Lent III, Year C
1 Cor 10:1-13
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you. Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
(1 Corinthians 10:1-13)
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play." We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "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." Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’"
Some years ago, Rabbi Kuschner asked the question: Why do bad things happen to good people? M. Scott Peck rephrased the question (The People of the Lie) and pointed out that the question was not why is there evil in the world, but rather why is there good? These are the questions frequently raised in the Psalms and Job. These are the questions behind the question posed to Jesus in the text today. In short, they are typical theodicy questions.
Modern Christianity has had a difficult time with the question of the presence of evil in a world they confess was created by God. Theories abound but all share a singular presupposition: God is mimetically doubled. God is the one in whom justice struggles with mercy, retribution with love, honor with forgiveness, (matter with spirit). While Christians want to assert that God is loving, forgiving and merciful, the inherent dualism of their presuppositions also demands a yang for a yin, so that while God may be loving, God is also above us, mysterious, eternal and whose punishments are just. We need to believe this otherwise we would experience anarchy (or so we fear).
This view that God punishes only those who merit punishment is the perspective of religion, the myth created in the mechanism of victimage. It is this view that Jesus exposes as ludicrous and at the same time says that if such is your view of God, you had better be repenting, like right now. No time to waste if this is God. And if we would make haste to repent before a judge we fear, how can we not hasten to change before Pure Benevolence?
Jesus’ question “Do you think…?” invites his hearers to make the (il)logical connection: bad things happen to bad people. If people did not deserve the fate that befell them bad things would not have happened. This is just another way announcing the myth of religion, the lie. Jesus’ reply to their anticipated theological thinking is clear and unequivocal: ‘No way is that the way to think.’ And all of this conversation and riposte is done in the explicit context of the sacrificial process, “Pontius Pilate had mingled the blood of some Galileans with their sacrifices.” It is impossible to miss what is going on here from the perspective of mimetic theory. It is the radical undermining of traditional sacrificial thinking and the challenge to rise up and seize the opportunity for change. The God of the Gospel is all about second chances, starting over, beginning anew. Life’s circumstances are never an indicator of one’s relation to God. Jesus does not accept the fatalism of many of his contemporaries.
Mimetic theory offers the most cogent explanation for the development of traditional Christian explanations of the problem of theodicy. Through the lens of mimetic theory we are able to understand that negatively the ‘bad things’ such as accidents, assaults, murders, etc., are the result of living in civilized mimetically conceived culture. Positively we can assert that as Creator, Agent and Spirit, God is consistently benevolent and that ‘nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
Until we are willing to acknowledge that we associate ‘bad things’ with ‘God’s punishment’ we will not be able to see that the connection we have made in our thinking is illogical and unfounded. And like the people in the text, we shall also remain astounded and stupefied by Jesus’ vision of God.
Some more notes from “Luke’s Use of Matthew.”
Luke has made clear throughout his Travel Narrative that Jesus is journeying toward Jerusalem. Foreshadowing allusions to Jesus’ suffering and death are common in Lk. Luke included these two exemplary stories here to prepare his readers for Jesus’ own death in Jerusalem (Lk 19:28ff.) as a righteous (Lk 23:47; Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14) Galilean visitor. Jerusalem should not be construed as a sign of God’s judgment for sin. Jesus dies a righteous man (Lk 23:47). Compare Paul’s apparent struggle with some who would interpret Jesus’ death as God’s curse in Gal 3 and contrast Mt 27:54 where Jesus’ death elicits the affirmation from the Centurion, not that Jesus was “righteous,” but rather that Jesus was “Son of God” (an affirmation that Luke also makes, but elsewhere). An explicit threat to Jesus’ life combined with the affirmation that prophets die in Jerusalem will soon be made at Lk 13:31-35.
The attachment of a narrative account to a parable (Lk 13:5-6f.) appears elsewhere in Lk where Luke seems to be utilizing nonMatthean traditions.
Why is it that we want to believe that bad things happen (at least mostly) to bad people?
I think there are a lot of reasons for it, but I’d like to focus on two that come to mind.
1) Good old-fashioned narcissism. As young children always assume blame for their parents’ divorces, we persist in assuming responsibility for the things that happen to us because we haven’t given up our childhood need to be in control of our world. Kids assume the blame for the evil that befalls them because (I know I’m over-simplifying, but this is essentially true.) it is easier for them to cope with this false blame than to deal with a world that’s chaotic enough to have these terrifying things happen for no apparent reason. “Better to assume the blame, to be in ‘control’ of these bad things, however unpleasant, than to admit my world is so dangerous…”
Most of us don’t really give up this attitude as we grow older. (I know it’s hard for me!) And so we persist in thinking that, “since we’re somehow responsible for the disasters that befall us, so must those other people be equally responsible.”
This is a pretty common misunderstanding among adults, and one that really needs only to be made conscious to take a lot of the power out of it. But this won’t end our desire to blame others for their misfortunes. (or ourselves, either!)
2) There’s another reason. This one is more dangerous. This is the human version of the tendency in the animal kingdom for the flock or herd to turn on the weaker member, the one who is somehow “different” and drive it out, or kill it.
Misfortune sets us apart, differentiates us from others, making us vulnerable to scapegoating. The “blaming” is just the next step in the scapegoating process. The misfortune marks us as likely victims, and the blaming begins.
“Judge not, that you be not judged.” This is just as applicable in this instance as it is in the case where “guilt” can be more easily assessed. (Susan Sontag has written about the shaming that was initially a result of getting cancer, and how, in the years after, that shaming moved from cancer victims to AIDS victims.) In both instances, it leads to death, not only of the victim, but for us. We bind ourselves to the victimage mechanism, and the only place this mechanism can lead us is to death.
“All things work together for good to them that love God and are called according to His purpose.” This may seem cold when we consider it in juxtaposition with the victims of the Tower of Siloam. Trouble is, if we don’t manage to say it about even events like that, then we have to account for the evil that befell them. If we can avoid “judging” the “goodness” or “badness of” this, (this is not to say we should not feel compassion for them and their families, only to reserve “judgment” of the event as we would of the victims) we can begin to find our way to a place where real “peace” can reign.