C: 3rd Sunday of Lent

Evil Is Not God’s Will

March 14, 2004

Luke 13:1-9

We do not know everything, and it is dangerous to pretend that we do. God has not revealed all things to us, and it is blasphemous for us to speak as if God did. One of the things that we as Christians know very little about is why bad things happen in our world. We cannot answer the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” We cannot even answer the question, “Why do bad things happen to bad people?” When it comes to the origin and source of evil, God has told us very little. We remain largely in the dark.

About six years ago some friends of mine on the west side experienced a terrible tragedy. Their young son of four years old contracted cancer and died. I went to the funeral home and as I was waiting in line to pay my respects, I overheard the woman standing in front of me saying to the grieving parents, “You must be strong. Because it was God’s will for your son to die.” Her words took my breath away! I wanted to scream at her, “How do you know God’s will? And what would make you think that God would ever want the death of this young, innocent child!”

The truth is, we do not know why bad things happen. Saying, “God is responsible,” is an attempt at an explanation, but it is an unfortunate one. It makes God to be a cruel and heartless god who would wish the death of the innocent. Yet, the desire to find an explanation for evil is very strong. Therefore, when evil happens you will always find people seeking to explain why a bad thing is somehow a good thing or why the people who suffer somehow deserve it.

This is what happens in today’s Gospel. Some of the people in the crowd tell Jesus that Pilate murdered some Galileans and their implication is that the Galileans were killed because they were sinners. Jesus rejects this explanation out of hand. He says, “Do you think those Galileans were greater sinners than all the other Galileans?” Jesus adds another example of evil, an accidental one. He talks about a tower that fell on eighteen people and killed them. Then he asks, “Do you think that those people who died in that way were greater sinners than all the other people in Jerusalem?” Jesus’ answer is clearly “No.” Trying to explain the origins of evil is senseless. We simply do not know.

Now this leads to another very important but subtle distinction. So listen carefully. We do believe that good can come out of evil. We do not believe that God sends evil to us. Let me say that in another way. Even in our darkest moments, Christians believe that God will find a way to bring something good out of the evil that we suffer. That, however, is different from saying that God sends evil to us so that goodness can emerge.

This puts us as Christians in an unbalanced situation. We know that when good things happen to us, they come from God. When we meet our future spouse, when we deliver a healthy baby, when we are fighting cancer and the cancer is defeated, we quickly and correctly say, “This is a blessing that comes from a God who loves us.” The scriptures tell us that all good things come from our Father in heaven. But when bad things happen to us, we do not have a similar explanation. It is wrong to say that my marriage failed because God wanted it, that my child was born with a birth defect because that was God’s will, that the treatment for my cancer did not work because it was a part of God’s plan. If we undergo a divorce and grow personally from the experience, it is appropriate to thank God for the growth. It is not appropriate to say that God ended my marriage so that I could grow. When a loved one dies of cancer, it is sometimes the case that the family pulls together and is able to express their love for each other in ways that was never possible before. It is right for that family to thank God for the honesty and intimacy which the death occasioned. It is not right to believe that God wanted our mother’s death so that we might pull together as a family. In every situation, when it comes to the reason for evil in our lives, the simple answer is we do not know. We must insist God is not the source of evil.

This truth applies even to the Paschal Mystery, the life, the death the resurrection of Jesus. One of the great services that Mel Gibson has done in making his movie, The Passion of the Christ, is that he has generated a conversation among ordinary Christians as to what is the saving power of Jesus’ death. We do believe that all of Jesus’ life; his life, his death, his resurrection, was the means of our salvation. So it is true to say that we are saved through Jesus’ suffering and death. But even as we say that, we must remember that Jesus’ suffering and death was something evil. It was wrong. It was unjust. It was cruel. Even though we call the day on which Jesus died Good Friday, we must not forget that it was primarily Bad Friday. For on that day an innocent man was cruelly, brutally and unjustly crucified. In that sense we must assert that God was not responsible for Jesus’ death. It was not God’s desire that Jesus die. Yet out of that evil death, we do believe that God drew our salvation.

So why is it so important that we consistently protect God from being the cause of evil? Two reasons. The first is that if we believe that evil is the result of God’s will, we can grow to become complacent about it. If we believe that evil is a part of God’s plan, we may grow lax in opposing it. Yet we as Christians must oppose evil at every turn. We must use our energies to attack sickness, to oppose injustice, to reject violence. We must oppose the death of the innocent with the same strenuous commitment that we would have opposed Jesus’ own death.

The second reason that we must insist that God is not the cause of evil is that such a belief distorts our picture of God and of ourselves. If God is somehow responsible for evil, then God becomes a cruel and heartless god, which is untrue. If God sends us evil, then we must be guilty or bad people which is not necessarily the case.

