A 7.4 earthquake in Fukushima, Japan killed four people on Wednesday.
In Florida wildfires damaged more than a dozen homes.
Sixty homes were buried in a mudslide in northern Peru.
Wildfires in Eastland, Texas destroyed a church and killed a sheriff’s deputy who was attempting to rescue a family trapped by the blaze.
Two people were hospitalized after nine mobile homes were destroyed by a tornado in southern Alabama.
Nine people were killed on a rural road in West Texas on Tuesday when a pickup truck driven by a 13-year-old boy blew a tire, crossed the center line and crashed head-on into a van carrying members of the University of the Southwest Golf Team.
Ten people were killed when a tropical cyclone hit Mozambique with sustained winds up to 118 miles per hour.
Eight people have died as a result of extensive flooding in and around Sydney, Australia and throughout New South Wales.
Nobody knows exactly how many people have been killed in Ukraine so far, but the New York Times estimated that more than 7,000 Russian soldiers have died and more than a million Ukrainians have been displaced.
On top of all that, Covid is still sending an estimated 2,000 people a day to hospitals here in the United States.
There is no shortage of tragedy in our world. On any given day, any given week, horrible things happen to people. And when horrible things happen, one of our first instincts is to look for somewhere to lay the blame.
Sometimes it’s easy to pinpoint the source of the tragedy and fix the blame on the responsible party or parties. I think we could all agree on who is primarily culpable for the slaughter and destruction in Ukraine. But knowing who to blame and knowing the motives behind their aggression only makes the carnage more horrible.
It isn’t always easy to decide who or what is to blame for a tragedy. Sometimes—far too often—we blame the victims. What were those people in Peru thinking when they built their houses on an unstable hillside? People in Alabama know they live in tornado alley so why would any of them choose to live in a mobile home park?
Some people blame God when horrible things happen. When a horrendous earthquake killed more than 100,000 people in Haiti in 2010, Evangelist Pat Robertson said that God was punishing the people of Haiti because in 1804 they had made a deal with the devil to drive out their French colonial overlords. He didn’t say why God waited 106 years to exact this punishment. Robertson also claimed that Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and killed more than 1800 people, was God’s punishment for allowing abortion, gay rights, and other liberal policies to continue in the U.S.
We might think Robertson’s ideas are Loony Tunes, but a surprising number of people still see the world that way. The idea that calamity is God’s punishment for sin is as old as humanity. In the Book of Job, when Job is afflicted with one heartbreak after another, the three friends who come to offer him moral support yammer on for days insisting that Job must have offended God in some way. When Job resolutely insists that he is innocent, their response is pretty much, “Well you must have done something!” In the end, though, God puts an end to their speculation about what Job might or might not have done. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” says God. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Go on, tell me if you’re so smart.” The message in the end is that, while God may have allowed Job to suffer, God didn’t cause Job’s troubles.
While Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, some people brought up the issue of some Galileans whom Pilate had killed mingling their blood with their sacrifices. Why were they talking to Jesus about this? Were they thinking he would be scandalized by it? Did they think he would be shocked that Pilate would not only kill these Galileans but would also profane their sacrifice? Did they think that maybe, since he was also a Galilean, he might be angry enough to join the zealots who were fighting against Rome? Or did they simply want him to share his thoughts on why God would do this or allow it to happen? Was God punishing those Galileans for some reason? Was their sin really so awful that they deserved to die that way?
So Jesus asks them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Do you think God or Karma or the universe was punishing these Galileans because they were worse sinners than everyone else in Galilee? No. That’s not how it works. And those eighteen who were killed when the tower collapsed—do you think they were snuffed out because they were the most awful people in Jerusalem? No. God doesn’t work that way. But… unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.
What did he mean by that? Repent is such a ponderous and dreary word. It’s all about regret and contrition. The Greek word, though, metanoia, is full of possibility. It means a change of heart, a change of mind, a change of viewpoint, a change of direction. Metanoia might start with contrition, but it doesn’t end there. Metanoia is a way forward.
Jesus is telling them, “Unless you change the way you see and understand life, unless you change the way you see and understand God and how God works, you’re all going to be lost the same as they were. Death can sneak up on you or catch you by surprise, and when it does, you’ve lost your opportunity to embrace the life and love of God and for that matter, the life and love of humanity. You’ve lost your opportunity to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God and humankind and the rest of creation. You’ve lost your opportunity to make a positive difference in the world.
To bring home the point, he told them a parable. A story. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘Look, for three years now I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ The gardener replied, “Sir, leave it alone for another year. I’ll dig around it and put manure on it. Maybe it will bear fruit next year. But if not, then you can cut it down.’”
