We crave certainty. If you don’t believe me, watch a presidential debate and see what lines from which candidates draw the most applause. When someone speaks with certainty, they will be rewarded. It is the definitive certainty of statements which matters to voters. At this point in our history, the need for certainty is driving our political process. Certainty is also at the heart of our religious beliefs. To put it simply, we want to know our beliefs are right and that at the end of the day, what we believe will keep us out of Hell.
There is little certainty in Jesus’ words and parables. Despite our fixation with certainty and our reliance on Biblical passages that appear to promote certainty, Jesus speaks in ambiguous terms. Jesus is intentionally vague, open-ended, and uncertain. When we hear what Jesus says, it’s possible to walk away feeling uncertain about his meaning. It could be this or another thing or does he mean something only people living in the first century would understand? To religiously minded people craving certainty, Jesus isn’t making it any easier to be a 21st century American Christian.
Jesus inherited one singular idea from his religious ancestors. Faith is a mysterious and uncertain affair. Moses and Abraham were the first two people in Jesus’ spiritual family tree to come to terms with this idea. If we are in a relationship with God, it means we are in a perpetual deficit of knowledge. Isaiah echoes this idea when he says, “My plans aren’t your plans, nor are you ways my ways, says the Lord.” It’s not that our plans aren’t aligned with God’s; we don’t know God’s plans in order to make an initial alignment. So often we repeat this verse with the underlying assumption that God’s ways are knowable, definable, and manageable. We forget we’re talking about God. Uncertainty is the defining principle of our relationship with God. We take faith out of the equation. We demand concrete, knowable evidence of God’s will. When we don’t get or see the proof we demand, someone must be wrong. Did we sin or is God unfaithful? It can’t be that God is unknowable. This is what we’ve been conditioned to believe.
At the beginning of the 13th chapter of Luke, Jesus is approached by a group of people who have had their certainty and their faith challenged. Their spiritual and physical world is in chaos. Pontius Pilate has massacred a group of Jewish worshippers. Far from the tepid Roman bureaucrat who simply wanted to do the right thing, history shows Pilate to be a genocidal villain and violent enforcer of Roman laws. Innocent religious people were murdered by the soldiers of a dictatorial colonial power. Politically, the Romans used violence to retain control.
Those incensed by the massacre wondered “why?” Where was God when they were doing their required temple duties? Why didn’t God save them? They were certain of their relationship with God? Had they sinned at some point for this punishment to be brought upon them? These were the questions they brought to Jesus.
The implication of last question caught Jesus’ attention. Were they really saying the Galileans were dead because of some sin they committed? There is, perhaps, no more a disgusting thought in the history of Jude-Christian theology than that people deserve to die because of some sin they committed or their family committed some generations ago. Is this what these people believed? Did Jesus hear them right? Using that logic, Pilate was an instrument of God’s will. Clearly, that idea was abhorrent to Jesus. Jesus says, “No, that’s not the case.” However, “unless you change your outlook on faith, your ability to believe in God will be destroyed. You’ll destroy yourself.” You cannot continue to look at faith this way. If this is what you believe, it will kill you and destroy your ability to encounter the uncertain mystery at the heart of any relationship with God. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Unless you change your hearts you will die as they did.” He’s not saying Pilate is going to kill them. Jesus tells them, you will be buying into the skillfully crafted arrogance that says everything must be explained as coming from God or sometimes not. That kind of arrogance is deadly. It is wrong.
Jesus takes his answer one step further. In order to make the larger point, he reminds his listeners about another tragedy, well-known throughout ancient Israel. A giant tower fell, collapsed, and killed eighteen people. Everyone knew about the great tower of Siloam. Think of it like the Kennedy Assassination or September 11th, the people there knew exactly where they were when they heard the news.
Jesus poses the same question. “Do you think they were guiltier of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem?” Everyone, Jesus asked. Were they greater or lesser sinners than everyone who lives in Jerusalem? Was it somehow part of God’s master plan for 18 innocent people to die and all of the others (both good and many notoriously bad) to survive unscathed? Surely God would have preferred to wipe out the corrupt temple rulers or the evil Romans before killing 18 innocent people? These are the questions Jesus wanted his listeners to ask themselves; questions allowing them to define the inherent uncertainties of their relationship to God.
As with Jesus’ earliest followers, our quest for certainty leads us to focus on issues far removed from God. We look for blame, we must know who has sinned and who is at fault. If we can identify the sin in another person, we feel better. We’re off the religious hook. Our certainty with God is assured. These activities keep churches and preachers occupied while the victims of Pilate’s atrocities and those lying under the rubble of the Siloam tower scream out for “Help”! We see the bloody images, circle the corpses, walk around the rubble, and like Jesus’ questioners, say to ourselves, “They must have sinned and done something really wrong to deserve this kind of treatment. God wouldn’t have let this happen unless it was for some really important reason. It must be part of the plan.” Jesus says it’s not part of the plan for innocent people to suffer and die. Please get age old lie out of your heads this morning.
Look at this parable, he tells this bewildered group of certain blame gamers. There is a farmer and a gardener, or as some translations say, a “landowner” and a “gardener”. The landowner has a fruit tree which has been on the low yield side over the past few years. The gardener, the person in daily care of the fruit tree tells the landowner not to take drastic action. He says, “Don’t cut it down!” The landowner is concerned he’s wasting fertilizer, space, and money on something that’s not producing. I’m sure by this point in the crowd heads were nodding. They were all saying, “I’d cut that tree down too!” “You can’t be expected to maintain a fruitless tree forever! A man can’t throw good money after bad! I’m going put me a tree in that spot that’s going to make me some money!”
To many listeners, the tree did something wrong. Whether the tree was born unable to grow or was nurtured into sinful unproductivity, I can’t say. The reality is this: the tree was flawed, sinful, and needed to die. The landowner had lost logic, patience, and all uncertainty. The gardener, who sounds a great deal like Jesus says, “No, it needs at least one more year.” Despite the overwhelming negative evidence, wasn’t as certain about the future. He was hopeful.
It’s not a part of the plan for innocent people to die. How willing are we to become like Pontius Pilate in our quest for divine certainty? How willing are we to second guess God? How willing are you able to embrace another year of uncertainty with God for no reason other than Jesus says, “Give me more time!”
But Jesus, we say, “What will you do in that additional year?” What if the landowner comes back in a year and we have no fruit or it’s misshapen and ugly? We need to be certain. Or do we?