Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; 1Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-19
The people of Haiti & Chile could use some good news. I hope many of them are in worship today to hear the readings for this Sunday. Our reading from Luke is a conversation among people of faith following a tragedy.
At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Jesus answered his own question: No, victims of tragedies are not necessarily any better or worse than others.
When tragedy strikes, we want to know why. Not just what the circumstances were. We’re especially interested if someone is to blame. In Jesus’ time, if a person was poor or suffered some disease, it was viewed as a sign of God’s judgment.
Hopefully in our day, we don’t blame the victims themselves—but we still look for causes. In the case of the earthquakes, for example, we wonder: Why did these earthquakes take so many lives? Did those who constructed the buildings cut corners & not use the best materials? Did the architects come up with a poor design? Did the politicians line their own pockets with money that could’ve been used to make the buildings safer? Maybe there’s some truth in each of these.
As we read the papers & watch the news each day we are tempted to be drawn in by the problems of others. Those problems may be earthquakes, hurricanes or landslides. Or, the problems might be the shortcomings, failures & misdeeds of others. We evaluate. We make assumptions. We make judgments.
St. Paul knew this human tendency. He knew that we’re tempted to focus on the problems of others instead of coming to terms with our own. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes a list of sins: desiring evil, idolatry, sexual immorality, putting Christ to the test, & complaining. Maybe there’s a message in that for us today. Many Christians in our time choose to judge other people’s sexuality. It’s a convenient way of shifting the spotlight away from ourselves; it’s also often a sign of unfinished business in the life of the person making the judgment. Paul puts sexual immorality & complaining in the same list, one as bad as the other.
But for all that, God doesn’t seem too interested in keeping a list of sins, either our own or those of others. In today’s first reading the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “Let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, & 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 heaven is higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, & my thoughts than your thoughts.”
God’s way is not primarily a way of judgment, but of mercy.
Today’s reading from Luke is all about mercy. Jesus tells the story of a man who owned a vineyard. A certain tree in his vineyard hadn’t been productive for three years so he tells his gardener to destroy it. The gardener says, How about waiting another year? In the meantime, I’ll fertilize it & if it hasn’t produced anything by next year, then you can destroy it.
I wonder how Jesus might have continued his story. Maybe something like this:
A year went by & as the landowner was looking over his vineyard he noticed the tree that he had ordered destroyed a year before was still not bearing fruit. He summoned the gardener & the gardener acknowledged that yes, even after adding fertilizer, even after lots of care, still the tree was not producing. Cut it down, the landowner said. But again, the gardener came before him & said, “Let me dig around it & add some more manure. If it hasn’t produced within a year, then you can cut it down.”
Years went by, & each year it was the same story. Seeing the unproductive tree the landowner said, “Cut it down.” And each time, the gardener replied, “Let’s give it another year.”
Although we usually think of the landowner in this parable as God, I wonder if instead the landowner might be us. We are more eager to judge &punish than God, whose ways are not our ways. Jesus, the gardener, asks the landowner for mercy. This is the same Jesus who received no mercy from humankind & whose young life was cut short on the cross. Even then, at the point of death, Jesus was able to pray, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Jesus was practicing mercy.
In this season of Lent, as the rest of the year, we are called to consider how God’s ways are not our ways. We are called to repentance, which in the Bible means, to change one’s mind. It’s a change of heart. We ask, How can I change direction, maybe even in just one area of my life? If we change, we change in response to God’s mercy, because through Jesus we all have already received God’s mercy, as it’s written in 1 Peter, ch. 2: Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. By virtue of your baptism, God has claimed each of us.
We change not to earn God’s mercy but in response to God’s mercy, for the sake of the world. As we have been forgiven, so also we forgive. As we are loved, so we extend a share of that love. As we have received mercy, so also we extend mercy to each other & to a world in need, through the gifts of time, talent & treasure with which we are abundantly blessed.
Beloved people of God, grace & peace be with you as you practice God’s mercy through the season of Lent…& beyond.