A lot of us were taught in Sunday School to read parables as allegories. So if we did that with this parable, the land owner would be God the Father and the tree would be some unproductive person who is not doing anything to improve the world, and the gardener who wants to spare the tree and work with it would be Jesus.
Reading the parable that way has some merit, but it also has some problems. “Allegorical readings,” wrote Amy-Jill Levine, “can speak to eternal truths and ultimate longings. Yet…such readings rarely produce a challenge and rarely offer a surprise; rather, they confirm standard Christian views. A second problem with the traditional allegories…is that they cannot convey what a parable would have meant to its original audience. Allegories require keys, so that readers know that the elements given in the tale correspond to very particular elements on the outside. As these allegories were developed much later, that original audience would not have had the key.”
How would you hear this parable if, instead of treating it as an allegory, you put yourself into the story? What would you hear if you were to sit inside the parable, put on its characters for a moment and let them speak to you and through you? What questions would this parable prompt you to ask yourself if you let it be more than a simple morality tale?
For instance: Am I like the absentee landowner? Have I kept my distance from those places and moments where life and death actually happen and avoided getting my hands dirty? Have I been pronouncing judgment from the sidelines? Have I been seeing the value of things only in terms of whether or not they are productive in some measurable, consumable, marketable way? Have I been looking a life through the lens of cost/benefit analysis, weighing how people and other living things consume resources and take up time and space? Do I need to be persuaded to see possibilities, to extend a little patience and grace?
Am I like the tree? Am I failing in some way to nurture and nourish others? Am I holding on to space and resources that could be used more productively to sustain others? Am I willing to change or let myself be changed, to “repent,” to take the path of metanoia so I can learn to bring more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and gentleness into the world around me? Am I taking life—being alive—for granted and neglecting the gift that God has given me to be present and aware and alive in this world?
Am I like the gardener? Am I willing to get my hands deep into the dirt and manure of life if it will bring someone else some grace, give someone else a chance to grow and bloom and become what they were made to be? Am I willing to give time and energy and love and hope to help someone else thrive?
Why do horrible things happen? Jesus is not going to answer that question… because “Why?” is not a life-giving question. Jesus is not going to play the blame game, because placing blame doesn’t heal anyone or help the survivors. Instead, Jesus tells us a story to remind us that life is both precious and precarious, and time is not on our side. He reminds us that there are forces at work in the world which, like the land owner, would cuts us down without hesitation or remorse. But his story also reminds us that the force of love and life is also in the world, a force that is willing to go elbow deep in manure to give us a chance to grow and thrive and bear good fruit.
Fred Rogers once said to his television friends in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been disheartening and depressing. Hearing Vladimir Putin talk openly of using nuclear weapons is too scary to think about. So this week I’ve been taking Mr. Rogers’ advice. I’ve been looking for the helpers. This week I’ve noticed some extraordinary things people have done to help the people of Ukraine survive their nightmare.
- Border guards, volunteers and ordinary people have lined the sides of the wooden pedestrian bridge across the Tisza river with stuffed animals and toys so that refugee children crossing from Ukraine into Romania could, as one volunteer put it, “enter the country with a nice thought.”
- An organization called Deaf Bridge, which had been working in Ukraine to help establish church ministries for deaf and hearing impaired, has quickly shifted to helping deaf people in Ukraine find shelter and escape routes. Also, since deaf people can’t hear air raid sirens, they been teaching them to look for visual cues and paring them with hearing persons so that they can know when danger is imminent.
- Polish parents have been leaving baby strollers in Poland’s railway stations for refugee parents to use when they arrive with their babies in their arms and their childcare necessities in a backpack.
- Volunteers are arriving in Poland from all over the world to work with World Central Kitchen which is not only providing food for refugees but also for Ukrainian cities where food is in short supply. In his nightly post on Facebook, Steve Givot, an American volunteer, wrote, “Today, my little group from Ohio, Idaho, Portugal, Canada, and the UK peeled an enormous quantity of potatoes and cored/sliced an ungodly amount of apples (for baby food). I won’t go into details, but we were told that we fed 7000 people in Przemsyl and at the border, and we prepped food to be cooked in Lviv, Ukraine for another 30,000 people. Not a typo: 30,000. The volunteers are from everywhere in Europe, the US/Canada, and one from Japan. They show up, and they work. Some for a few days, some for longer.”
Life is both precious and precarious. Horrible things do happen. There is always someone who is ready to cut down the tree. But there is also always someone who is ready to try to save it, someone who is willing to dig around the roots and even sink their hands into the muck to give it another chance at life. So… who are you in the story?
 Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine, p.128