It’s been my experience that God gets blamed for a lot of things.
I’m sure that God gets credit for lots, too. Surely no one says “Thank God!” as just a random expression of appreciation, do they? God’s included in many many things we say, but, before I get off on a “don’t take God’s name in vain” tangent, that isn’t my point here. Nor am I interested in the expression “act of God” which is, frankly, just wrong. It’s an act of nature, but I’ll kind of come back to that.
I also don’t mean to address how often, when something bad happens, we might ask “why did God do that?” or “why did God allow that to happen? or “why didn’t God do something?” In moments of intense grief, looking for answers, we might ask those questions and wonder just where is God in that moment.
Wiser people than I have written at length about this, but let me say that God doesn’t need defending or excusing in that moment. I’m pretty sure God’s okay with accepting people’s grief as they express it, because I think God is sharing that grief, just as God shares our joy, and it’s God’s presence that inspires compassion and love around us.
I don’t for a moment think that the God of love, grace and life would do anything to hurt any part of creation and, more importantly, that’s not how it works. I look at it like this: just as we have free will, so does the world in which we live. It’s complex and random and things happen and we constantly search for a reason in that mystery.
Which brings me to how often we still hear people say that something happened because God is punishing us/them for being sinful. Not just the big “that hurricane was God punishing people for their immorality” or that flood was punishment for “those people,” but the more individual, personal things that we might sometimes even do to ourselves.
So, no. Just no.
I believe that God is love and life and creativity, inspiring us to live into the good that is in each of us. When we don’t because of the choices we’ve made, I think we’re distancing ourselves from that love. But God doesn’t abandon us or punish us. God forgives and encourages, always seeking a life-giving relationship. That’s why John the Baptist, Jesus and all his followers since keep talking about repentance: it means, literally, to turn away from sin and back to God, patiently waiting for us to return to that relationship and grow in it. That’s what a God of love is about.
I think Jesus says that, too. Luke’s gospel records some people talking with Jesus and they ask about some others who were killed by the Romans and their blood used in sacrifices (Luke 13:1-5), wondering if they were punished in that way because they were more sinful. No, says Jesus, and he reminds them of another incident of people killed when a building fell on them, an accident. Again no. People aren’t punished for being more or less sinful than others, Jesus seems to say, we’re all sinful and all die. That’s why we need to repent, to turn to good and live well so that this life may be full and fruitful before we return home to God.
Jesus then tells a story about a landowner who has a fig tree that hasn’t produced fruit for three years. He tells his gardner to cut it down and get rid of it, but the gardner ask for one more year, during which he’ll fertilize it and nurture it. If it bears fruit, great, if not, then cut it down. The End. Yes, that’s where the story ends, with no resolution, only the possibilities.
We traditionally interpret this story with God as the landowner, we’re the tree and Jesus is the gardner. And that makes sense, by itself. God put us here to be fruitful, we’ve not done that and Jesus comes to help us so that God won’t cut us down and throw us into the fire for not producing. Except go back to the scene right before this, the discussion that inspired the story. Does that fit?
What if we looked at it differently. What if we looked at it as a story of relationship. What if we were the impatient landowner and saw God as the tree that wasn’t meeting our expectations and giving us what we want? Jesus is the gardner still, trying to nurture the relationship between us, feeding it with what we have (yes, that’s the fertilizer) in order that we might both flourish and be fed.
What if we were the gardner, the tree were God – that is, love – and we’re nurturing that so that it might feed the world, which is the landowner? What if we’re the gardner, the tree is our community, the landowner is the world and God is the, well, God is the fertilizer that nourishes and nurtures our relationship?
The thing is, the story, as Jesus tells it, has no resolution. Just like life, the possibilities are many. But we have a part in it, individually and in the community of our world.