No More Victim Blaming ~ The Third Sunday of Lent

Sermon Given March 20, 2022

One of my favorite things about the arts is their ability to amplify social issues, to critique and defy modern ills. It doesn’t matter whether the comments come in the form of paintings, plays,or another medium. It lifts off the page and helps us see in a new way the problems set before us. It’s amazing how the commentary speaks, even a generation or two later. 

I think part of what Jesus is doing in our Gospel today is theater. He’s not dressing up, he’s not creating a character, but he is partaking in a certain kind of drama. He makes a good show. He’s not disingenuous, he’s very truthful, but he puts his message out big and bold, over exaggerating in some areas to drive his message home. He reminds us of death and hostility, of the feelings of hopelessness and despair, he takes in the shame and stigma that cling to people who die in horrible ways, and he turns it. He defies it. 

There was a train of thought in Jesus’ culture that if someone died in a horrible way, they must have done something horrible to deserve it. Bad things happen to bad people. The blame for their death wasn’t on the tyrant who defiled their sacrifices with human blood or on the structural defects of a tower that fell. It was on their sins. It was victim blaming. 

Now there had been plenty of people who critiqued that train of thought as well, the most notable being the author of Job, a fantastic exploration of theological victim blaming that eventually concluded, “Sometimes bad things just happen.” The problem is that this answer is not very satisfying, so people continue to try to pick apart the lives of victims to figure out why something happened to that particular person. 

Jesus comes in with his theatrical flair to comment on what must have been current events in his day. They aren’t recorded elsewhere, so they must have seemed fairly minor and inconsequential to the Roman occupation. Still, they mattered a great deal to those Jesus was teaching. What had the Galileans who died at the hands of Pilate done? What was wrong with those whom the tower fell on? How could they be protected from such bad things happening to them? The shame and stigma was palpable in the questioning. These people had to have done something and the crowd surrounding Jesus didn’t want to be next. So, in his theatrical way, Jesus amplified their concerns. He accentuated them. He made them bigger. “You see those people? Do you think you’re any less sinful than them? No you’re not. You’re going to die just like them.” Their worst fear is right in front of them. They could easily be the next person to die in a gruesome way. But Jesus defies the shame and stigma, he pushes past it. “Unless you change.”

I don’t really like using the word repent in this case. I think it overly spiritualized what Jesus is trying to say. He was telling them that they needed to turn around, to go the other way. But why do they need to turn around? Because the victim is not the problem. The Galileans didn’t cause their own death, Pilate did. The people who died in the tower didn’t cause their own death, the tower was likely not properly maintained and had deteriorated. I don’t think Jesus is saying to the crowd that they need to believe in him or they will die horrible deaths. I think he’s exaggerating to highlight a problem in their culture. Why do people suffer? Not because those individuals are bad or because they’ve done anything wrong. It’s because there are things that happen outside of their control. 

It’s hard to face the fact that there is so much we cannot personally control. I think we’ve got more than enough reminders around us from the pandemic to the war in Ukraine to global poverty and climate change. Trying to figure out what we can do, clinging to our own small piece of the puzzle is helpful, but we’ve also got to admit that there are big players who can do more than many of us. People with a great deal of power, both politically and economically, have the ability to enact policies that create great change. 

Some things also just happen completely outside the realm of  human control as well. Viruses randomly form. Tsunamis hit. The world does not revolve around us. There are millions of other species on this planet and the planet itself is not docile. It is in constant motion. When Job complained to God about his suffering, God pointed to all that was on the planet that wasn’t human, all that was not ours and that we could not control. The message was made plain: We live on the planet, but we do not own it. Sometimes things happen that are beyond human ability to change. 

This is where our passage from First Corinthians today has been used to damage people. The passage is actually about idol worship, asking that the people hold firm and don’t frequent temples to Roman gods. That could have a variety of consequences for the followers of Jesus in Corinth. Paul himself was in prison and never expected to be released. But he promises that if the people don’t give in, if they refuse to worship that which is not God, that God will be with them and help them to not be tested beyond their strength when others come after them for refusing to bow down to false gods.

 Paul spoke about a particular type of suffering, a voluntary suffering for one’s beliefs, but the passage has been globalized to all suffering. People who have lost their children, who have seen war crimes and atrocities, have been told that God will not test them beyond their strength. In that falsehood, we circle back around to victim blaming. If you can’t handle what happened, then you aren’t a true believer. But it’s doubtful Paul was even thinking of those scenarios when he wrote those words. He was talking about people being persecuted for refusing to worship Roman gods. Perhaps he would have been more careful if he knew his writings would still be in circulation two thousand years later. God doesn’t test people in horrific ways. God doesn’t blame people for not being able to cope with atrocities. God’s just not a jerk like that. 

Suffering happens. Jesus suffered, which means God suffered. God still suffers. I don’t pretend to know why it always seems to take so long for things to be done, why horrendous systems of abuse and violence last for centuries, but I have to call those things what they are: evil. And God Is not a fan of evil. 

Our reading from Exodus today is one of my favorites, Moses and the burning bush. Moses had been miraculously saved from death as a child, but fled Egypt as a young man. He had seen the injustices done to the people of Israel and killed an Egyptian overseer. Fearing execution by the state, he fled to Midian and built a life there. He had a wife and kids. He spent most of his days with the flocks of his father-in-law as a shepherd. But God grabbed his attention. Moses saw a spark on the mountain, a bush that was burning but not consumed, and in the flame, he found the heart of God. God called out against injustice, against suffering. God asked him to bring the people out into a good land, a place where they could live as free people. 

God sealed it all by sharing with Moses the Divine name. “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be”. A name that is really more of a description. There is no backstory to our God, unlike many other deities. We don’t quite know where God came from or where God is going. There is mystery, a little bit of danger and unknowing, in God. But God can also be trusted. Because when God’s people suffered, God sought freedom. God still seeks freedom today. God also seeks to redeem injustice. When Jesus died on the cross, God brought resurrection. We can’t define and pinpoint exactly how God operates, but we can know that God loves and cares for humanity. God wants flourishing, not death. 

Jesus closes our dramatic gospel today with a parable about a fig tree in a vineyard. Fig trees are typically planted in vineyards to test the soil quality. If a fig tree couldn’t make it, then grapes were never going to grow. The field had been barren for three years and the owner of the field was done. The fig tree had told him that it was pointless to try and grow grapes, he needed to do something else with the soil. It was obviously never going to be what he wanted it to be. 

I think we might often be like the owner when we look at the world. So much has happened that is not good. Things seem barren. We might even conclude that God’s way is never going to happen, that God’s dreams for this world are simply fantasies, that things could never really be that way. We may want to just chop it all down and start over. It’s hard to see how the suffering could end. But God invites us to pause. God nourishes the world, adding in more goodness, more mercy, more love. God invites us to continue working against injustice, against the hatred that infects our soil. God asks us, “Give it more time. Keep trying.” 

The current world won’t last forever. Someday humanity will draw our collective last breath. But until that day, we find God putting fertilizer around our fruitless fig trees, believing in us and knowing that we can produce fruit in abundance, not just for ourselves, but for all the grapes, all the animals, that surround us. There’s a lot of bad, but there’s also a lot of good. Sometimes it lives in spaces entirely outside our control so we don’t see it. Sometimes our fears drown it out. But God is not a God who abandons the world. God nourishes it. God asks us to join in that mission too. In that way, we can become fruit. 

May we not give up on this world quite yet. May we find the nourishment that God gives us. May we be able to act like Moses in the face of injustice. May we confront all the hate and anger, all that causes suffering in this world, and defy it. Amen.