Harrowing Of Hell
March 5, 2013


Preacher: The Rev Kate Wesch

Luke 13:1-9

There were some present who told Jesus 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.'”

In the name of God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Where do we find God in this strange story from the gospel according to Luke? Is God in the tragedy that struck the Galileans murdered at the hand of Pilate? Of course. Was God present with the eighteen people killed when the tower fell at Siloam? Without a doubt.

Is God the owner of the vineyard, the gardener, or the grace which spares the fig tree from the ax? In this story, is Jesus addressing theodicy or hypocrisy?

Theodicy is the question made popular by German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz in 1710 asking why evil exists in the world. Rabbi Harold Kushner popularized this theological issue in his 1981 book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  Faced with a devastating and terminal diagnosis for his 3-year-old son, Kushner writes about the dissonance between a good and loving God who yet allows evil and suffering to occur.  “Why?” is the question of theodicy with which he wrestles.

It is a valid question, one I was asked just this past week. Jesus addresses the question in this passage by tackling another one: hypocrisy.

When tragedy strikes, we aim to distance ourselves as much as possible from the pain in an effort to pretend it will never happen to us. We desperately seek someone or something to blame. In the aftermath of many tragedies, some people have the audacity to blame the victims. If it were only, somehow their fault, then we avoid the frightening realization that the same could happen to us.

In reality, we have more in common than different with many victims and that is uncomfortable.  We want to place the blame on gun control, or mental illness, or ignorance.  We don’t want to acknowledge the vulnerability of our lives.

Doyt, in his sermon on the fourth Sunday of Advent, just days after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut had this to say about theodicy.

“To get our minds around theodicy we need to approach it from a perspective other than our own.  The challenge it presents us – is to see the world from God’s point of view.

There are three keys concepts that help us do this. First, we are God’s children, known and loved.  Second, each one of us has a unique, particular, and specific relationship with God.  And third, we are eternal beings.

The Christian construct that we use to fight evil is built on our belovedness, our primary relationship with God, and our eternity.

We practice this divine perspective through the relationships God has set us in.  In other words, God gives us each to the other so we can know God.  We are, after all, made in the image of God.  So we come to church to practice divine perspective in and with the help of community. And when our souls are in pain or our perspective unclear this is where we gather.

We wrestle with the issue of theodicy.  We learn together, little by little to begin to see from God’s point of view.  And this insight gives us the courage to confront evil.”

Mennonite Pastor Michael Danner writes, “What Jesus says is straightforward. These people didn’t suffer under Pilate’s terror or an engineering disaster because they were bad people. They are just like everyone else. What happened to them could happen to you.

What Jesus doesn’t say is also telling. Jesus does not defend God. Jesus refuses to act as if God was supposed to pull the strings, ensuring that only good happens to the good and only bad happens to the bad. Jesus refuses to act as if this is a failure on God’s part. In doing so, Jesus undermines the ideology underneath the people’s question. In effect he says the world doesn’t work like that.

What Jesus does do is call people to repentance! Yet, this is where it gets tricky. Having rescued us from the notion of a “God who pulls the strings” and “works good things for the good and bad things for the bad,” it is tempting to use repentance as a way to re-enter that “prison we know.” We are tempted to view repentance as that act which resets the ideology back to its default.

If you just repent, some argue, then God forgives you, you’re on God’s good side again, and everything will work out for you, you can avoid suffering and death. That move just defines “good” as “those who have repented” and extends the benefit of God’s blessing to the “good” as redefined. It misses the mark.

However, Jesus invites us to repent of that whole paradigm. Stop deluding yourselves and repent of the idea that you can avoid suffering and death if you are good enough.

What’s so hard is if God is supposed to work in the world in such a way that only good things happen to good people and only bad things happen to bad people, it seems God has abdicated power.”[i]

What Pastor Danner points out is the hypocrisy of the blaming the victim or blaming God mentality. It is a paradigm shift we are called into in the context of God’s kingdom.  This word “repentance” is key.  Jesus is telling us, “Repent!” or this is the joy you will miss.

The Greek verb for repentance is metanoein and it means to change one’s mind.  It describes a 180-degree change of mind and heart.  This verb appears 55 times in the New Testament and half of those are in Luke and Acts.

Luke’s gospel is full of people repenting – they are those with conflicts, miseries, and fears just like every one of us.  But is it too little too late?  Are we like the fig tree that won’t bear fruit and the owner commands the gardener to cut us down?  Perhaps, God appears in the grace that stills the hand holding the ax at the request of the gardener who believes a little more nurture and care can coax the tree into turning around, having a change of heart and mind, and eventual bearing of fruit.

This quirky parable urges us to turn around, reorient, and recalibrate our souls towards God.  Remember the prodigal son in the pig pen?  As he sits in filth, hungry, and repentant, he says, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare but here I am dying of hunger. I will get up and go to my father and I will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me like one of your hired hands (Luke 15:17-19).

Homiletics professor, Alyce McKenzie says, “Lent is a good time to have a little talk with ourselves about the person we’re afraid we’re becoming, about the joy we sense we are missing. Lent is a good time to turn around and head toward God.

It’s not easy to turn around. But do it anyway. That’s what this grim little parable is saying to us as it sinks its teeth into our ankle.

We don’t have to do it ourselves. God will help us. Repentance and conversion are not human actions alone; they are responses to the prior Gracious work of God in Jesus Christ through the Power of the Holy Spirit.”[ii]