories between what happened and what we remember. What we remember is not what happened. That may be for the better. We may remember difficult events in the past through the filter of forgiveness, or simply with more perspective, and without even knowing that we are doing it. That shift may be a blessing, sometimes a very great one.

The same kind of subtle shift in the stories that form us can likewise be a blessing, bringing more meaning and substance to our understandings. The shift can also be a curse, undermining our ability to hear what the stories are really telling us.

Eve and Adam reached a point when they ate the forbidden fruit. No actual apples are mentioned, not really, and nobody in the garden says anything about sin, original or otherwise. They reached a point when they gained self awareness and a sense of moral conscience. Interestingly, in our own lives we call that moment maturity, not the Fall.

Likewise, there may be something older and simpler even in the written form of the story itself, something before the shift, so to speak. God tells the woman that she shall have children, though it will also bring pain. God tells Adam that he shall work, and that it will be difficult, but that his work will feed him and his family. Later, all three things, awareness of our mortality and childbirth and work, begin to be called consequences and curses by theologians.

I suggest we might consider a slightly different shift, one that may be more helpful in our lives. Just as the human race at large, an eon ago, gained a sense of mortality and of morality and of self awareness, each of us as individuals go through the same process. Once we embrace our own mortality and step out of the garden of our youth, we find two things that will sustain us and that will remain after us: our children and our work. Neither is a curse. Our understanding and appreciation of each flows from our maturity. Neither our children nor our work depend upon sin, original or otherwise. Neither are consequences of our flaws; instead, each is a means to reach beyond our flaws and our limitations.

Our family and our work, that is what we have. We may also want to allow another subtle shift: our family may be more than our biological relatives, and our work is more than our job. We have the people near us, and we have the work we do around, among and sometimes despite them. Whether these things are blessings or curses will depend on our point of view, our memories, and all our subtle shifts.