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"Who to Blame When Bad Things Happen?"

Feb.28/16 Luke 13:1-9


"Why ME?!!" It's happened to all of us - we're going along in our life's adventure, all innocently enough, and suddenly the wheels seem to come off the proverbial wagon. Our vehicle hits a stretch of black ice and all at once we're over in the wrong lane. The optometrist announces we have cataracts. The doctor wants to take a closer look at an unusual spot on our back. Whatever it is, we find ourselves throwing an impromptu pity-party and protesting, "Why me? What did I ever do to deserve this?!" And we feel ourselves very hard done by.

Recently my sister-in-law was repainting their bathroom after they replaced the tub and floor tiles. Falling from the ladder, she broke her shoulder. It all happens so fast. Bring on the sling and physiotherapy.

Theologians identify generally two categories of evil: moral evil and natural evil. "Moral evil" involves some kind of free moral agent, whose choice is fairly obviously a contributing factor, and so blame can be more easily assigned. Lk13:1 gives an example of "moral evil". "Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices." We don't know anything else about this incident from other historical sources: whether these particular Gentiles had rebelled, or just happened to become victims of Pilate's wrath as a consequence of others' rebellion. But at least here there is clearly a free moral agent (Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea) deciding to inflict death on people who did not seem to deserve it - and at a most inappropriate place, as they were worshipping at the temple in Jerusalem. We do know from other sources that this was NOT out of character for Pilate. That's "moral evil".

The more difficult type of evil is "natural evil": here there is no obvious free moral agent involved. Consider the example Jesus offers in Lk 13:4 - "those 18 who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them." Perhaps they were working on an aqueduct in the southeast corner of Jerusalem; again, we don't know the details. Building collapses happen all the time. On Feb.10 a 17-floor apartment building collapsed when an earthquake struck Tainan, Taiwan, killing about 116 people. Three former executives of the company that built the collapsed building were arrested on charges of professional negligence; but who's to blame for the earthquake? Did it take God by surprise?

Christians profess to believe in an omnipotent, loving God, so we will always have to wrestle with the problem of suffering and evil. Perhaps like me you were taught the mealtime grace: "God is great, God is good, and we thank Him for our food." Those two terms - "great" and "good" - summarize much of the dilemma. If God is great, then He's ABLE to prevent evil from occurring; if God is good, He would not WISH for evil to occur; yet, evil is evident around us. What gives?

As philosopher David Hume put it: "Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing: whence then is evil?"


What was motivating those who told Jesus about the Galileans Pilate murdered as they were offering sacrifices at the Temple? What kind of response might they have been hoping for? What would you have expected Jane or Joe Q Public to say in a typical person-on-the-street interview? "There's that disgusting Roman occupation government for you!" Or the more general, "Isn't that awful! Such innocent bystanders slaughtered outright!" But Jesus doesn't fall into our conventional, automatic-rut ways of responding. Instead He questions our typical ways of thinking and categorizing such events.

V2 "Jesus answered, 'Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?'" Again in V4 about those on whom the tower collapsed - "Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?" Our minds aren't typically comfortable with mystery, with the unexplained. We tend to quickly analyze things and assign it a box, so we can deal with it and move on to something else. We pretty quickly (and often prejudicially) assign blame or responsibility, even when we don't know all the details. "Probably another case of Pilate blowing his stack." 'They should have known better than to visit Jerusalem when things were so tense; they were asking for trouble." "They must have been linked to some terrorist group." "Their number must have been up." "They must have done something in their past to deserve such a violent end."

Jesus challenges our automatic ways of thinking. "Do you think...? Do you think...?" Then 2 times emphatically, "I tell you, NO!" Don't jump to conclusions! Get out of your default automatic blame-assigning mental mode.

We have this tendency to sort of assume a "behave and be blessed" mentality; that people can "earn the right" to felicity and happiness. If I keep my nose clean and behave, "God owes me"! We feel entitled to good fortune if we behave.

The corollary to that is - if someone's suffering, they must have really messed up! When Job loses all his possessions and children and is covered in painful sores from head to toe, what explanation do his friends come up with to try to justify what's happened? Job 4:7 "Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed?" Read between the lines, Job - if you're REALLY been innocent and upright, this COULDN'T have happened! Or, Job 22:9f "And you sent widows away empty-handed and broke the strength of the fatherless.That is why snares are all around you, why sudden peril terrifies you..."

