Mahatma Gandhi once said: “I call him religious who understands the suffering of others.”
This morning we hear that section of ‘Luke’ where Jesus is told the news of the day. The crowd is abuzz. A group of Galileans has been murdered by Pilate’s men and not just anywhere…at the Temple. Now Jesus’s reaction to this news to me seems odd. He does not exclaim in horror – he does not condemn the Roman powers – he turns to the crowd around him and says 2 things which are seemingly contradictory.
First He says, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered this way, they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” And then He answers His own query by saying, “No, I tell you.”
Now this is an answer that the modern mind comprehends – bad things do happen all the time to good people. – And further we know Jesus taught that too. Why, right in the Gospel of John, when Jesus cures the man born blind, people ask him “What caused that blindness?,” sin on the part of the parents or of the man himself?” – and Jesus tells them “Neither he nor his parents sinned. This happened that the works of God might be revealed.”
So – we have come to expect that for Jesus … there is no link between sin and physical suffering – so far, so good. But then, in this Gospel the next thing out of Jesus’s mouth is this: “But unless you repent, you will perish as they did.” Wait! – so suffering is caused by sin it seems…because in order to escape suffering Jesus is telling His listeners to repent – to turn away from their current behavior. That certainly sounds like he believes there is a link between sin and bodily suffering. So what are we hearing here?
Well, some commentaries will tell you that indeed Jesus is flat out warning people that – “ the wages of sin are death.” Others will say that “No, Jesus knows that each of us will suffer and die. But that Jesus is warning people here to be prepared to suffer and die at any time…and to remain pure so that when that time comes for them, they are worthy to behold the face of God.”
I would suggest however that the point of this story is that when others suffer and die we are not to hold ourselves aloof – we are called to join with them in their experience of suffering so that we ourselves, when the time comes, may not “bear our troubles alone.” For as Gandhi said, “I call him religious who understands the suffering of others.”
So what then? – How does this Gospel help us where we stand in the 21st Century? How does it make us safer in the experience of an unjust and unrepentant society? Well, I think of an article I read last night about Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. It was a piece featured in Algeciras News written by Kahled Badoun. In this article, Mr. Bedoun examined Ms. Ardern’s leadership following the attacks where 50 people including engineers, shopkeepers, doctors, refugee workers, students, footballers, little children, house wives, grandparents, community leaders, farmers, accountants, an Imam, and teachers were all mowed down while they were at prayer. And the thing that struck the writer about Ms. Ardern’s leadership can be summed up in one word, “compassion.”
This is what he wrote: “One week after 50 of her countrymen were massacred, she did not push Islam to the side away from the cameras, she brought it alongside her for the world to see. [at the memorial] She collected her breath and read “According to the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, “the believers in their mutual kindness, compassion and sympathy are just like one body. When any part of the body suffers, the whole body feels pain.” Her message was clear “Mr. Bedoun wrote,”Islam is not the other nor the invader, Islam is New Zealand”…”Her sincerity,” he said, “streamed from a place of empathy … which for her country unfolded in real time and right before their eyes. Xenophobic populism is not empty rhetoric…it is an enemy within” Kahled wrote [but] Ardern turned away from this global Islamophobic tide. In the turbulence of the aftermath, she was shaping a new model of engagement for her people to follow. It was a transformative precedent for the world to see.
Jesus said “unless you repent you will perish as they did” – so don’t distance yourself from the one who suffers lest you be alone in your time of suffering.” But the gospel doesn’t end there, it goes on to give us a parable, a picture of a fruitless tree. A tree which the land owner wishes to cut down but the tree is saved by the land owner’s gardener who says “give it one more year.” I will nourish it and we will see if it bears fruit next year.”
When we discussed this part of our Gospel this week at Vestry, someone said, “That image of the tree reminds me of the flowers growing in the desert of Southern California this spring.” For ten years – or recently longer because of drought – they lay dormant until the rains came and then the desert hill sides became crowded with flowers and the potential of life was fulfilled.
That is the hope of this Gospel that in our lives; “The rain” of compassion will unlock the beauty hidden inside our souls and the souls of those around us. You know it’s not hard to be compassionate, but if you are like me, you may sometimes forget to take that step outside yourself to imagine the pain of another. But today, I believe that Jesus recommends just that. “Lean in,” He tells us. “Don’t hold back.” And remember this morning what Gandhi said, “I call him religious who understands the suffering of others.”