Lent 3 • 28 Feb 2016

Isaiah 55:1-9
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

Rev. Chris Udy

What would it be like
for us to live in a just world?

What if every murderer, abuser,
thief and liar, bully and thug
instantly received their penalty for wrongdoing?
What if corrupt officials,
megalomaniac politicians,
media spinners and scam artists
could all be exposed
for who and what they are,
and we could make decisions based on fact?
What if the roads were free
of intimidating trucks and ear-splitting bikes,
if our schools and hospitals
were entirely staffed
with competent and compassionate professionals,
and our cities and homes were designed and built
for beauty and safety - not profit?
What if everything was perfect,
and every sin was brought to light and punished?

There might be some
who’d want to live in a world like that.
There might be some
who’d welcome its safety and order.
There might even be some who think
that they
belong in a place
where every rule is rigidly applied
and only good, nice people are allowed.

But most of us know we don’t belong
in a world where everyone’s perfect.
We have ... little flaws -
minor character failings.
We sometimes - rarely, but sometimes,
make mistakes.
We get tired and anxious,
frightened and sad.
Some days we just can’t get it right.
Some people rub us up the wrong way,
and in some situations
although we put up a good front,
we know we’re simply out of our depth.
Every now and again we break the speed limit.
Every now and again we tell a lie.
Every now and again
we look at and think about other people,
not as much loved children of God,
but as obstacles, or enemies,
or objects of desire.

Most of us would like to live
in a just and peaceful world -
but we also want that world
to be patient with our mistakes,
to be tolerant of our foibles,
and to appreciate our unique charm
and quirky spirit.
Most of us also know
that the world
is neither as safe as we sometimes want
nor as forgiving as we sometimes need.
So we’re caught in imperfection -
this is an unfinished creation.
We live in a kind of building site:
some parts seem secure and safe,
ready for habitation -
other parts are hazardous and messy.

There’s a building site also
in our gospel reading today.
The history is not exactly clear,
but Josephus, who was a Jewish writer
born just after Jesus was executed,
records a story that might provide some background.
He says that Pilate -
the Roman Governor of Jerusalem -
wanted to bring fresh water to the city.
That was an a good idea.
Jerusalem was short of water,
so the aqueduct was a useful and necessary project.
But to fund the building work,
Pilate raided the Temple treasury.
Josephus says he did it with ‘sacred money’, (Ant. 18.60)
and that wasn’t a good idea.
Many Jewish people -
Josephus says many ten thousands -
gathered in a noisy demonstration,
demanding that Pilate abandon his new project -
but Pilate sent out soldiers,
disguised in the clothing of ordinary people,
but with daggers and clubs
hidden under their robes.
Pilate came out to address the demonstration,
but when the crowd wouldn’t disperse
he gave a signal, and the soldiers attacked.
Josephus says they equally punished
both demonstrators and innocent passers-by,
and when the fighting was finished,
many people had been killed.

Luke says people once told Jesus
about some Galileans
“whose blood Pilate had mingled
with their sacrifices”.
Jesus then mentioned 18 who died
“when the tower of Siloam fell on them”.
No-one can be sure,
but it may be Pilate’s project
and his savage response to criticism
is the background story.
The aqueduct Pilate built
delivered water to the pool of Siloam.
It flowed in a channel built on a series of towers,
and maybe one of the towers
collapsed while under construction -
killing the team who were working there at the time.
We don’t know exactly what happened,
but certainly those who told the story to Jesus
thought that those who’d been killed -
both those involved in the riotous demonstration
and those who’d received tainted money
to work on the aqueduct -
were seen as having somehow deserved their death.
Those who came to Jesus
thought those who died had been punished by God.
This was instant justice, divinely ordered,
and they wanted Jesus to comment
on what had happened.

This wasn’t a new idea.
It had deep roots,
not only in traditional culture,
but also in Torah - in the Law.
The book of Deuteronomy
is based around the notion
that, one way or another,
the wrong that everyone does in life
returns to them in judgement.
It’s the Hebrew version of karma -
but Deuteronomy is even more harsh and threatening.
Deuteronomy argues
that God will not - cannot - leave sin unpunished,
so if someone does something wrong
and dies before God can deliver retribution,
Deuteronomy says the punishment
will be visited on the children.

