Today’s gospel deals with the issue of Divine Justice and how it works. Do we get what we deserve? That’s the question that we wrestle with in our system of human justice. If you poke someone in the eye, it’s not fair if he kills you in return, but it is fair if he gets to poke you in the eye. “An eye for an eye.” That’s justice.
Same goes with missing teeth. A punch in the mouth that breaks a tooth is not punishable by life in prison. That’s injustice. But “a tooth for a tooth,” that’s fair. It’s the ‘Golden Rule’ in reverse. ‘Do unto others what they have done to you, and no more.’
That’s the way we ‘do justice.’ And we wonder if God is as fair and just as we are. For example: “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.”
It’s got a familiar ring to it. “50 gunned down while praying in a mosque in New Zealand.” “26 gunned down at 1st Baptist Church in Texas while worshipping.”
It’s the same kind of violence. But the questions are very different. Whereas we want to know what kind of justice the murderers are going to get, they want to know what those Galileans must have done to deserve what they got.
For if the assumption is that God is ‘just,’ and that He operates by a system of justice as we understand justice, those Galileans must have been “worse sinners than all the other Galileans” to get what they got, because the punishment must fit the crime.
But today, we conclude differently. Today we conclude that those who were murdered in New Zealand and Texas and in the countless other places where violence has struck, the slain were innocent. They didn’t deserve what they got. They may not be perfect but they didn’t deserve this. The punishment didn’t fit whatever their crime might have been. And since God allowed this to happen, the assumption is that God is not ‘just.’
Jesus’ answer pulls the rug out from under both conclusions. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” By His harsh and terribly unsatisfying response to both conclusions, our Lord destroys the faulty premise upon which we believe this world is ruled – which is that of divine justice.
In its place, our Lord presents the true premise by which this world is ruled, which no one could ever have imagined and never have comprehended unless God Himself came down from heaven and REVEALED it. This world is not ruled by divine justice but by divine grace. For if it was ruled by justice, THEN WE WOULD ALL “LIKEWISE PERISH.”
For we are all the worst of the worst. And there is no distinction. It’s not that all have fallen short of the glory of God, but some have but some fallen further than others. In our struggle to achieve equality, we fail to realize that we have already achieved it.
If God’s justice were the operating force that controls this world, we would have all been slaughtered a long time ago, BECAUSE THIS IS WHAT OUR SIN DESERVES. Death, and nothing less, would be fair. Hell, and nothing less, would be the punishment that fits the crime we have all committed against our Creator.
But the fact that you and I live, and live with a sure and certain hope that we will live after death with God in paradise, a hope that is based on His own infallible word of promise of God Himself, must mean that God, is operating His world by rules based NOT ON JUSTICE, but on GRACE.
So, just in case the example of MAN’S VIOLENCE AGAINST MAN doesn’t flip your switch, Jesus ups the ante and offers an example of the NATURE’S VIOLENCE AGAINST MAN.
A tower in Siloam fell on a crowd of people and killed 18. It could have been due to faulty construction or an earthquake, we don’t know. In either case, why 18 and why not more and why those 18? Could God have prevented it? And if He could have why didn’t He? Maybe they were “worse sinners than those who lived in Jerusalem.”
It’s got a familiar ring to it. “A walkway collapsed in Florida killing 8 INNOCENT people.” “A dam broke in Brazil and over 300 INNOCENT people were buried in mud.” And how many more lives have been and will be lost in these kinds of disasters – whether man made or natural?
They were INNOCENT. Why did it happen to them? They didn’t DESERVE this? If God could have prevented it why didn’t He? God is not “just”.
And again, we hear the same harsh and terribly unsatisfying response to both conclusions. “No I tell you, but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
In our blindness and ignorance, what we want from God are answers that begin with “BECAUSE…” We want Him to justify Himself and prove to us that He is being fair. We want Him to be ‘just’ and operate His creation according to the rules of ‘justice.’
Which as C.S. Lewis has shown us, puts us in the position of judge and God in the place of the accused, which is to get our situation before God exactly backwards.
Instead of giving us a ‘BECAUSE,’ our Lord gives us a ‘REPENT.’