We do not know everything. When good things happen to us we rightly claim that they are blessings from a God who loves us. When evil things happen to us, we must admit in all humility we do not understand why. Therefore, when evil touches our lives, we should not try to explain it or pretend that we understand it. What we must do instead is entrust ourselves to God and to others for support, believing that the same God who brought our salvation out of the evil of Jesus’ death, will not allow our own sufferings to be wasted. Even as we believe that God does not send bad things to us, we continue to trust that God will walk with us and somehow bring blessings from the evil we endure.

A Job For Somebody

March 11, 2007

Luke 13:1-9

I’d like to tell you a story today about four people: Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. In the story there was a very important job which had to be done. Everybody was asked to do it. But Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Everybody knew that it was a job that Anybody could do. But in the end Nobody did it. Now this caused Somebody to become quite angry, because after all it was Everybody’s job. But Everybody kept insisting, “Anybody can do it.” And Nobody seemed to realize that Everybody would never do it. Only Somebody would.

Today’s gospel calls us to be that Somebody who acts. It calls us to do this because there is an extremely important job that needs to be done: the building of God’s Kingdom. All of us through our baptism have been called to cooperate with God in recreating the world. Now clearly, Everybody has been called, but Everybody is not going to do it. That is why Somebody has to act. Perhaps because we know that it is Everybody’s job or perhaps because we know Anybody can do it, that so little action happens.

Today’s gospel is all about that lack of action. We are compared to barren fig trees, trees that produce no fruit. God is that patient gardener who keeps fertilizing, and cultivating, and hoping that Someone would act to build God’s Kingdom. Now the actions that build God’s Kingdom are actions that Anybody can do, but Somebody needs to do them.

This is the third Sunday of Lent. We are about halfway through the Lenten season. How many of us can identify in our lives, over the last three weeks, some actions that have helped to build God’s Kingdom? Are they there or do we find that it’s pretty much business as usual (with maybe a little less chocolate and alcohol)? The challenge then that I give to each of you here today is this: identify one action, one action which you can do that will build God’s Kingdom. Choose one action which will move the world a bit closer to unity, to peace, to justice. It might be picking up the phone to call a relative from whom you are estranged and simply letting that person know that the door is still open to reconciliation. It might be taking a few moments to educate yourself on current political or social issues that have a bearing upon the welfare our country or of the world. It might be giving a bit of your time or energy to some group that is working against poverty or violence. It might be speaking up to someone in authority who is abusing their power and insisting you will not cooperate. It might be reaching out to someone in your neighborhood who is in need—a person who you have thought for some time could use some help, but so far you have never acted to help.

Now is the time for action. Now is the time to do at least one thing to produce fruit, so that there might be at least one fig on the branch of the tree which was previously barren. Any action we do builds God’s Kingdom. I know that it’s Everybody’s job, and I know that Anybody can do it. But Somebody has to do it. That Somebody is you.

Patience, Patience

March 7, 2010

Luke 13: 1-9

Last Monday evening we celebrated the sacrament of Penance for the first time with the children of our parish who are preparing for Confirmation and First Communion. The children were ready. They were a little nervous but they came forward and confessed their sins as they saw them. It was an effective celebration, especially since many of the parents of the children also chose to receive the sacrament of penance. Many of them had not done so in a while. What struck me hearing the parents’ confession was that almost all the parents confessed the same sin. Now I am not going to tell you what any individual confessed. But I can tell you that the vast majority of parents confessed the sin of impatience. They confessed that they were impatient with their children, with their spouse, with their parents and that impatience often led to anger which led to words that should not have been said. Those words led to regret. They confessed their genuine sorrow over being the people they did not want to be.

So all this week I have been thinking about patience. And today’s Gospel provides a wonderful connection to that virtue. Because in the Gospel we see that God is patient. In the parable the gardener represents God. Even though the fig tree is not producing fruit, the gardener does not give up. The gardener patiently provides another chance, digging around the root, fertilizing the plant, hoping that next year it will become productive.

God is always patient with us. It is perhaps for that reason that it is so disturbing to us when we are impatient. So what can we say, what can we do to become more patient people? I’m going to offer you one comment and one practical suggestion. The comment is this: I believe that impatience is connected to love. We are often most impatient with the people we love, with the people who are closest to us. I think we are impatient because we love them. When strangers annoy us, we walk away. We do not stay. We write them off and move on. But when people who are close to us annoy us, we become impatient. We become impatient because we want them to be different. We want to love them more easily. We want them to make better decisions. When they do not make those decisions or act in those ways, we become impatient. But do not kid yourself. We become impatient not because we are mean or because we do not care. We become impatient precisely because we do care, because we do in fact love the people around us.

