So, the takeaway from today’s Gospel is this: If you find yourself knee-deep in manure, don’t worry, it’s just God fertilizing you. It’s true, though, that life is full of trouble. This has been said many times by many people. It’s even in the Bible. Psalm 90 says, “Our years are 70 or 80 for those who are strong / and most of these are emptiness and pain.” Shakespeare has Macbeth say, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow / creeps in this petty pace from day to day / to the last syllable of recorded time; / and all our yesterdays have lighted fools / the way to dusty death.” And we’ve all heard somebody say at some point, “There are only two sure things in this life, death and taxes.” According to this way of thinking, life is quite simply full of trouble, and we have to accept it.
And this may be, at least on the surface. We usually don’t choose the sort of trouble and sorrow that comes our way. One thing is certain, though, aside from taxes and death, we usually receive just about all the trouble and sorrow we can handle. All of us have experienced major tragedies in our lives. Those we have loved and have depended on have died. Friends and family have suffered debilitating illness through no fault of their own. We ourselves might be facing pain and chronic illness. And when we look around the world we see suffering on a scale that blinds us. People are gunned down in their places of worship. War destroys peoples’ lives and homes. Every day, children die of hunger and preventable disease. Life is certainly full of trouble and sorrow.
And we will do almost anything to avoid it. In our first reading today, Moses is curious about a strange sight he sees in the desert. He says, “I must go over and look at this remarkable sight.” He almost immediately regrets his curiosity. God has chosen him, and that’s not good news to Moses. He knows that he is in for a heaping share of trouble and sorrow, and so, in another passage, tries to convince God that he’s not the guy for the job. God doesn’t agree, and guess who gets his way.
In the Gospel today, Jesus mentions two tragedies that were in the news. One should be immediately familiar to us – a group of people were killed while attending worship services. And we have certainly heard of incidents like the second – a building collapses and kills those inside. The crowd are wondering what these people did to deserve such tragedy. Jesus says – they didn’t deserve it. Deserving has nothing to do with it.
But how desperately we want to believe that it does. Bad things happen to people who deserve it. Which means that they can’t happen to us. Someone who smoked for 50 years gets lung cancer. We feel bad for the person, but at some level we think, “Well, they should have known better.” Or at least, there’s a reason why they are suffering, a reason we can point to and feel secure in knowing that because we don’t smoke, the same thing is not liable to happen to us. If someone gets in a car wreck because they were driving too fast, or talking on a cell phone, we can think that we are insulated from car accidents because we obey the speed limit, more or less, and know the dangers of talking on cell phones while driving. This reasoning can extend to a kind of magical thinking. I have a friend who was outraged when she was diagnosed with diabetes as a young, fit woman. It wasn’t because she was otherwise healthy that she was mad, though, it was because for most of her life she had been a hypochondriac. She felt that by worrying so much about getting sick that she was inoculating herself from actually getting sick. Most of us make bargains like this. It can be as simple as a superstition – if I break a mirror, I will have seven years of bad luck. Outwardly we scoff at such nonsense, but still, we probably avoid breaking mirrors, or if we accidentally do break one, we might think, “Uh oh,” if only for a minute. For the most part, such thinking boils down to the idea that if I am good, if I follow the rules, even sometimes self-imposed rules, then nothing bad will happen to me. It’s as if we try to pile up credits in some sort of spiritual bank account as a protection against tragedy. Even Lent can be twisted in this way. We may think that by giving up chocolate, or coffee, or meat on Fridays, by accepting some small burden or trouble now, we are building a wall against future, more serious burdens and troubles.
Jesus tells us that this isn’t so. We can’t protect ourselves from tragedy, from sorrow, from hardship by magically depending on our good deeds. Paul adds, in his first letter to the Corinthians, “whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.” That’s not to say that good deeds are worthless. By no means! It just means that they won’t help us to stand secure in the belief that we will avoid the tragedies that life consistently brings to us. But Jesus adds something significant. He says that we must repent.
We usually think of repentance as feeling bad for something we’ve done, and it certainly does mean that. We feel guilt, remorse, regret, over something we’ve done or said which has harmed someone else, or ourselves. And this is not a bad thing. In the original Greek, the word behind the English “repentance” has the connotation of a change of heart, or a turning from one thing to another. So repentance, in its most positive sense is a recognition of our true nature, that we are broken in some fundamental way, and that we can’t repair ourselves, that we need to turn from ourselves to God for help. This is the change of heart, the change in perspective, that Jesus is calling us toward. Jesus says in the Gospel reading that if we do not repent, we “will all perish as they did,” that is, those in the tower or at the worship service. But how did they perish, what does Jesus mean? They perished unprepared. The Rule of Benedict asks us to keep death before our eyes every day. This may sound morbid, always thinking that we might die today, but it’s not. Think of this for a minute. If we truly believe that this might be our last day on earth, we will probably live it with extraordinary consciousness and attention. We’ll appreciate the gift of life, the beauty of nature, the love of our families and friends. We’ll be kind to others, we’ll try to do the right thing, not because of some future reward, but because it no longer seems important to think mostly of our own advantage. When tragedy does come, if it happens to us, we can accept it, with God’s help. If it happens to others, we can be really compassionate because we are not trying to protect ourselves from some future hypothetical sorrow and pain, as if tragedy were infectious. This is the repentance that Jesus is asking of us. Elsewhere in the Gospel, Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea, saying, in God’s words, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” This is where true repentance leads us, to mercy, to compassion, to love. And in this we can truly stand secure, since we are becoming like God – because God is love.