By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel
MAY THE WORDS OF MY MOUTH
AND THE MEDITATIONS OF MY HEART
BE ACCEPTABLE IN YOUR SIGHT,
O LORD, MY ROCK AND MY REDEEMER, AMEN.
If today is your birthday, your horoscope reads: “Creative endeavors are starred for you in the year ahead as you find new, more profitable outlets for your varied skills and talents. Contact with those in foreign places are especially rewarding as long as you do not invest in foreign firms. Others should be investing time and money in yours!”
So, if this is to be a good year or a bad year, three star or four star or no star day, it is because of the stars. Whose fault is it that bad things happen? The alignment of the planets. Your whole life may be ruined – you were so destined, fated, because you were born under an unlucky star. As we memorized in our senior year English class in high school, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.” Shakespeare disagrees with the star theory of blame. The bard opines that the fault does not lie in the heavens at all. He puts the blame for our troubles in ourselves.
But are we to blame when something bad happens? The whole topic of free will is open to argument. It is almost like the perennial question of nature and nurture. We may be what we are because of heredity. We are likely to look as we do because of our genes, tall or short, slim or stout, athletic or clumsy, quick-witted or slower, we bear the imprint of all our ancestors. The human genome project has mapped out all human genes and is now pinpointing various diseases and disabilities. We may be on the verge of wiping out some hereditary diseases and weaknesses by gene therapy – we may even be able to create athletic and intellectual superbeings. In the meantime we hear about human cloning; we read about companies that sell the seed of Nobel Prize winners to produce smart babies.
Yet we are still not sure it is all heredity – the cause of our problems. Nurture may play a great role in what we become. Isn’t that why parents play Mozart to infants? Our homes and communities can provide support of the opposite. Injustice and social disharmony, racism and sexism and economic disparities are often blamed on our environment. The problems of the nation are blamed on working mothers, underprivileged communities, poor schools, and we have spent billions and billions of dollars hoping to eradicate poverty and disadvantaged environments.
And that gets us down to our parents. Whether it was their bad genes or the bad environment, it must be their fault. I read a letter to Dear Abbey from a wife whose husband, at age 41, started taking clarinet lessons. She wrote to the advice columnist because her in-laws were refusing to pay for those lessons and they should, she thought. After all, they were to blame for depriving him of clarinet lessons as a child.
Blame the stars, blame the schools, blame the government, blame the folks – even blame oneself. We do it and we keep on doing it. We ask the same question, “Whose fault is it, anyway?” We recognize that there is something amiss – something wrong in our country and community, schools and workplaces, churches and homes. There is something very wrong with our health, our emotions, our spirituality. It comes down simply to there being something very wrong with us. We are not as we should be. It is what the Bible calls sin. We have fallen short of God’s intention. That is what the Bible says but it may beg the question, “Whose sin?”
Jesus does not give us a clear answer or perhaps he does and we are dissatisfied with it. Jesus is questioned by some people about a terrible crime committed against some Galileans by Pilate’s forces. The movie, The Passion of the Christ, made Pilate seem indecisive, conflicted, diffident. He was, in reality a strong ruler and often cruel. And again, what about the those eighteen workers at the Tower of Siloam who were killed when the tower fell? Whose fault was it? Were they any worse than other Galileans? Than other workers in Jerusalem? Why did these bad things happen to good people? Why?
The natural answer, the normal one at the time – and for many people even now – was that these people were somehow to blame. They had sinned or erred in some way so that it was their own fault. The Jewish leaders often taught that righteousness was rewarded and wickedness punished in this life so therefore these people must have been more wicked than others.
Jesus says, “No.” We must not blame the victim. It is not their fault. In another passage Jesus says the same thing of a man born blind. It is not his fault or his parents that he could not see. Bad things are not a punishment sent from God nor are good things necessarily a reward. Jesus does not answer with fate or heredity or environment or parents or even people themselves when the question of “why” is asked. He never gives an answer to at all when the fault question is asked.
I recently read Ten Commandments for Divorced People. One of them was not to dwell in the past. When we take so much time to look for faults, we are taking time away from dealing with problems. It is good advice for all of us and it is what Jesus is saying here. Jesus does not assign blame. He does not tell us why some were killed, why the tower fell on some and not others. He does not give an answer to why one person is killed in a car accident and another gets cancer and still others live on and on with their minds robbed of them by Alzheimer’s. Jesus does not tell us who is to blame, whose fault it is. But instead gives a parable about an unfruitful fig tree and a concerned gardener. The parable is really a warning to use what time we have been given for repentance and faith. We should not waste our time blaming or excusing, but instead live this life as God’s precious gift. We should not squander our life or our time. We should use our time for repentance, for returning to God in faith.
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Victor Frankl spent a long time in a concentration camp. He suggests something similar to repentance when he describes what it was that made life intolerable for some while others simply gave up and died. “What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life,” he writes, “we had to learn…that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.”
We need a fundamental change of attitude too. We need to stop blaming ourselves or our parents or God. It does not help anyway. It does not change the circumstances of our lives or make us better or happier. The point of Jesus’ parable is that we have been given a reprieve. We have time now to make amends and change our ways, to get back to God and to become new and renewed people.
In our parable, the vinedresser begs for more time for that unfruitful tree. It is clear that the gardener is Jesus who taught three year’s lessons about life. The tree is given time yet to be nurtured and cared for, strengthened and empowered – just as God cares for us and loves and empowers us now. It is tender mercy to forgive and accept us and so fertilize us with God’s Word that we may yet become the kind of people God wants us to be. And there is the warning to repent or be cut down.
In Luke’s time, his hearers would have recalled the Jerusalem did not repent. It crucified Jesus and killed many of the earliest believers, but was itself utterly destroyed in AD 70. The Gospel was written after that time – not only did the Tower of Siloam fall upon eighteen workers but all the towers of Jerusalem fell and thousands of people died. The unfruitful fig tree that was Jerusalem was indeed cut down and thrown into the fire.
But Luke’s readers would also know that the parable is addressed to them in the Christian Church as well. We hear the words as personal words to us – to stop blaming and buck-passing and scapegoating. We can not blame others or even ourselves and know, really, that it is a waste of time. What is done, is done. Words spoken and actions taken can not be undone. Our time is precious and we should use it to turn back to God, to repent and believe. We have assurance that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Return to the Lord while there is still time. Return to God with your hearts and minds. God will look at you at the end of your year of grace and say, “Well and good” for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
––Copyright 2004, James Kegel. Used by permission.