David’s story is the classic demonstration.
David was an immensely popular king.
He was the shepherd boy made good,
and he was charismatic and handsome.
He was a poet, a musician,
successful both at war and in trade,
anointed king by Samuel,
acting under direct instruction from God
even while the previous king - king Saul -
was still alive.
But David strayed.
He saw his neighbour’s wife
and he desired and seduced her -
and when she was found pregnant,
he had her husband sent to the front lines
to be killed in battle.

Deuteronomy’s story then unfolds
as a series of divine punishments.
David is tainted,
so he cannot build the Temple -
but the harshest punishments
are reserved for his children.
The child he conceived with Bathsheba
dies as a tiny baby.
Absolom, his favourite son,
rebels against his father,
drives him from Jerusalem
and publicly shames him
by sleeping with his fathers’ concubines -
so David’s adultery returns to haunt him.
Finally Absalom is killed in battle -
against David’s orders,
and in a way that echoes
the death of Bathsheba’s husband.

Jewish people had been trained
and were used to looking for connections
between a sin committed
and punishment from God -
and that was harsh enough,
but then they went even further.
They decided that even if you didn’t know,
or couldn’t see the connection
between someone getting sick,
or having an accident,
or being killed in a riot,
or having a tower fall on you -
even if you couldn’t see the connection
between that suffering and some sin -
it must still be there.
If you couldn’t see a connection clearly -
such as taking money stolen from the temple
and having the tower you’re working on
fall on you -
if you couldn’t see it clearly,
then it must have been
your mother or father who sinned.
You probably remember
the story that John tells
of a man born blind -
so punished even before he was born.
When they saw the man,
Jesus’ disciples, passing by, said -
“Rabbi, who sinned?
This man or his parents,
that he was born blind?”
Jesus’ response was - neither.
“It was not that this man sinned,
or his parents,” Jesus said,
“but that the works of God
might be made manifest in him”.
Jesus then put clay on the blind man’s eyes,
and told him to go and wash -
interestingly in the pool of Siloam -
so the man was healed, and he could see.

So when the crowd told Jesus
about those who’d been killed by Pilate,
Jesus replied
“Do you think that because these Galileans
suffered in this way
they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?
No, I tell you;
but unless you repent,
you will all perish as they did.
Or those eighteen who were killed
when the tower of Siloam fell on them--
do you think that they were worse offenders
than all the others living in Jerusalem?
No, I tell you;
but unless you repent,
you will all perish just as they did."

For Jesus the arguments of Deuteronomy
simply will not work.
Suffering is not a punishment from God.
People who do wrong -
people just like us -
often get away with doing wrong.
And people who do right -
good and loving and thoughtful people -
very often innocently suffer.
Illnesses and accidents and natural disasters
aren’t in any way directed by God -
and even though we’re more likely to get sick
if we don’t treat our bodies well;
and we’re more likely to have an accident
if we’re careless,
the idea that God sends suffering as punishment
is both sad and lazy thinking.
Even more,
to think that God would punish children
for something their parents did wrong
is simply monstrous -
it’s a travesty of justice.
God is like Jesus.
God wants to heal, and to save,
and to free all his children -
and every grief and pain his children feel
God also shares.

So what does Jesus mean, then,
when he says
“but unless you also repent,
you will all perish as they did.”
Jesus certainly doesn’t support
the moral theory of Deuteronomy.
God does not send suffering as punishment.
But that doesn’t mean our actions
don’t have consequences.
If we neglect our bodies,
exploit our relationships
ignore our communities
and abuse God’s creation,
somewhere, someone will pay.
Almost everything in creation is elastic.
There’s a margin of error -
the air, the land and the sea
are very forgiving -
as are most of those we love
and those who live around us -
but when we disturb life’s balance
and do nothing to heal and renew it
we put everything - even life itself -
in danger.
It may not be us,
and it may not be our children,
but someone, somewhere,
carries the cost of grace.
God doesn’t send us punishment,
but what we do has real effects,
and although we may debate what the future holds,
no-one questions the plain truth
that too many vital links
and connections in our lives
are already stretching to the limit.
Our bodies are not healthy.
Our relationships need care.
Our communities are fragile
and the earth itself -
the land, the air and the water
are stressed and polluted.

We live in a time of grace.
We’re like the fig tree in the parable Jesus told.
We’ve been watered, fed and pruned,
cared for and nurtured.
We’ve been planted and we’re intended to bear fruit.
We need to make our contribution
to creation’s health and order
and beauty and balance.
There is no limit to God’s grace
and the love of God is forever,
but we now know there is a limit
to what creation can do to sustain us.
And when that limit is reached
our time is over. Amen.