And if for no other reason than this, we also ought to quit trying to give a ‘BECAUSE’ when people ask us why bad things happen. Because inevitably we’ll say more that what God has given us to say, which is always dangerous. We can only respond and MUST RESPOND only on the basis of what God has revealed to us.
And the truth is, this is not as harsh and terribly unsatisfying as we make it out to be. Every parent has eventually come to a point where the best response to their children’s questions is, “I can’t really explain it to you right now. You’re not old enough to understand. Just believe me and do what I say.” And how that goes all depends on how much the child trusts his parents.
Beloved, we are God’s children. And sometimes we get little or no explanation from our Father who art in heaven to our ‘why’ questions.
But He promises that someday we will. “For we will know even as we are fully known.” And we’ll fall to our knees in awe and amazement and praise without end. But for now, we simply trust Him. We live by faith alone.
And the basis for our trust in Him is the cross of Christ and Him crucified. For what else is Christ crucified but God’s perfect justice perfectly accomplished? Every sin that you have ever committed, either by what you have done or left undone, has been answered in the punishment that was carried out upon Him. It is His life for your eye. And His life for your tooth.
For perfect justice was done for the sin of the whole world when PILATE MINGLED THE BLOOD OF ONE GALILEAN WITH THE SACRIFICE TO END ALL SACRIFICES FOR SIN.
Now, to say that God was punishing those who were slaughtered by Pilate or those 18 on whom the tower in Siloam fell or on any of those who have perished is to say more than we are given to say. For all that we CAN SAY and MUST SAY is that Christ took the punishment for their sins onto Himself, and divine justice was fully accomplished in Christ and Him crucified. “IT IS FINISHED
To reject Christ and His cross therefore is to reject the justice that has been done for your guilt, which must be done, if not by Christ, then by you. “I tell you, unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
What we may hear as a harsh and terribly unsatisfying response to our questions, is really the sweetest and most loving response that they guilty can ever hear. “Repent,” is God’s call to you to live in your baptism, where all of God’s justice for your sins was accomplished FOR YOU. “Repentance,” is God’s call to you to live under His gracious rule where perfect justice is carried out on the only innocent one, and the guilty ones are declared perfectly righteous.
“I tell you, unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” “For as I live, declares the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.”
It is to this end that “Jesus told this parable.”
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’
So, when the man says, “cut it down, why should it us up the ground,” how do you hear this?
Do you hear the man, who is God the Father, like a big boss who demands a certain quota be met or else? Is He simply looking at the cost / benefit ratio that this tree has failed to achieve and therefore must be ‘cut down’ to make room for a more productive use of the soil? Is the man acting out of JUSTICE?
Or could it be that when the man says, “cut it down, why should it use up the ground,” there are tears in His eyes, and He speaks the words so slowly that they’re painful to speak and even more painful hear? And there is a sorrow in His voice so deep that the angels in heaven weep at the sound of it?
And now, hear the reply of the vinedresser, who in perfect sympathy with the man, for He knows that the man “takes no pleasure” in cutting this tree down, says, “Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure.”
Doesn’t this sound like the Jesus we heard last Sunday who, with tears in His eyes and in perfect sympathy with the Father cries, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood. But you would not.”
Here is the real damage that the fall of Adam has done to us. All of our sinful DEEDS are nothing compared to this WARPED ATTITUDE that we have towards our LOVING GOD. We come into this world believing that God “takes pleasure in the death of the sinner.”
But here, in this simple little parable, Jesus shows us a loving Father who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and who relents over disaster.” Who willingly and gladly gives more time, and provides more care, because He truly “has NO pleasure in the death of the sinner.”
Isn’t this the ‘repentance’ that our Lord is calling us to? Not simply a CHANGE IN BEHAVIOR so that we may be more productive and meet certain quotas and standards of behavior, but a CHANGE OF HEART about the God whom we call ‘OUR GOD’ and who calls us, ‘MY PEOPLE.’
Because He rules by grace, He sends the Holy Spirit to dig around us with His Word and water us with His baptism. And then He puts on the holy manure of Christ’s body and blood. And all the angels in heaven rejoice when, for all of His grace poured out on us, we produce even the most meager and pathetic FRUITS OF REPENTANCE.
“Repent.” For the good news is that God is gracious and merciful. And life under His rule is nothing but grace upon grace – until its glory upon glory.