That may sound like nice and tidy airtight theology - God blesses the righteous, all the time, everywhere, and so if you're suffering you MUST have blown it - but Jesus pops the balloon of our perfect human mental schemes. John 9:1-3 "As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" [LET'S PLAY PIN THE BLAME ON THE DONKEY!] "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life."

We don't know the whole picture. We shouldn't jump to conclusions about who's responsible or to blame for certain circumstances happening. We do know God made us to be responsible moral agents, with power to make inferior choices through which sin winds up having negative outcomes. But we can't ALWAYS project that overlay upon a scenario without knowing the details.

Jesus rattles our very assumptions, that we start from a good enough position as to be "entitled" to God's blessing conditional upon our performance. Prophets did not tend to paint a very rosy picture of the human heart. From Adam and Eve on down, we are infected with a selfish bent that predisposes us to bad decisions and inclinations. Jer 17:9 "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.Who can understand it?" The Apostle Paul put it bluntly in Romans 2:5, "But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed." WHOA! And in Rom 9:20f Paul reminds us we are in no position to be passing judgment on or blaming God for things we don't understand: "But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?'" Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?"


Into the conversation trying to process "when bad things happen" to people, Jesus injects a parable, a word-picture intended to introduce some light or perspective from God's Kingdom. Lk 13:6-9 "A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any.Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?' 'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it.If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'"

We know that the fig tree may refer to the Jewish nation; in Mark 11(14) Jesus pronounces judgment on a barren fig tree that seems to represent the hostile attitude of the religious leaders toward Him. But in a broader sense, the fruitless fig tree in the parable represents our unreceptive, proud, self-exalting human mindset toward our Creator - that "stubbornness" and "unrepentant heart" Paul warns is storing up wrath against us. The landowner has been coming 3 years straight looking for fruit on the tree (presumably 3 years AFTER it came to fruit-bearing age). Would he be justified in cutting it down now? Of course.

This challenges our coddled post-boomer sense of entitlement. Does God owe us our existence? Do we have any RIGHT to feel He has to justify His actions to us? No. Rom 3:23 "All have sinned, and fall short of God's glory..." Rom 6:23 "The wages of sin is death..." You want to know what we're "entitled" to? What God "owes" us, what our "wages" are? As sinners, He owes us DEATH! He's already given us 3 years too long. We're using up the soil; a waste of good air.

But right here we meet One who intercedes for us. The gardener answers: "Sir, give it one more chance.Leave it another year, and I'll give it special attention and plenty of fertilizer." (NLT) Who is this "gardener", this "man who took care of the vineyard"? Who intercedes for His people? Romans 8:34 "Christ Jesus, who died-- more than that, who was raised to life-- is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us." "Father, give Ernest one more chance.I know he blew it again, but I'll dig around his roots and apply my love and grace, and give him some more time to bloom." When we mess up, when we have sinned due to hardness of heart or rebellious roots, Jesus buys us time!

So this is where we live, and exist - in GRACE-time. We have no "claim" on God as if we've earned the right to 1 more day alive. But Jesus at the cross has purchased for us an eternity of grace, of forgiveness, of patience, of fertilizing with the riches of the Holy Spirit, of soaking in His love until our hardened roots and hearts finally take in His nourishment and become fruitful.


When we play the game of "Pin the Blame on the Donkey", we subtly are justifying ourselves, trying to make ourselves look good, to show that we're better than the guilty party. Jesus challenges that mindset, that selfish protectiveness. Vv2-5 "Do you think...? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish... Do you think...? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."

Jesus surprises those who may have expected Him to blame Pilate the governor, or the unwitting Galileans, or anybody other than themselves. In effect He's warning, "You need to change! To 'metanoia', do an about-turn in your thought patterns! REPENT or you'll be destroyed!" Allow your unfruitful roots to be dug around, loosened up, fertilized, renewed. Put on the thinking-cap of God's Word rather than common assumptions.

What was the message of the apostles after Pentecost in Acts 3:19? "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord..." Paul reminded the church at Corinth, 2Cor 6:2 "For he says, "In the time of my favour I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you." I tell you, now is the time of God's favour, now is the day of salvation." Before the tower collapses! Or the black ice hits. Or those strangers come to look at the truck you have for sale.