So impatience is connected to love. How then can we be more patient? Here’s my practical suggestion. Take a step back. When you see that you are becoming impatient, stop yourself and take a look around. Often times we are so impatient because we want one thing, we want a specific thing to happen. “How often have I told you to pick up your socks?”  “Why can’t you take out the garbage without me telling you?” “Why is it when we argue, you can never admit that you are wrong and say that you are sorry?”   We want something very specific and when the people in our lives do not correspond to our wishes, we become impatient. If we could take a step back we might be able to place the things that we think are so important into the bigger picture. And when we place them into a larger context, they might not seem so important. Will we be thinking about our son’s socks on his wedding day? Will we still be fuming about our wife’s refusal to admit she’s that sorry as we wait for the outcome of her heart operation? You see, if you we can place these specific things that we want into the bigger picture, what we find in the bigger picture is love. Love reminds us what people are really worth to us. In that larger picture it is easier to be patient.

And nothing helps us to step back more effectively than laughter. See if you can find something humorous in a situation where you are on the verge of being impatient. Is there anything comical about the fact that I am about to become a mad woman because someone left up the toilet seat? Is there anything laughable about the situation that I am about to double my blood pressure because my daughter has again not done her homework? If we can see how ridiculous we can be, if we can recognize the excessive seriousness that we give to small matters, then we can take a step back, we can see the love, we can see what is important. Then it is easier to be patient.

So that’s my comment and my practical suggestion. Have I now provided you with foolproof way to avoid impatience forever? Hardly. But here is the good news. God is always patient. Even when we are not, even when we get stuck on specific details and lose it, God is still patient with us. If we can remember that, if we can remember how patient God is with us, then maybe we can find the way to be patient with ourselves.

Not Enough Time

March 3, 2013

Luke 13:1-9

The fig tree in today’s gospel is given one year before it will be cut down. How much time do we have? Now I am not insinuating that we will die within the next year, although that is always a possibility. I ask this question to emphasize that none of us has enough time. Our time is limited by the responsibilities we bear, by the resources that are available to us, by the finite nature of life itself. So we can be relatively sure that whenever the end of our life comes, we will say to ourselves, “I did not have enough time to do everything that I wanted to do.” Therefore, when I ask the question, “How much time do we have?” I’m not asking, how much time do we have to do everything. I’m asking how much time do we have to do what is really important.

The challenge is to do the things that really matter. This is complicated by the fact that there are many, many good things that we could do. The fig tree is the perfect example of this. The fig tree was not dormant or dead. It was alive and growing. It was taking in water from the soil and sunshine from the sky. It was putting down roots. It was producing leaves. But it was not doing the thing that was most important to the orchard owner. It was not producing figs.

Now most of us know rather well the difference between important things and things that are not important. We know that having healthy relationships with our family and friends are more important that our personal success or comfort. We know that helping someone in need, making someone’s life better, is more important than watching television or surfing the internet. Yet, although we know these things, we often end up filling our days with things that are less important. How do we explain this? Let me offer two reasons: routine and fear.

When we live our life based only on routine, when we give ourselves over to auto-pilot, we can be doing many things. But there is no guarantee that we are doing what is best. Much like the fig tree, we can be putting out leaves, we can be putting down roots, but we could be missing the thing for which we were made. Living a life of routine is non-reflective, because we never stop and ask ourselves the question, “What really counts?” We never stop to ask, “Is there something that I need to do? And do I need to do it today?”

We can also be frustrated by fear. We know that there are things that need to be done: an attempt to reconcile ourselves with our family or a friend, the necessity of taking on an important project, the responsibility to say to someone that you love them. But we are afraid. Afraid that our attempts at healing will not work, that the project will not succeed, that the love we offer will not be accepted. Because we are afraid, we hold back, we postpone, and we fill our lives with lesser things.

The good news is that our faith can help us with both routine and fear. When we believe in God’s presence we can turn to God in prayer. We can take time and ask God to show us what is really important and then use the authority of God’s response to break the pattern of routine that distracts us. When we remember God’s love, we can overcome fear because we can know that whatever we need to face, whatever challenge lies ahead of us, we will not face that challenge alone.

There is never enough time to do everything. That is why we must use the time that we have to do what is most important. So ask God today to show you what really matters and then use God’s response to break the pattern of routine that can stifle you. Turn to God today and ask for God’s help. Use your faith in God’s presence to grow in courage and to dispel the fear that can paralyze you.

In other words, do not end up a barren fig tree. Take steps today to produce fruit!

