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With the continued missile onslaught on the cities of Ukraine we feel the pain and the suffering and the loss of life. ‘Why this evil and suffering in this 21st century?’
In his 1940s book, The Problem of Pain,CS Lewis considers the question of pain and suffering from the perspective of the meaning and purpose of life.
He comments: If the first and lowest operation of pain shatters the illusion that all is well, the second shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and enough for us. Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us. We ‘have all we want’ is a terrible saying when ‘all’ does not include God. We find God an interruption. As St. Augustine says somewhere ‘God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full—there’s nowhere for Him to put it.’
In the opening lines of Luke chapter 13, we read Jesus’ comments about an evil that Pilate, the Roman governor in Judea, had perpetrated. He had mingled the blood of some Galileans with the Jewish sacrifices, perhaps at Passover time (13:1). While the event is not documented elsewhere, we know from Josephus (The Life of Flavius Josephus17 and The Antiquities of the Jews 17, 9, 3) that the Galileans tended to aggravate the Roman rulers and that they in turn responded harshly to any form of opposition.
Jesus’ words are tough: ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?’ he asked. ‘No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did…’(13:2-3).
‘Be warned,’ Jesus is saying, ‘all men and women are out of step with their Maker – and so too is planet earth.’ Certainly, every volcano and flood, every conflict and war, are testimony to that. Life as we know it is unpredictable and fleeting. We need to wake up and turn back to God while we have time.
To ignore Jesus is to head towards a fate even more tragic than that of those Galileans, for we will be exposing ourselves to the second death of which Jesus spoke in Luke chapter 12:4-5. If we wake up to the critical times in which we live we can turn to God and ask for his grace to live our lives in harmony with him.
CS Lewis observes: Pain is not only immediately recognizable evil, but evil impossible to ignore. We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities; and anyone who has watched gluttons shoveling down the most exquisite foods as if they did not know what they were eating, will admit that we can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world…’
Jesus pointed out that the choice we have is not only difficult and vital but is also urgent. He takes up this theme in a parable he tells (13:6-9). Gardeners know how easy it is to pull out an unproductive plant. However, wise gardeners will curb their impatience and wait. They will feed the plant, prune it, perhaps even cut some of the roots to stimulate it. Only when they find their careful endeavors are to no avail will they cut it down: ‘Let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down’ (13:8-9).
Many years ago I was involved in setting up a new school. Two or three large eucalyptus trees in the grounds were dying because of a prolonged drought. After digging around the tree roots, we set sprinklers every evening. As the water soaked into the ground, the trees began to regenerate and produce new growth.
The vineyard in Jesus’ parable sometimes symbolized the people of Israel(see Isaiah 5:1-7). However, while Jesus would have had in mind the people of Israel,his application is more general. He is reminding everyone of two themes that he develops – a final day when God will call everyone to account for their relationship with him (the first commandment), and God’s delay in the timing of that day. Jesus doesn’t want us to confuse God’s patience with indifference.
God’s non-intervention in times of evident evil doesn’t mean that he is indifferent. Rather, because he is extraordinarily patient, he exercises great self-control and chooses to wait. Yes, there are times when we may be tempted to think that Jesus will never return. He tells this parable to reassure us.
Two critical events would shortly touch the lives of his hearers – first, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection; second, in 70AD, the fall of Jerusalem, which he predicted (see Luke 21:20-24). In Luke chapter 13 Jesus says there would be a third crisis yet to come that would affect the whole world: his return. For centuries the Jewish people had been waiting for the dawn of the age of the Messiah. ‘Well,’ Jesus is saying, ‘It is here; you are standing on the threshold of the new age, the edge of eternity.’
Jesus asks us today: ‘How is it that you do not see the signs of the times in which you live?’ None of us can predict the future, but we can be assured that Jesus will return. His second coming will be very different from his first. It will not be a small, silent event, seen by only a few, but will come with great fanfare to be seen by everyone. If we are tempted to doubt Jesus’ words, we should note that the first two of his predictions have occurred!
A prayer. Almighty God, we confess that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: keep us outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, so that we may be defended from all adversities that may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
© John G. Mason
(Note: Today’s Word is adapted from my Luke: The Unexpected God, 2nd Edition, Aquila: 2019)