Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, July 18, 2018
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The Grace and Patience of God

Luke 13:1-9

 Why do bad things happen to good people?  It’s one of the most persistent questions out there.  In Jesus’ time, most people thought they knew the answer to it.  Most people believed in what is often called a “Theology of Retribution,” and some do to this day.  A theology of retribution says that if you sin, then you suffer for it.  And so if you are really suffering, if calamity comes your way, then it must be because you have really sinned in some big way.  

 We see it over and over again in Scripture.  It was the answer that Job’s friends gave to him when he suffered.  In John chapter 9, when Jesus meets the man born blind, his disciples ask him, “Whose sin was it?  His or his parents?”  

 Jesus rejected the idea.  In the immediate context of this morning’s lesson, it was about some people who came and told Jesus about the Galileans who were murdered by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor.  Jesus also mentions the 18 men who died when the Tower of Siloam collapsed.  

 We need to talk about the back story here.  The water supply for Jerusalem was the Pool of Siloam, at the southeastern corner of the city.  The spring that fed the pool was actually outside of the city wall, and that of course was a security risk.  If your city was under siege, you needed to be able to get water.  And if the water was outside the walls, not only could your enemy use it, they could even poison it to help their siege.  So King Hezekiah built a tunnel that brought the spring into the city.  

 But the pool of Siloam was inadequate for the city.  Pilate wanted to improve the city’s water supply with a new aqueduct.  He needed money for the project.  Well, the Temple had plenty of money, so he just helped himself to some of it. That did not make the Jewish population very happy.  That was sacred money.  There were protests.  And Pilate ordered his soldiers to disguise themselves as Hebrews, slip into the crowd, and on a signal, they proceeded to kill many of the protestors.  

 That was one of the events leading to his eventual removal from office.  We don’t know when exactly these Galileans were murdered.  They may have died as part of that suppression. They may have been killed later on, as a further reprisal.  Galileans had a reputation for being ornery and pugnacious.  When the revolt against Rome happened 40 years later, it actually began in Galilee and spread to Judea.  We’re also told that these Galileans were murdered while they were worshipping God, which adds a whole

new dimension to the heinous crimes of Pilate, to murder people while they were worshipping.  

 At some point during the construction of the aqueduct, there was an engineering disaster.  The Tower of Siloam collapsed, and 18 people were killed.  This added another level to the whole theology of retribution that was brought to bear on the situation. 

 Many Hebrews opposed any kind of armed, violent resistance to Rome, including the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  So they might have said that the Galileans deserved what they got for the sin of rebellion against authority.  On the other hand, the Zealots, who favored armed rebellion, might say that the 18 who died in Siloam got what they deserved for helping Rome with its project funded by money stolen from God.  

 Who was right?  Which group of people were really the sinners being paid back by God?  Jesus’ answer is none of them.  Do you really think those Galileans Pilate murdered were the worst sinners in all of Galilee?  Do you really think those people killed in the collapse were the worst sinners in all of Jerusalem?  For this theology of retribution to be correct, that would have to be the case.  They must have been the worst of the lot.  

 This theology of retribution might work in theory.  And we can certainly find cases of it being “true.”  We can point to some really nasty people who came to a nasty end.  But it just doesn’t always work out in reality.  Sometimes people who are, by our standards, good and innocent, suffer horribly.  And sometimes the worst of people enjoy long life and prosperity.  

 Now I think that we might be able to argue from Scripture that the theology of retribution has some element of truth to it.  It seems that there is a relationship between corporate sin and corporate suffering.  For example:  God warned Israel over and over again that if they did not turn from their sins, they would experience foreign domination and exile.  And eventually that happened.  And when it did, there were still righteous people in Israel, but the weight of the sins of the nation led to the downfall of the whole nation, including the righteous few.  But I don’t think we can make that argument on an individual basis.  Much of the suffering that happens in this world is simply the result of living in a fallen, broken world. 

  The truth is in verse 5:  Unless you repent, you too will perish.  Jesus is not just talking about physical death here, but spiritual death.  The Scriptures teach us that all

have sinned.  All fall short of the glory of God.  And the wages of sin is death, not just the death of the body, but the death of the spirit.  

 The real question is not, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  The real question is, “Why do good things happen to bad people?”  Because by the biblical definition of “good,” none of us are.  Usually when we say someone’s “good,” we simply mean that they’re “better than average.”  Where are all these “good people” if the Bible says we’re all sinners who deserve death.  So the real question is why do good things happen to bad people?  

 And the answer is because God is gracious and patient.  Jesus illustrates that with the parable of the fig tree.  

 Now the fig tree was sometimes used a symbol of the nation of Israel in the Old Testament.  Also, a fruitful tree was often used as a symbol of righteous or godly living.  In Jeremiah 17, the fruitful tree is used as a symbol of godly living.  And in Micah 7, God laments that Israel is an unfruitful fig tree.  

 Jesus tells how a man planted a fig tree in his garden.  Now a garden would mean good soil, a place where fruitfulness should happen.  But as he came back year after year, looking for figs, he found none.  Cut it down, he said.  It’s just taking up useful space that should be used for something more productive.  The principle, here and elsewhere in Scripture, is that uselessness, fruitlessness, is an invitation to disaster.

 But the gardener pleaded for the tree.  “Give it one more year.  I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.”  The gardener is trying to give it every possible chance.  The principle is that God is gracious and patient, and he gives us time to repent.  

 But if there are no figs next year, then we’ll cut it down.  God’s grace and patience should not be abused.  In the Old Testament, we often see the principle laid out that if there is repentance, then judgment is delayed.  Again and again, God warned of the coming exile.  Sometimes the warnings went unheeded.  But other times, they led to repentance.  

 Two of the most godly kings of ancient Israel, Hezekiah and Josiah, both reigned during the time of the nation’s decline.  In both cases, they led national revivals.  And in both cases, God said that the national repentance delayed the coming judgment.  But

also in both cases, after they were gone from the scene, the nation returned to its former ways. 

 And eventually, judgment came.  Judgment is inevitable.  It will come.  There is mercy, yes.  But there is also urgency.  The fig tree gets another year, but then the ax.  One of the scholars that I read on this passage said it this way:  “Life is uncertain, death is capricious, and judgment is inevitable.”  

 When we see calamity, instead of saying, “I wonder what they did to deserve that?”  The better thing to say to ourselves is, “That could have been me.”  There is no certainty, no security in this world.  So we had better be prepared spiritually.  

 It’s easy to point our fingers at others.  Easy to see their sins and ignore our own.  But it is always better to focus on ourselves.  What favor of God are we enjoying?  And how are we bearing fruit in response to it?  How do our lives reflect the fact that we have been saved from sin by Jesus Christ and called to a holy life?  

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