Common Sense or Hope

February 28, 2016

Luke 13:1-9

Insanity has been defined as taking an approach to something that has never worked in the past and trying it again. Insanity is doing again what has never been successful. The master in today’s parable is trying to avoid this pitfall. For three years he has been looking for figs on his fig tree, and he has not found any. Trying for a fourth year would be crazy. The time is up. He wants to cut the fig tree down. His gardener, however, has a different perspective. He believes that the fig tree should stand for another year. He will fertilize it and cultivate its roots (things that I am sure that have been tried before) in the hope that it will produce figs in the future. It is clear that the master and the gardener disagree over the fig tree. The master speaks from the perspective of common sense. The gardener speaks from the perspective of hope.

Who is right, the master or the gardener? It is important to note that the parable does not tell us. It does not relate what happened. Did the gardener win the disagreement, and fertilize the fig tree for another year? And, if so, did it produce figs? Or, was the master unconvinced by the gardener’s argument and had the tree cut down? We are not told. We are only given the conversation between the two characters. And this might well be because it is the conversation that is the very point. Decisions are not easy. When the decision has to be made about an unproductive fig tree, it is important to listen to a differing opinion before the decision is made. And, if decisions about fig trees are difficult, it is even more of a challenge to make decisions about our lives.

We all have in our lives relationships and situations that are unproductive. Perhaps there is someone in our family that is struggling with addiction. We have tried an intervention. There have been treatments, and yet the person keeps returning to the abuse of alcohol and drugs. Do we try yet again, or do we decide it is time to stop? We might have a dream of achieving something in our lives. We invest time and resources, but nothing works. Do we decide to continue to invest time and money, or do we conclude it is time to set the dream aside? We might be in a relationship that continues to hurt us because of insensitivity or perhaps even because of abuse. We confront the issues. We forgive the offenses, but the hurt continues. Do we decide to continue in the hope the person will change, or do we choose to walk away?

When we have to make these life decisions, it is crucial that we speak to someone who can challenge our usual inclinations. If we are a person who makes decisions quickly and strongly, we are inclined to cut our losses in an unproductive relationship and move on. It is then that we should have a gardener, someone who asks us to consider that there still may be hope, and that perhaps with some more time and effort we can all share figs together. On the other hand, if we are a person who keeps trying no matter what, who keeps pushing forward despite our failure and even despite abuse, then we need a master who might speak to us out of common sense. He or she may tell us it is time to cut the tree down.

Of course, in all of these situations we have to make our own decisions, and there is no guarantee that the decisions we make will be the right ones. But, today’s parable tells us that if we want our decisions to be the best ones, we should speak to those who think differently from us. This is no small matter because it is our calling to discern God’s will for us. The parable of the fig tree tells us that we are more likely to find God’s will when we speak and listen to one another.

There Is Still Time

March 24, 2019

Luke 13:1-9

We still have time. But the time we have is limited. This seems to be the gist of the parable that Jesus offers to us in today’s gospel. A man has a fig tree that did not bear fruit for three years. So he tells his gardener to cut it down. But the gardener argues to let it stand for one more year. If it does not produce figs then, he will get rid of it. The tree still has time to bear figs, but its time is limited. Of course, the parable is not about fig trees. It is about us. We, like the fig tree, have good things that we were made to produce. But we do not have all the time we want to make them a reality.

If you are a parent of young children, you have probably thought that you should spend more quality time with them. Perhaps you might take some time off work or plan a day-trip just to be together. Do it now. You still have time, but by the time they become teenagers your children will have less desire to spend time with the family. Perhaps you have identified a person in your life who was instrumental in your formation: a teacher, a coach, a friend. You may have tought that you should contact that person and thank them for what they have contributed to your life. Do it soon. You still have time, but that person will not be around forever. Perhaps there is someone in your life with whom you know you must make peace. Every time you think of the person you realize that the division between you should be healed. Reach out today. The longer you wait the more likely it is that the hurt will turn into a scar that can never be removed.

What are the good things in our life that we know we should do, and in fact intend to do, but have not done yet? Today’s gospel invites us to do them soon. It also promises us that when we do choose to act, we will not act alone. In the parable there is a gardener who promises to cultivate the soil around the fig tree and fertilize it so that it can bear fruit. Jesus is the gardener in our lives, always working to cultivate and fertilize the opportunities around us so that we can be productive. Therefore, when we do decide to act, to do what we know we should do, we should have confidence that Jesus will be there to guide us and support us. We all know the good things that we should do. We’ve even thought of doing them. In fact, it is difficult to understand why we have not done them already. Today’s gospel invites us to do them today. We still have time, but we do not have forever.

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