March 14, 2001
It is a line that will be forever remembered in the history of television, “The story you are about to see is true. Only the names have been change to protect the innocent.” Of course, the TV show that started each week with these lines was Dragnet that hard-hitting, no nonsense police show with the poker faced Jack Webb and a subdued Harry Morgan. It too, has become famous in its own right.
The story lines were pretty usual for that type of show. We would follow Joe Friday and Frank Gannon around 1960’s Los Angeles as they went after the truly bad guys and those who were headed in that direction.
Some of the stories were about young adults – high school and college students – who were often sought for vandalism, theft, or as we are all too familiar with these days, drug use. Friday and Gannon, like all law enforcement, would seek out witnesses, friends, and family to determine what had happened and if the suspects were not in custody, where they might be.
In those episodes where parents were interviewed and the involvement of their son or daughter was made known, the phrase, “where did we go wrong?” could very easily be a part of the script.
“Where did we go wrong?” is the question that every parent silently or publicly asks when a child makes a choice that has serious and even tragic consequences to it. They walk around with the belief that if only they would have done this or that, then maybe ‘things’ would have been different, that the tragedy they now face would have been avoided.
I have heard this haunting question in the wounded and weary voices of parents of not just teenagers, but of adults who are now 20, 30, even 40 years old. “Where did we go wrong?”
This question is a question that has been asked long before we were born and will be long after we are gone. It is a question that is a part of Job friends’ line of thinking, although it has a different slant to it. Job’s tragic misfortune they conclude is because God is punishing him for his sins. “Just tell us what it is, Job and get right with God.”
It is a question that leads us to believe that disaster equals punishment from God. Jesus had to deal with this perspective in the text of this hour and season, but he doesn’t buy into it. He points out a greater reality, a greater need, which his audience needed to both comprehend and experience. In doing so they learn the “mind of Christ on repentance.”
About this time Jesus was informed that Pilate had murdered some people from Galilee as they were sacrificing at the Temple in Jerusalem.
“Do you think that those Galileans were worse sinners than other people from Galilee?” he asked. “Is that why they suffered? Not at all! And you will also perish unless you turn from your evil ways and turn to God. And what about the eighteen men who died when the Tower of Siloam fell on them? Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem? No, and I tell you again that unless you repent, you will also perish.”
Then Jesus used this illustration, “A man planted a fig tree in his garden and came again and again to see if there was any fruit on it, but he was always disappointed. Finally, he said to his gardener, “I’ve waited three years, and there hasn’t been a single fig! Cut it down. It’s taking up space we can use for something else.”
“The gardener answered,’ Give it one more chance. Leave it another year, and I’ll give it special attention and plenty of fertilizer. If we get figs next year, fine. If not, you can cut it down.”
Two terrible tragedies have taken place. One is the murder of Jewish worshippers at the temple by the Roman leader that Jesus would face. The other is mentioned by Jesus and is the tragic story of 18 men who were killed when a tower fell on them.
Jesus’ response to both stories – one told to Him and one that He knew was on their minds – is the same. He looks beyond the obvious and points to a great and more important reality – the need for repentance.
Is Jesus demonstrating in this passage a hard to understand shallowness to human tragedy and suffering? No, He is not.
He is however, pointing His audience to something that He is very focused on because He knows that the ultimate fulfillment of His Father’s plan is not far away. He is pointing to a need that all of us have – the need for repentance.
The suddenness of death in these tragedies spurs Jesus on to remind His listeners, and us today, that life is like this. It can be taken from us, and those we love and care about, in an instant.
One of the things about the sudden and tragic death of someone you care about or like very much is that it leaves you breathless and gasping for soul breath. We often begin to think, ‘well what if so-and-so would have left later, would have they been involved in the accident?’ Or what if the flight had been cancelled would that have prevented the tragedy?
But when the person or persons who tragically die are those of questionable character the question becomes an assumption, “Well they got what they deserved. If they had been living like they should have been they would still be alive.” We make the assumption that their tragic death was a punishment for sin.
But, Jesus does not agree with us either. He challenges us today through the Holy Spirit to allow His grace and forgiveness to become a part of our lives.
Jesus, as we see in this passage, tells us that sin is sin. Period. End of discussion.
His mind is on His offer of repentance. Jesus says, “Repentance is possible. Repentance is available. Repentance is necessary. But, repentance is a limited-time offer.”
His illustration of the unfruitful fig tree gives His audience a very clear and understandable statement about what He sees as the important issue. And, it is not, ‘how bad are you?’ But, it is, “Are you going to repent of your own sins?” “Are you going to bear the right kind of fruit in your own lives?
Jesus is looking, not in a callous and uncaring but very caring and intense way, beyond the tragedy of disaster to the tragedy of humankind – a tragedy of hearts, lives, and souls who need to repent and turn to God while they can.
The story we are again examining this Lenten season is true. No names have been changed, because there are no innocent. There is however, repentance. And that is the Good News. Amen.