Lenten Meditation: Natural Calamity, Random Violence and God’s Word
by GLORY E. DHARMARAJ*
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked 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.”
Then he told this parable: “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, ‘See here! For three years 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?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Recently a tornado hit Alabama killing some high school children and leaving others homeless. A bus from Ohio on its way to Georgia overturned killing some young athletes and injuring others. Fire struck a house in Bronx, N.Y., killing some residents, including 10 members of one family, and injuring others.
An earthquake hit the already battered Indonesian island of Sumatra. An exhausted reporter sighed, “Here we go again.”
In the wake of such tragedies, we may be tempted to associate accidents, natural disasters and untimely deaths with a cause-and-effect pattern. Some of us tend to do this for every good and evil occurrence.
We want to make sense of tragedies we cannot understand. We search for reasons when there are no rational reasons or direct biblical response. In our attempt to find answers, we try to defend God and God’s character.
This week’s lectionary reading narrates two tragedies in Jerusalem:
- Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, had killed innocent Galileans who were making sacrifices at the temple, and had mingled their blood in their religious sacrifices. It was a warning to the colonized Jews that Rome, the colonizer, was in charge.
- A tower fell on 18 innocent people near the pool of Siloam and killed them. The people surely asked, “How can such tragedies be explained?”
Jesus shatters a popular notion of his day – and of our day – that sin is the cause of tragedies. He exposes the cruelty of victimizing the victims. He confronts the judgmental attitude of people whose posture suggests, “We are righteous and they are sinners.”
Jesus’ response to such an attitude is twofold:
- “Pay attention.”
Jesus goes on to narrate the parable of a fig tree that received a new lease of life. It is a parable about judgment for those who fail to repent.
Jesus underscores that disasters and tragedies are not God’s doing, but it is time for all of us to be spiritually prepared. Life is so fragile that those of us who have life need to be spiritually prepared to die. We need to gird ourselves with faith to meet God, the Creator.
“Repent.” This is God’s tough love talking to us. Jesus is no longer the lamenting parent expressing love in all its vulnerability. There is hope and urgency in this parable. The owner of the vineyard refuses to give up. Just like the owner of the vineyard, God refuses to give up on anyone of us at any time.
This passage brings out the love of God that never gives up, while urging the wayward child to repent. It is the stern love of God that calls us to evangelize ourselves first. Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement once said God’s love can be a “harsh and dreadful thing.”
In last week’s lectionary passage, we saw Jesus in his vulnerability of love for Jerusalem, lamenting over Jerusalem’s sin of killing God’s prophets. This week’s reading shows Jesus in another light: in an act of love interceding to get an extension of life to those who follow him that they might bear fruit. Home mission starts with each of us.
God teaches us daily to be aware of the presence and role of evil. God is present in the midst of the anguish of human tragedy and the torment of natural calamity assuring us that death and despair are not the last word. Henry David Thoreau, an author and transcendentalist, once said, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”
While bad theology seems to take over, Jesus steers us toward self-correction using his tough love: “Repent,” “bear fruit.” Then he intercedes for us to have a second chance:
- Repentance is turning around and heading toward God to find healing.
- Healing helps us to recommit ourselves to do the work God has called us to do.
- Commitment leads us to bearing fruits of justice and service.
- Bearing fruit for Christ’s sake is all about Christian mission.
E. Stanley Jones, a Methodist missionary to India, once said, “I am immortal till my work is done, but as I have eternal work to do, I am eternally immortal.”
Being bearer of such faith in the face of death and in the midst of death is an eternal missionary task of the church. It is the task of each of us, members of the faith community.
God, in the midst of doubt and despair, we have your eternal word of hope that you are in the midst of it, calling us forth to a life of repentance and reconciliation, justice and service. May we be found faithful bearers of your mission. In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.
*Glory E. Dharmaraj, Ph.D., is director of spiritual formation and mission theology for the Women’s Division of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries.