It’s the stuff of cross-stitch samplers and sunny sermons: “God never gives us more than we can handle.”
It’s meant to console, to inspire confidence, to help us “claim victory” over illness or heartache or the wiles of the devil. For all the earnestness with which it is exhorted and embraced, it is also patently untrue.
Some people, lots of people, millions of people have more than they can handle.
They are overwhelmed, undone by sudden catastrophe; buried under crushing burdens related to debt, disease, death; drowning in a sea of unstoppable pain or white-hot grief. Some, miraculously, find a way out of the staggering misery (more on that in a minute). Others don’t.
Some people, it is clear, have more than they can handle.
Yet it’s important to note that Christian theology does not hold that it is God who sends the more-than-we-can-handle difficulties our way. God is not the invisible personal trainer, sadistically adding more weight to the bench to see how much we can press before we collapse–our own “no pain, no gain” life coach.
And neither does God visit suffering upon us as punishment. Jesus addresses this in Sunday’s appointed gospel lesson (Luke 13:1-9). Two ripped-from-the-headlines events are used to make his point. The first is the massacre of a group of Galileans in Jerusalem. On Pilate’s orders, these Jews had been murdered for offering sacrifices in the temple, and their own blood had been mingled with the priestly oblation.
Jesus insists that such a tragedy is not punishment from God: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you . . . “
His second example–again from the front page of the newspaper–was a construction accident in which eighteen people had been killed when a tower fell. Jesus repeats the question: “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you . . . “
The truth, though, is that most of us prefer a punishing God to one who seems absent or unpredictable. Even if we’re the ones being punished.
The rain falls, as Jesus teaches elsewhere, on the just and the unjust. This goes against our sense of basic fairness but, as this week’s reading from Isaiah reminds us, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are God’s ways our ways (55:8).
We can’t know God’s thoughts but we can know something better. As Frederick Buechner puts it: “God doesn’t reveal his grand design. He reveals himself. He doesn’t show us why things are as they are. He shows his face.”
During Lent we follow this One who reveals the face of God, who calls us to repentance–the dominant theme, perhaps, of the passage from Luke. Repentance–metanoia–is not about feeling a little bit bad and hoping to do a little bit better tomorrow. Repentance is a radical reorientation of the self; literally a “turning around” of the intellect or will–a change of heart, a change in direction.
But to what end? For what purpose?
Immediately after the call to repentance, Jesus tells the parable of the lone fig tree planted among the grapes. For three years the tree had produced no fruit and the vineyard owner instructed the gardener to “cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”
But the gardener in the story displays the hope of all who have ever tried to keep a house plant alive or salvage a backyard vegetable patch. He says to the vineyard owner: “give it one more year.”
We’re the barren fig tree in Jesus’ parable and Jesus is the patient gardener. “Give it one more year,” he pleads on our behalf. Jesus tells this story as he’s on his way to Jerusalem to die. He knows where all of this is leading. “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.”
The cure that Jesus the patient gardener offers is radical horticulture: he will give his own life, his crucified body, as the fertilizer, the compost that will bring new life and growth. Repentance–a turning away from death toward life and wholeness–is part of this process.
The tragedies or accidents that befall us are not God’s judgment on us–we already have Jesus’ word on that. And sometimes we have more than we can handle of our share of suffering. Pious sloganeering to the contrary can feel like a kick in the stomach to those barely hanging on.
The good news is that Jesus tends the soil of broken, barren lives and brings forth life. When we gather as his body, when we bless, break, take, and eat his body, we become for a broken, barren, suffering world the Jesus who says, through the words of Isaiah this week, “incline your ear, and come to me; listen so that you may live” (55:3).