March 20, 2022
One of the things I was taught way back in elementary school math class was this peculiar rule about shapes. A square is nothing more than a rectangle with all sides being equal. So, technically speaking, all squares are rectangles. However, and this was an important part of the lesson, not all rectangles are squares. It’s an extremely basic concept and somehow it perfectly fits the lesson Jesus teaches in the first half of our gospel reading this morning. Come with me on this.
We hear about these two awful, tragic events—first, about some Galileans who were murdered on the orders of Pilate, possibly during worship since their blood mingled with sacrifices; and second, some Jerusalemites who were crushed by a collapsing tower. The senselessness of tragedy has always been something we as human beings have tried desperately to apply some kind of sense to. We need a reason. When bad things happen, why do they happen? The explanation Jesus was confronting—an explanation that, by the way, is still far too prevalent today—is that God was punishing these people for some kind of sin they committed. If bad things happen to you, it must mean that you sinned.
But not all rectangles are squares.
When bad things happen, Jesus says, sometimes it’s just the senselessness of the world. Sometimes towers collapse. Sometimes occupying forces are cruel. Just because something bad happens does not mean we should go searching for the sin the person committed to cause the bad thing to happen. And we also shouldn’t assume this is a thing only people way back when believed, either. As recently as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina there were religious leaders naming God’s will and God’s punishment as the reason for the tragedies of those days. The recent observance of Trayvon Martin’s birthday should remind us that we all-too-easily search for the sins of a person’s past to excuse the injustice they receive in the present. God’s will shouldn’t be thrown around too loosely when we are confronted with tragedy. Punishment shouldn’t be cited as the reason for the bad that happens in our lives. Jesus is making that quite clear.
But, some rectangles are squares.
Sin will degrade us. It will eat away at us and our humanity. Sin separates us from our neighbors, sucks away our joy, and if it gives us anything it gives us nothing but hollow, fleeting pleasure in return. The destruction caused by sin isn’t the active punishment of God. It’s the natural consequence of what sin does to us. Sin is what causes us to watch people we don’t know working three jobs and barely getting by, but still insisting our access to low prices is more important than them earning a living wage. Sin is what causes us to see a maternity hospital bombed in Ukraine but be more outraged that gas topped four dollars a gallon. Sin is what causes us to believe a celebrity deserves harassment from her ex because she’s become a caricature of entitlement to us. The way sin deforms our way of seeing others as full human beings is why repentance is so important. It’s why we have a whole season of the church year where we focus on what our sins are and how we can discipline ourselves to turn away from them and toward God.
But I don’t think it’s enough to simply flee from sin. What do we have to run toward?
This absolutely beautiful passage from Isaiah gives us something to run toward. It’s a picture of the kind of hoped-for community we aim to create with God through our repentance. And to really understand it, I think we should pay attention to the context it was written in.
This particular part of Isaiah was written at the end of the Exile—the time when the Jews had been kicked out of their homeland, the Temple was destroyed, and for seventy years they were forced to build their lives and their faith from scratch in a foreign land. They were just about to start their return to Judah, and Isaiah was addressing a huge part of their fears in that return. Before, they had been able to interact with their neighbors based on prosperity and need, rooting themselves in the fact that they were a community and communities cared for one another. But seventy years in exile took away the foundation of that community: land. With land, they had access to water and firewood and grain—which they now had to pay for. What had been the freedom to share with others based on need was boiled down to the crass transaction of who could afford to live.
So Isaiah proclaims: “Ho! Come to the waters! You without money, come, buy and eat!” It’s not a market where only those with the means could afford what they needed to survive. Instead, it’s a vision of the community, the beloved community, restored to a way of sharing with those who are in need. And not just anyone sharing; it’s God providing the banquet. It rejects the idea that you have to be able to afford to live, that something as basic as food and water should be barred from those who can’t afford it.
But Isaiah’s words take it another step beyond by asking: “why do you spend your labor on that which does not satisfy?” You work and work and work, and sure, you can afford your bread, but what else have you lost? How can you know and love your neighbor if your only overriding concern is earning enough to maintain your household? How useful is productivity if you have no time left to enjoy what you’ve produced with the people you love? With over half of all vacation days in the United States left on the table at the end of the year (for those jobs that even give vacation time), Isaiah could very well be talking to us. Isaiah casts a vision of a community where we aren’t working ourselves to death just so we can continue to be alive. He lifts up a community that brings life by making humanity the most valuable part.
Sin looks a lot of different ways, but at its root it all comes down to the things that drive us away from our neighbor. The things that cause us to stop seeing our neighbor as a human being. The things that cause us to dehumanize those that are farther and farther outside of our circle of care. Because when we stop seeing our neighbor as a human being—as much a human being as our friend or our spouse or our child—then we will be much more willing to let tragedy happen to them. We become much more willing to excuse treating them as irrelevant statistics or onerous caricatures.
So repent! Turn around from that way of thinking! And if that seems too big, to suddenly humanize seven billion people, start small. Add one more person to your circle of care at a time. Start caring about the cashier whose name you don’t know yet. Humanize your mail carrier. Understand who the other regulars at your bar or restaurant are outside of where you normally see them. When we widen our circle of care, when we add more people to our list of actual humans in our minds, it makes it that much easier to humanize more people. It makes it that much easier to stop thinking of others as statistics or caricatures. It makes it that much easier to reject the claim of sin as the cause for people’s tragedies. And the more people we consider the be full, complex human beings, the closer we will get to the beloved community that Isaiah saw.
That’s the fruit the gardener was looking for on the fig tree. The fruit that builds authentic community. The fruit that nourishes human relationships, love for others, and the dignity of each and every person. Let God grow that fruit in you.
Thanks be to God. Amen.