Whilst in London last week for the funeral of an elderly friend, Al and I visited another long-time friend who is now in a nursing home. We were both shocked by how we found him. Lying at an awkward angle in a railed bed, disheveled, his spectacles held together with tape, and offering only monosyllabic responses to our questions, we were not sure if he even recognized us, though it was difficult to tell. On saying goodbye, we both struggled to make sense of our upset at the decline in our friend by reminding ourselves that, after all, he had always had a strong tendency to accommodate himself to every new aspect of decline. In other words, we had long felt that our friend had always had an unhealthy desire to embrace invalidity. This perception helped us to an extent because it enabled us to see our friend as in part responsible for his decline. If he had planned better for his future, if he had resisted harder the gradual process of aging, he might not have ended up in the very pathetic state in which we now found him.
We are all haunted by an anxiety that finds its fullest expression in there but for the grace of God, go I. As wise sayings go, I guess it’s not a bad one. It protects us from a reality that we want to hide from. This reality is that all of us, most of the time, feel helpless in the face of the flow of events that may visit upon us some form of calamity or other.
The idea that it is only by God’s grace that we are spared from calamity underscores our helplessness in the face of the randomness of chance events. But we also use the idea of God’s grace to imply the very opposite. Used in this way it becomes an individualized protection, implying that the disasters which befall others will not knock on our door, because we have the special protection of God’s grace. Unfortunately, religion when seen in this light offers a very poor insurance policy.
The invidious connection that links great calamity with individual responsibility is as old as human thought is long. You will remember that in the story of the man born blind in John’s Gospel, the disciples ask Jesus: who sinned – this man or his parents that he was born blind? Jesus rebukes them, telling them that neither sinned. Illness is not the result of sin. Thus, Jesus breaks the intuitive connection between sin punishment, between adversity and personal responsibility.
Nevertheless, as my opening vignette shows, we continue to connect adverse circumstances with personal responsibility – well they’ve only got themselves to blame. In this way we insulate ourselves not simply from the pain and suffering of others, but from the existential anxiety that – there but for the grace of God, because we know their misfortune could easily be ours.
In the gospel passage from Luke 13 Jesus refers to two calamitous events that had recently taken place. Pilate had executed a group of Galileans, who had come up to Jerusalem to make sacrifice in the Temple. Why he had killed them, we don’t know. But to cause maximum offense he not only killed them but mixed their blood with the blood of their sacrifices; a major desecration for any Jew. Jesus asks his listeners: do you think they suffered this fate because they were worse sinners than other supplicants? He answers, no they were not.
Of another recent calamity where many people were crushed when the tower of Siloam collapsed, he asks a similar question. Do you think they were worse offenders than anyone else living in Jerusalem?
Such questions still ring in our ears today. For the Galileans slaughtered by Herod in the Temple, substitute worshipers gunned down in two Christchurch mosques. For the victims crushed beneath the tower, substitute the inhabitants of Midwest states devastated by unprecedented flood waters.
As in Jesus’ time, we continue to struggle with the why question, and we like to pretend for peace of mind’s sake that we know the answer, suggesting that in some way victims of untimely and unforeseen calamity have in some sense brought it on themselves. If Muslims didn’t look so different and had only blended in more, or better still just stayed in their own countries, then this would not have happened. Or, the floods are God’s punishment on people who need to give up their denial of the science of climate change. Of course, the Pulse nightclub shootings in Florida were God’s punishment on the club’s LGBT patrons. Of course, the devastating fires in California were the result of poor forest management. We could go on, and on.
In the face of the why question Jesus explains that sin makes no distinction between one person and another, calamity is not personal, it’s random. He asks -were the victims crushed when the tower fell worse sinners than others in Jerusalem? No, he exclaims, they were not, and unless you repent you will all perish as these unfortunate others have done.
Just when we think things are clear, Jesus muddies the water. What does he mean by repent? Can he really mean that if we repent we will be spared, if we don’t we won’t? Is this not a direct contradiction of what he had just been saying that calamity is random and not personal? Are we back to the idea that calamity is in some way connected to a lack of repentance? In other words it’s our fault?
Which brings us to the story about the fig tree; a horticultural lesson on repentance. This is a story about fruitfulness. Fruitfulness provides the context in which Jesus invites us to reflect on the need to repent. The story of the fig tree highlights two important lessons. The first is that fruitfulness needs nurturing or fertilizing. The second is fruitfulness may take time to emerge.
The Greek word used by Luke for repent is Metanoia, which implies more than saying sorry. In its fullest meaning metanoia implies becoming transformed into a completely different way of seeing the world. Repentance is not something we do, and action we undertake, it’s an openness to change – a heart and mind 180-degree transformation. Repentance is the equivalent of digging manure around the tree’s roots in the hope of coaxing forth the fruit; the fruit of a changed heart and renewed mind. In short, repentance is a complete makeover. But patient work and waiting is required.
Jesus words about the need for repentance now become understood as – unless you change your whole way of thinking, you will die as they did. The emphasis here is not on whether we are lucky enough to escape a sudden and unprepared death – death being code for a host of calamities that may overtake us. Jesus’ question is – in what moral and spiritual state will we be in when calamity strikes?
Shit happens, as we say. It’s not our place to explain away the chance occurrences of natural disasters, random acts of violence, the rapid and unforeseen onset of illness, and the slow and steady breakdown of the body. To repent, is to face up to the source of our existential anxiety – namely our helplessness in the face of chance events. It’s not whether we can control our fears or not, but how we live in the face of them. Repentance is to pay attention to what we are doing regardless of the risk of calamity’s strike.
To repent is to be changed. To be changed is a process of reordering our priorities.
We can’t predict which building may fall down and upon whom it may fall, but we can ensure strict building codes are followed and severe penalties are imposed when breached.
We may not be able to stop natural disasters occurring, but we can vote wisely in support of political solutions to reverse policies that deny the science of climate change and severely punish those who in pursuit of profit endanger our common environmental home.
We may not be able to make wars cease and stem the flow of mass migration, but we can support international aid programs that build economic infrastructure in places where people are forced to leave because there is none. We can welcome the stranger who of necessity flees for life and liberty to our shore where both are ensured as a basic human right.
To face the challenges of the present we need to have dealt with the ghosts of the past. We may not be able to predict when the terrorist may strike, but like the government and people of New Zealand have just demonstrated, we can face down hatred and the violence it spawns. We can reaffirm our commitment to be an inclusive and welcoming community. See my fuller comments on this here.
We may not be able to cure our friends and loved ones when disabling illness strikes, but despite our own fears of there but for the grace of God go I, we can be there for each another; in other words we may not be able to work miracles but maybe the power of our loving presence is in some sense, enough?
To repent means to stop running from our fragility and vulnerability in the face of the flow of events we can neither understand nor control.
Towers fall. Tyrants slaughter (Luke 13).
Stopping such events is an important human activity. But until we end pointless death, we have other work to do. The prophet Micah made it clear: Do justice; love kindness and walk humbly with God. Those would be good things to be doing when the tower lands on you.Richard Swanson
Because it will – somewhere, sometime!