Lent 3 C: Suffering, the Cross, and the Promise of Love

Luke 13:1-9

Dear Working Preacher,

This passage is rife with both promise and peril. The promise is to address one of the persistent questions many of our people have: why is there so much suffering in the world? Or, put more theologically, is suffering connected to our behavior? Does God cause suffering? Is suffering or calamity a form on punishment? These are questions usually asked in moments of extreme suffering and loss and they are as poignant as they are important. And this week we have a chance to address them more reflectively than we can when asked in the emergency room or hospice center – that’s the promise of this week’s reading.

Of course the peril is to imagine that we can answer all those questions! We’ve all heard so many less-then-helpful (and sometimes downright awful!) explanations of suffering, running the gamut from someone saying to explain the death of a child that God needed another angel in the choir to TV preachers saying a particular calamity is God’s punishment for sin. And so we understandably want to avoid repeating those mistakes.

Which means that probably the first thing we want to do with this passage is to remind ourselves that it’s never a good idea to develop a whole theology about something from a single passage. Having said that, what can we say about suffering and loss and the cause of evil on this day and from this single passage. Several things, I think.

First, suffering is not a form of punishment. If there is anything we can take from Jesus’ sharp retort to his audience – “Do you really think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” – it’s that suffering and calamity are not God’s punishment for sin. Just to make sure the crowd listening gets the point, Jesus goes on to offer a second example of folks killed when a tower fell on them, asking once more, “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem,” again answering definitively, “No.”

Second, just because suffering is not punishment doesn’t mean that it is disconnected entirely from sin. Pilate’s murderous acts of terror – as well as those horrific actions of today’s tyrants that we read about in the news – are sinful. Moreover, what if the wall Jesus references was built by a fraudulent contractor? Sin has consequences, and there are all kinds of bad behaviors that contribute to much of the misery in the world, and the more we can confront that sin the less suffering there will be.

All of which brings us to a third, and very important, thing we can say from this passage: God neither causes nor delights in suffering and calamity. This is where the parable about the fig tree comes in. Now, a quick warning: we tend to read this parable allegorically, assuming that the landowner is God and the gardener Jesus. But nowhere in Luke do we find a picture of an angry, vindictive God that needs to be placated by a friendly Jesus. Rather, Jesus portrays God as a father who scans the horizon day in and day out waiting for his wayward son to come home and as a woman who after sweeping her house all night looking for a lost coin throws a party costing even more than the coin is worth to celebrate that she found it. Luke’s Gospel overflows with the conviction that “there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).

Given Luke’s consistent picture of God’s reaction to sin, then perhaps the landowner is representative of our own sense of how the world should work. That is, from very early on, we want things to be “fair” and we define “fair” as receiving rewards for doing good and punishment for doing evil. (Except of course, when it comes to our own mistakes and misdeeds – then we want mercy!) So perhaps the gardener is God, the one who consistently raises a contrary voice to suggest that the ultimate answer to sin isn’t punishment – not even in the name of justice – but rather mercy, reconciliation, and new life.

If this is true, Dear Partner, what might we say to people this Sunday? Even more, how might we equip our people to offer words of comfort and grace when those around them are suffering? Well, we might remind them that this whole discussion takes place on the road to Jerusalem, as Jesus is making his way steadfastly to the cross. And in light of this passage and the whole of Luke’s Gospel, we might then recognize that the cross is not about punishment for sin either. Not for Jesus’ sin, certainly, but also not for ours.

That is, of course, a tradition interpretation of the cross: that because God is just, God has to punish sin, and because God is loving, God beats up on Jesus instead of us. But I have a hunch that this understanding of the cross says more about our inadequate understanding of justice than it says about God. In contrast to this theory, I’d suggest that the cross is not about punishment but is instead about identification, solidarity, and love.

Rather than imagine, that is, that God has to punish someone – and that we’re just lucky Jesus was around – what if instead we recognize that God’s answer to sin isn’t punishment but instead is love. That is, in Jesus God loves us enough to take on our lot and our lives fully, identifying with us completely. In the cross, then, we see just how far God is willing to go to be with us and for us, even to the point of suffering unjustly and dying the death of a criminal. And in the resurrection, we see that God’s solidarity and love is stronger than anything, even death.

So what can we say in the face of suffering and loss? That God is with us. That God understands what our suffering is like. That God has promised to redeem all things, including even our suffering. That suffering and injustice do not have the last word in our lives and world. And that God will keep waiting for us and keep urging us to turn away from our self-destructive habits to be drawn again into the embrace of a loving God.

That’s what we can tell our people, Dear Partner, and this, at last, is all promise. Thanks for sounding that message. It’s never been needed more than today.

Yours in Christ,