March 17 Sermon – Punishment for sin or God’s merciful love?
‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?
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? 5 No, I tell you
The gardener replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it.
Jesus wants to tell those of us who will listen that suffering is brought about as God’s punishment for sin. If you read whole tracts of the Old Testament it would not be hard to conclude that God indeed causes suffering to punish sin. Jesus gives the second example and changes the location, so they don’t think all Galileans deserve to die. Suffering is real, and it is often connected to sin but not necessarily the sin of the people who suffer. I feel sure if Jesus was giving and answer to us today he would say, do you think that those 40 plus people who were murdered in New Zealand were any worse sinners than others in New Zealand, or any worse sinners than us gathered here. He would say, no, I tell you.
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 [and mass murderers] 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 behaviours that contribute to much of the misery in the world, and the more we can confront that sin the less suffering there will be.
Does that mean that we can write off whole tracts of the Old Testament as worthless? No that is not helpful! We do need to recognise that through the long sweep of Hebrew history from Abraham to the time of Jesus, more than 1800 years, the Hebrew understanding of God was varied. We have glimpses of God as a shepherd gently leading his people, as a loving parent teaching his children to walk and lifting them up to his cheek. Even in the stories of Adam and Eve in the garden and Cain and his brother Abel, God comes to them in the place of their sin and calls to them. “Adam, where are you?” and Cain, where is your brother Abel? Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.”
Certainly, Christian history has focused on the “punishment metered out by God” that not only affected Adam and Eve but the whole human race. When we give attention to the Deuteronomist we end up seeing the time in the Babylonian Exile as punishment for disobedience to God. We forget God’s creative love and that God comes to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob renewing his covenant to nurture a priestly nation that would be a blessing to the nations. Jesus would have us change our perspective on God and his response to human suffering and sin.
David Lose, in his commentary goes on to say,
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…
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.
Even as I read Lose’s comments a part of me says, yes but some vile murderers deserve to be hung drawn and quartered and left on a pike to rot. There is a very deep part of our human psyche that doesn’t get God’s love and mercy. We want, we feel, that there ought to be profound punishment for horrendous crimes. Ironically, that seems to be exactly what the murderer on Friday night claims to have been seeking, punishment for the crimes of Islamic Terrorists in other parts of the world. Fortunately, most of us have soaked into our DNA Jesus words form the sermon on the mount, an “eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” has never worked and never will. Instead Jesus says love your enemies. Again, that other part of us says, slow down, I want to kill the mongrel, don’t tell me to love my enemy.
When we are consumed by anger, feeling the depth of our pain and grieving the last thing we can contemplate is forgiving the person who caused the pain. In our Lenten study on Wednesday we spent most of our time reading and reflecting on those who are grieving receiving mercy. The author Wuellner says after recognising the pain we need space to regain our sense of wellbeing. In times like that she said, having an image of God who leads us beside still waters and into green pastures can restore our soul. In our minds eye, nestled into God loving arms is like being rocked by a grandmother in a rocking chair. The families in Christ Church will need space to grieve and to begin to see the world as a place of promise and blessing.
The Christian faith has at its core the story of Jesus dying on the cross. Sadly, we even see the cross as a story of punishment rather than of merciful love. David Lose encourages us to see the cross not as punishment for our sin metered out by God but as a profound act of grace.
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.
To help us understand what Lose is wanting us to appreciate in the Gospel of the cross let me retell a story from our study on Wednesday.
A woman told Wuellner that she had brought home from the animal shelter a young dog abused by former owners. The dog was terrified of water. Perhaps someone had tried to drown him. Eventually, of course, he had to be washed thoroughly, especially after running in the thickets, pricking up insects, and bleeding from thorns. When she put the dog into the tub of water, he screamed, struggled, and scratched her in his terror. Her whole heart hurt for him. She could do only one thing. She climbed into the dirty, bloody bathwater with him. Some of the blood in the water came from her scratches. There she sat close to him, holding him in her arms, stroking him until his panic subsided. Then, still in the bathwater with him, she began to cleanse him – very gently. 1
Wuellner says, “this is the story of God’s heart, and these are the acts of God’s hands in our journey of mourning”. It is the story of the incarnation, Jesus climbing into the mess of our painful world and embracing us on the cross. God is not punishing us for our sin, rather God is embracing us in love, healing our deep pain. We are called when we are ready to begin the journey of forgiveness rather than to scream out for punishment. We can only make this journey in the loving arms of God.
- Forgiveness, the Passionate Journey, Nine Steps of Forgiveness through Jesus’ Beatitudes, Flora Slosson Wuellner, Upper Room Books, Nashville, 2001 Page 47
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