I know a lot of you were having discussions about theodicy this past week so I wanted to talk about that. What?! Theo-di-what? You know. The question of the justice of God! Whenever we say or think, “That’s not fair” and we point our finger at God, we are dealing with theodicy. In what ways is God in control and making things happen on earth? When is God allowing us to exercise our freedom, even if that leads us to sin?
So the lectionary leads us to a passage today that was only vaguely familiar to me. That’s both the strength and the challenge of preaching from the lectionary. It puts before me Biblical texts that I would not otherwise choose or maybe even remember. So then I have to do some studying and praying to better understand what message emerges from that text for us. So here goes!
In Luke’s gospel Jesus has been teaching mobs of people. Some people come to Him and bring up a recent news item that had the Jews talking. Pilate, the Governor of Judaea, had murdered some folks from Jesus’ home region, the same area where He was teaching. Pilate had taken some of the blood of the slaughtered victims and mixed it with the sacrifices the Jews had made in their synagogue. This was an abomination to their faith. A horrific act of cruelty, Jesus brought God into the conversation. In Jesus’ day—and still in our culture, to some extent—the Jews believed that when something bad happened to someone, it was because they deserved it. They had sinned so God punished them. Jesus scratches beneath the surface of this atrocity and challenged them: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” The assumed answer would have been, “Yes!” But Jesus answers His own question: “No, I tell you…”
Jesus then brings up another story that must have had their villages all abuzz. A tower had collapsed unexpectedly and 18 hapless bystanders were killed by the falling stone. Again, did they do something to deserve this, Jesus asked? Same answer: “No, I tell you…” Jesus was challenging the theology of His day that affirmed that anything wrong in your life is because of our sin. They believed that this was God meting out justice whether we understand it or not.
But, if you paid attention to the lesson, you know that Jesus doesn’t leave it at that. Jesus doesn’t simply exonerate God from orchestrating state-sanctioned terror or random accidents. He takes advantage of their momentary interest to remind them about their own responsibility as people of faith. Both times, in response to His rhetorical questions, His full answer is: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Uh oh. So their detached interest in the terrible demise of fellow citizens boomerangs right back to them. Jesus reminds them that the life of a disciple is comprised of daily repentance and renewal. In other words, “You are subject to judgment right now by your own choices so don’t just focus on them as if you’re in the clear!”
Just to hit home His radical point, Jesus does what He does best when teaching throngs of people: He tells a parable. A farmer sees a fig tree in his orchard that has not produced any fruit in spite of the fact that it is three years old. He tells the gardener to cut it down. It’s taking up precious space where a more productive tree could be growing. But the gardener begs the land owner to let him work with the tree for just one more year with fertilizer and fresh soil. Then, if it doesn’t produce by the next growing season, they would give up on it. Time’s wasting. We are expected to produce fruit as Christ-followers. God is patient—to a point. But ultimately time is up and we will have missed the opportunity to grow in faith and service that God placed before us. If we focus on us and not on God, we will spiritually perish. Just like those killed in a freakish collapsing of a building, the unrepentant will suddenly find that they have delayed too long and lost their mooring.
On our Lenten bus ride today, through C.S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, we meet an artist who has arrived on the outskirts of heaven. He is talking with one of the Solid Spirits who have been in heaven. The artist is stunned by the beauty of his surroundings, so dramatically different from the gray town where he has been living. We learn that he was a painter of great repute in his earthly life so, naturally, when he sees the majesty of heaven, he wants to get out his paintbrushes. The Solid Spirit who has been sent to meet him from heaven was also an artist in his earthly life. He understands the impulse to capture beauty in art. But he tells the newly arrived artist that there is no need to paint in heaven. When in the presence of God’s glory, all things point to their Creator. Our privilege is simply to look. The artist isn’t sure he wants to stay if he can’t use his talent.
The Solid Spirit challenges him: the artist’s first love when he began his career was light, the glimpses of heaven he wanted to capture on a canvas. But he had strayed from that initial love that pointed him toward God. The Solid Spirit states, “Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him. For it doesn’t stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower—become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.” The Solid Spirit goes on to tell him that he might not even meet some of the greats like Monet and Cezanne in heaven because everyone held equal status as a beloved child of God. In the end the young artist doesn’t choose to stay in heaven since there’s no chance for him to advance his career by painting or networking with other famous painters. He would rather be in the gray town where he might be able to stand out and enhance his own fame.
That’s another passenger on the bus who takes a round trip rather than letting go of their ego needs to stay in God’s eternal glory. The passion for painting that began with an adoration of God’s creation had become, over time, hollow artistry that devolved into personal fame and fortune.
Too bad. But for God’s grace, we all are tripped up by our own sin. We stay in a hell of our own making unless we repent. God’s grace abounds and reminds us that we have never deserved God’s love, even when we thought we were living an admirable life. The sooner we acknowledge that we—like everyone else—have sinned, the sooner we can fall into God’s good grace. It is that simple!
Paul echoes this lesson in his letter to the believers in Corinth. He reminds them of their ancestors whom God liberated from slavery in Egypt. God provided for their needs at every stop in the desert but they grumbled and doubted. We might look in on them and say, “How could they forget God when they had witnessed the Red Sea being stopped up and water coming out of a rock and manna being provided as food each day? Who would forget that?!”
Paul says that their selfishness serves as a lesson to us so that we might not fall into the same trap of missing God’s glory while pursuing our own passions. Like Jesus’ difficult lesson to his students, Paul tells these early Christians to beware as soon as they think they are standing firm. Just like everyone else, they are subject to temptation and can easily stray. But, Paul continues, God will always provide a way out of each tempting moment. They must be willing to leave behind their own skill set and rely on Christ. Only then can we endure hardship with faith.
Sometimes I feel like I am an advocate for God. People who have seldom thanked God for the many blessings in their lives are quick to blame God for their hardships. Each week we experience trials. Some are of our own making. Some seemingly come out of nowhere, like the tumbling tower in Jesus’ day. We look in on natural disasters, deadly car crashes, political maneuvering, financial stress, relationship infidelity and question God’s compassion. As Christians we are theologians and one area of our reflection must be on theodicy: the question of the justice of God. There will always be things that seem to be unfair. If you don’t believe that, ask parents of children ages 3-18. They’ll have a whole list of things are not fair from their young offspring! We will always have questions that cannot be answered on this side of heaven. But God always gives us a chance to embrace grace by acknowledging our own sin. Rather than cling to hollow forms of our own artistry, whatever form that takes, we set aside concern for our own reputation and watch for the glimmers of heaven that inspire us here.
It really is that simple!