The prophet Obadiah wrote: But you should have taken no pleasure over your brother on the day of his misery; you shouldn’t have rejoiced over the people of Judah on the day of their devastation; you shouldn’t have bragged on their day of hardship (v. 12). The prophet laments the tendency of his people to find some sense of satisfaction in the troubles of others. We don’t like to admit, in polite company, that we have such feelings, but we do. Why else buy a National Enquirer or watch reality TV?
Sometimes, truth be told, what we feel in watching another’s suffering is nothing short of fascination – be it celebrity trials or foreign wars – it’s like watching a train wreck, & who can resist? Sometimes, what we feel & think is more sinister, a satisfaction both malignant & cruel: “It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy!” Other times, however, what we feel is far more complex, & rejoicing is only a part of it.
There is a German word, Schadenfreude, which describes a more or less universal human trait: the sometimes sad & always anxious relief, which, for example, certain soldiers feel during battle when the infantryman next to them is wounded or killed while they are spared. Two are in the field; one catches a bullet but the other does not. There is sadness, but there is relief, too – not rejoicing, exactly, but something else. It is hard for a survivor not to read some “pattern” or purpose into such a stark episode. It is hard, in fact, not to feel divine intent or involvement in the moment: “I must have been spared for a reason.” And perhaps that is the case.
A tornado comes, & one house is utterly destroyed while next door there is not even a scrap of paper in the yard. The folks whose house still stands are sorry as they can be about their neighbors, & they will help all they can, but at the same time there is a sense of great relief that they got hit & we didn’t. We shouldn’t feel this way, but we often do. We sigh. But maybe we were spared for a reason, we say only to ourselves, or maybe they were being punished.
Such thoughts are not without precedent. After all, even the psalmists affirm divine protection for the righteous. From Psalm 91: Even if one thousand people fall dead next to you, ten thousand right beside you – it won’t happen to you. Just look with your eyes, & you will see the wicked punished. The psalmist began: I say to the Lord, “You are my refuge, my stronghold! You are my God – the one I trust!” God will save you from the hunter’s trap & from deadly sickness.
Still, we must be careful lest warm thanks & praise become cold judgment & self-righteousness. Some of the most condescending words ever spoken are, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” It may sound like piety to undiscerning ears, but it is much more self-serving than grace-filled.
Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents? the disciples asked J in John 9:2. What a safe, sterile question for the sighted to ask, although as the story reveals, there is more than one kind of blindness. Is it not the Pharisee who prays, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like this man,” a prayer that, according to Jesus – although it is as ancient as the text & as current as ethnic & national bigotry – justifies no one. When we say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” we may not be nearly so graced as we think.
In our reading this morning, we have an example of ancient Near Eastern Schadenfreude: people come to Jesus to tell him about a tragedy that has occurred & perhaps, ostensibly, in hopes of an explanation. They say Pilate has murdered some Galileans, right there “in church,” while they were in the very act of worship! Maybe they were just seeking plausible answers. But Jesus, perhaps sensing a kind of relieved smugness in them, serves up questions instead: Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? Jesus is asking, in effect, “Do you imagine yourselves as better than they because you did not suffer in this way?”
No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts & lives, you will die just as they did. Jesus will not allow his listeners to be content with themselves in this way. He will not permit his questioners to objectify the suffering of others in any way as to make it self-serving.
Jesus then strikes again, while the iron is hot, & reaches quickly for another example to drive home the point. In Jerusalem, he reminds them, the Siloam tower fell & killed 12 people. Do you think they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem?
The obvious answer is no. Towers sometimes fall; the Pilates of the world sometimes kill people cruelly & irrationally. That does not mean, however, that there is a reason to bless ourselves by cursing others in such a tragedy, or to satisfy ourselves as to the reasons for our own security or righteousness over against others – who are also God’s children. Towers sometimes fall, & the Pilates of the world are sometimes incredibly sadistic. There is no security in this world, & so we too must repent; or we may perish in the same way as the others.
In theological language, Jesus is upending the old Deuteronomic theology that equates blessing with righteousness & suffering with wickedness. But it is not that simple, he says. We should not rejoice or stare at our neighbor’s misfortune. We must not content ourselves or denigrate others in view of their suffering, or imagine it justice that some suffer & others are spared. No, things happen in this world. There are towers that fall & murderers who kill, & we best not rejoice, but repent. We too must repent.
A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. (The trees are good for the grape vines.) He came looking for fruit on it & found none. He said to his gardener, “Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past 3 years, & I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?” The gardener responded, “Lord, give it one more year, & I will dig around it & give it fertilizer. Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.”
Perhaps the owner is Jesus, who has been teaching & doing miracles for as much as 3 years. And what has been the result? Apart from a very few followers, who are still quite confused about it all, he has found none: no repentance, not even in the cities where most of his mighty deeds had been done. He is prepared, then, to give Israel, & particularly Jerusalem, the temple, & the ruling priests one more chance. If they still refuse, their doom will be sealed.
Or maybe the owner is God the Father, & Jesus is the gardener. Either way, the end result is the same: if after a year there’s no fruit, you can cut it down.
What is God up to? What is God up to in our world today? In our own lives? Have we repented? Has an encounter with Jesus changed our hearts & lives? Are we bearing fruit for God’s kingdom?