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Crime and Punishment

As she came into church I asked, “How are you?” She said, “Oh, not so good. My arthritis is kicking up. I just found out my driver’s license is expired. My checking account doesn’t balance. And I’m having a bad hair day.” I looked at her and said, “Well, you just must not be living right.” We both laughed. We both really didn’t think that God gives people bad hair days for not living right.

But there was a time when people thought that way. Throughout much of the Old Testament and some of the New you can find examples of an outlook on life which held that bad thing are results of God’s punishment and good things are results of God’s rewards. This, evidently, was what was on the minds of some who asked Jesus about two bad things which had happened in their area.

First, there was the tragic and brutal slaughter of some worshipers up around the Sea of Galilee. Pilate had killed them and then had taken their blood and mixed it in with the sacrifice offerings they were making to God. Pilate was a tyrant who had no use for religious people and no use for locals. These people were both. They were asking Jesus, “Why did these bad things happen to these people? Had they sinned? Was God punishing them?”

What about in our day? What about the 50 Muslims who were murdered last week in New Zealand? Was God punishing them? Sadly, there are some who may think so. After Hurricane Katrina Pat Robertson told his 700 Club that it had been God punishing New Orleans for the sin of homosexuality. In his second inaugural, Abraham Lincoln implied that the Civil War had been God’s way of punishing the nation for the original sin of slavery. So, what is the relationship between bad things and suffering? Does God cause the bad things to happen?

Well, when Jesus was asked about the Galileans killed by Pilate and the 18 people killed by the falling tower he asked them, “Do you think these people were worse sinners than anybody else?” And his answer was “no.” Were they better than anybody else? No. They were the same as everybody else.

So, it wasn’t divine punishment for sin. I think this is an important point for us to take home. When bad things come our way, God is not punishing us for sin. If God punished for sin in the Old Testament, then he died for it in the New Testament. We are New Testament Christians.

So, those in Galilee and Siloam weren’t being punished for sin, but it didn’t mean that there was no sin. Although Jesus relieved their minds about punishment, he laid upon them hard the need for repentance. Were those that were killed being punished? “No,” Jesus said, “but I tell you, unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

There are a couple of ways we can understand this. First: When bad things happn to us, God’s not punishing us, but it can mean that we are living in harmful ways. For instance, heavy smokers may die of lung cancer. They didn’t die from God’s judgment. They died because they smoked. Those who drive over the speed limit and weave in and out of traffic statistically may accidents. But not because of God’s judgment. Because they drive recklessly. Human behavior can have human consequences.

But there’s a whole ‘nother way we can understand sin … not so much as the badness of our behavior, but as the distance from God. Someone has said that we look at sins like stakes pounded into the ground. The tall ones represent the really bad things we do. The short ones represent the little teeny ones. But we are looking at things from ground level – human level. God is looking at thing from above. God is looking down He is not seeing the relative height of each of the stakes. He can only see the top of each one. All that God is concerned with is that there are stakes in the ground.

Therefore, it is not a matter of it raining on the just and the unjust. We are all unjust and it happens to rain frequently. It is not a matter of the sun coming up on both saints and sinners. We are all sinners and the sun comes up regularly. Jesus says, “Quit trying to make some homegrown theological connection between cause and effect – and began working on your own life.”

Bad things may not be punishment, but they are wake up calls. Your diagnosis of high blood pressure may not be judgment, but it is a wake up call that you need to be eating properly. God did not cause the car accident which took the life of your friend. But that accident was a wake up call that life is precious and short.

No, Jesus didn’t want to focus on punishment or judgment, but he did want to focus on repentance. So he told a story. A wonderful story. A parable about the man whose fig tree just wouldn’t produce fruit. Oh, he was unhappy. Downright mad about this unproductive fig tree. So he ordered his gardener to cut it down. But the gardener pleaded “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and pout manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

Parables can mean different things at different times to different people. Let me tell you what I think it means for me right now: God gets frustrated with our sinfulness but ultimately will give us another chance. But we do not face second chances alone. We need people like the gardener in this parable to help us grow right, to help us live the kind of lives God would have us live.

At a synodical youth activity once, the facilitator brought in a big tub of clay and asked each of the high school youth to take a piece and shape it into a symbol that represented the relationship that person had with his or her parents. At the end, one of the teens had made a heart to show that she loved her parents. Another had formed a flower to symbolize how his relationship was growing. But another fashioned a casket, saying that her relationship with her parents was dead. And a young fellow had formed a garbage can and commented that his relationship with his parents was in the trash.

When they had finished the activity, the facilitator asked everyone to put the clay back into the tub. Then they were instructed to mix all the clay back together and divvy it up among themselves again. This time they were asked to sculpt something which represented how they wished or hoped their relationship with their parents could be. As they worked told them, “Isn’t that a great thing about clay? If we don’t like what’s been made, it can always be reworked and made better”. Then he read that part of Genesis which speaks of God taking a cake of mud and making a human being out of it. He talked about how God gives second chances. He concluded his hands-on sermon by saying, “Even if we think the situations that we’re in are trashed or dead, in God’s hands there’s always the possibility for something new and better.”

Lent is a time for us to confess our own harmful behavior and to ask God for another chance. When we make such confessions we do so with the assurance that God is neither angry or punitive. Rather, God gives us another chance, And another. And another. Furthermore, God would have us do the same with others. She would like for us to be like that gardener, preparing the ground, watering the soil, giving second chances, and helping others grow and flourish in God’s kingdom.

Text: Luke 13:1-9

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