Third Sunday of Lent
Jesus keeps repeating a message of God’s nearness that opens the way to make a more humane world for all. The gospel is engaging us to find a spark of humanity within ourselves and others especially wherever there is despair and pain. Today, we are brought up against the fathomless problem of evil expressed in gender inequality, the invasion of Ukraine, the silence about Yemen, Syria and Palestine. We can be lost for words when tragedy strikes us – or near us. As words fall short, we are left in the immediate moment with silence, touch, and the reassurance of presence.
Ordinarily we might say pat things about God and about suffering and evil in general, but when these touch us we must fall silent. All we have is the word that expresses God and humanity: Jesus, the Word made flesh. The responses of many of the victims and those around them can lead to an awareness of new opportunities to see anew, be new, be merciful and go beyond attitudes that build divisive walls rather than embracing bridges in our lives. We are challenged again with our image of God and how God acts in our lives.
In the 1960’s, a popular book in the seminary by J.B. Phillips (Your God is Too Small) challenged conventional views about God and straightjacketed traditional religion. In the 1950’s, Phillip’s concern was our God was not big enough for modern needs. Our ideas have remained largely static though our experiences of life had developed in different ways and our horizons expanded by world events and scientific discoveries. Jesus was always trying to shift from their narrow ideas about God. In Luke today, people question Jesus about God’s justice following the killings of people in the temple by the Roman occupiers and people killed with a tower collapsed. The conclusion in both cases was that those who died were being punished. The main point was that God sees to reward the good and punish the evil ones. We easily bump into tragedy and bad news. There is a long list from Myanmar, West Papua, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan and now Ukraine. There are shootings and killings of innocent children in hospitals, mosques, churches, synagogues, schools, and streets. We ask ‘Why?’ or, ‘Why God?’ Why those innocent people?
There is a blame game that continues in some cultures, in our churches and society. If someone suffers the must have done something wrong and deserve what they get. From positions of privilege, we explain that poverty and illness result from poor individual decisions. We assume that sickness and death are demarcation lines between the bad and the good. We do it to others and to ourselves. We rush to explanations rather than being present with a heart that cracks open with tears. The late German theologian, Dorothee Soelle (Suffering) calls this “theological sadism.” We know from the past how women were burnt as witches. Homosexual people were blamed for HIV/AIDS. People being immoral was the cause of Covid-19. The 911 attacks in the USA and Hurricane Katrina were punishment for support of same-sex marriage and homosexuality This is a sadistic theology that isolates God from those who suffer as God is shown to be tossing down misery on some and not on others. Our task is to understand and be present with others in their suffering rather than seeing tragedy as punishment or God’s judgement. This thinking continues to trap us. We believe that good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people. Theological sadism or malpractice occurs when we stand on raw arrogance to sweep away pain or when the pain of others is too difficult to hold. Perhaps this occurs because sitting with pain is something we have fled from whilst creating bulwarks around death. This view was propagated during the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Tragedy is much easier to accept when someone can be blamed.
The core theme of mercy is highlighted in the readings when God calls Moses to save the people who cry out for liberation. God does not fit neatly into human systems and theologies but comes to free people. God’s intervention is to be the measure of their call where they are to extend mercy to others. They need to remember God’s action on their behalf needs to be extended to others who, like them are enslaved, subjugated, and abused refugees. I think of Palestine today!! The connections God reminds us of are often forgotten when prejudice and hate is fed with the amnesia and suspicion of strangers. Such attitudes and feelings diminish the generosity and kindness in good people who cannot find ways to make room for others at the table of life.
So, Jesus upends the old belief where blessing equates righteousness and suffering with wickedness. No, things happen in this world. Jesus calls us to repentance for believing that God sends violence, tragedy and death upon sinner; for making God into a monster who causes illness and for believing that God repays violence for sin. Jesus call is to turn from violence and exploitation. We cannot get caught up in the violence of judgementalism often directed towards marginalised people: the poor, women, indigenous people, people of colour, people of other faiths, gay people, and people living with HIV/AIDS.
God, unlike us, is not about getting even. This is the God who weeps for suffering people. This God washes feet and loves enemies and dies out of love for us. God is not like the vineyard owner. Some of us can be like the fig tree, dismissed by others as fruitless, hopeless, lifeless – but the gardener sees possibility where others see impossibility. The gardener has chosen to bring us to blossom. We cannot view this story through the lens of the vineyard owner who represents the wisdom of the world that measures value in people by their goodness, their ability to follow the rules, do what they are supposed to do, the profit they make and things they produce. We hear this in business, politics and in churches where competency and success are valued. Weeping for and standing with vulnerable people is a weakness and for bleeding hearts!! There is no value for lament. If something is broken, it should be fixed and someone blamed. The world’s wisdom demands that such a vulnerable tree be uprooted and burnt.
For God, our value does not depend on whether we measure up to others’ expectations. This is the God who gets down with us, in the dirt, in smelly and places of our lives. This God cares enough to get dirty. So in the midst of suffering or tragedy, Jesus says, we should not seek to blame the victims of violence, hunger, poverty, grief and suffering and certainly not as God’s punishment.
In last week’s gospel of the transfiguration, we were invited to see the world and ourselves in a new way and see that new ways of acting are possible. Today’s readings also give us the opportunity again to turn toward a new way of seeing, thinking, and living. As we still try to make sense of what happens in so many other parts of the world, may our pain and grief and good will for the victims also extend to our sisters and brothers that we daily rub shoulders with. As the bearer of peace, Jesus’ calls us to give up contributing to a culture of violence, retribution, judgementalism and scapegoating rather than giving up ‘things’ for Lent.
The message of the Incarnation is that God came to us because we are loved, not because we are good; that we find God where there is suffering; that God is found not in the heavens but in the dirt, sinfulness, and messiness on the earth. The real gifts of God are mercy, compassion, hospitality, and time to continue to grow and remove any obstacles between ourselves and between ourselves and God. May our eucharistic tables be filled with strangers becoming brothers and sisters, enemies becoming friends, diversity revealing the deep unity of our shared human experience and desire for the one God. This is the joy of the Gospel.
God of Grace and Mercy,
in a world that blames and judges those who suffer,
we long for a different way.
Help us turn toward you,
that we might find ways to embody for ourselves and others
your spirit of compassion and grace.
In every circumstance of our lives,
we thirst for your peace that passes understanding.
Draw near to us now, and fill our longing.
Out in Scripture