Closely associated with "repentance" in the New Testament is the whole idea of "bearing fruit". John the Baptist warned the crowds in Matthew 3:10, "The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." Jesus echoes this in His seminal Sermon on the Mount, Mt 7:19 - "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." Nearer the end of His ministry He tells His disciples, John 15:16 "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit-- fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name."

As people look at your life, do they see what Christ would call "fruit"? Or are you more like the barren fig tree in the parable? Are you discipling others, reproducing yourself spiritually? Are you drinking in God's Word daily so you can pour into others, sharing God's truth and promises and guidance? Are you hanging out with anyone to hear their struggles, share your encouragement, and pray with them?

Joni Eareckson Tada has learned how to bear fruit despite being dealt what many people would consider "a bad hand". She suffered a spinal cord injury in a diving accident in her teens which left her a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. She is now in her fourth decade of paralysis. Yet her disability has become a platform God has used to touch thousands of lives around the world, through her singing, her radio broadcasts, her writing, and her ministry, Joni and Friends. She is one of the people on the face of the planet I'd consider 'most qualified' to talk about this area of making sense of suffering, dealing with the quesion of "Why me?"

In chapter 4 of her book A Place of Healing, she identifies 5 possible benefits of suffering.

Benefit #1) Suffering can turn us from a Dangerous Direction

Benefit #2) Suffering reminds us where our True Strength lies

Benefit #3) Suffering restores a Lost Beauty in Christ

Benefit #4) Suffering can Heighten our Thirst for Christ

Benefit #5) Suffering can Increase our Fruitfulness

I'd just like to end today with a couple of quotes from this amazing woman of God who has suffered so much over the years; is suffering afresh now due to pain in her lower back due to a tiny fracture at the base of her spine. She speaks with real authority on the subject of suffering, after all she's been through, and all she's seen by interacting with others with disabilities through her ministry. She compares the effect of suffering to that of how sandblasting restored the beauty of the Notre Dame Cathedral.

"I can't help but consider the way God uses suffering to sandblast you and me. There's nothing like real hardships to strip off the veneer in which you and I so carefully cloak ourselves. Heartache and physical pain reach below the superficial, surface places of our lives, stripping away years of accumulated indifference and neglect. When pain and problems press us up against a holy God, suffering can't help but strip away years of dirt. Affliction has a way of jackhammering our character, shaking us up and loosening our grip on everything we hold tightly. But the beauty of being stripped down to the basics, sandblasted until we reach a place where we feel empty and helpless, is that God can fill us up with Himself. When pride and pettiness have been removed, God can fill us with 'Christ in you, the hope of glory.'"

Kind of like the way the Gardener "digs around the roots" loosening up the fig tree to fertilize it, don't you think?

Also you may have noticed Benefit 5 was that "Suffering can Increase our Fruitfulness". She writes: "You may not have a debilitating disease...but you do know--all of us do--what it means to be outwardly wasting away day by day. Perhaps you find yourself in your late fifties now, and the changes are encroaching; your limitations--the aches and pains--are catching you by surprise. Well, these are all little wake-up calls, as far as I'm concerned. Little alarm clocks, little waving yellow flags, small signals that remind us that as we are wasting away, we can go to God in our weakness to be renewed and made stronger day by day."

Don't those little 'waving yellow flags' sound like little reminders to "REPENT! Turn back to God for refreshing"?

I like how she acknowledges that, while God may heal, sometimes the place He's most glorified is in other arrangements that might not be our preferred choice. Joni writes: "As I have stated, at times of His choosing, God certainly does intervene and heal. But it's also true that even though multitudes of devoted, good-hearted Christians pray in great faith, many eyes will stay blind. Many babies will die at birth. Many cancers will not be eradicated until that once-and-forever healing of a new body and a new life in Christ's presence. And many paraplegics and quadriplegics like me will never regain the use of legs or arms or hands that don't work.

"God also cared for James, but James was run through with Herod's sword because of his testimony. God cared for John, but allowed him to be exiled and left isolated on a lonely island. He cared for Stephen, from the first stones that struck the young man's earnest, unmarred face to the last one that sent him out of his broken body. He cared for Paul's companion Trophimus, whom the apostle had to leave behind sick in Ephesus--though he was desperately needed for ministry.

"And what is His will? That you and I be in the best position, the best place, the timeliest circumstance in which God can be glorified the most. For me, that place just happens to be a wheelchair. That happens to be my place of healing."

Let's pray.