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Mercy and Justice
"Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him
about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
 And He answered and said to them, 'Do you suppose that these Galileans
were greater sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered this
fate?  I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise
perish.  Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in
Siloam fell and killed them, were worse culprits than all the men who live
in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise
perish.'  And He began telling this parable: 'A certain man had a fig
tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit
on it, and did not find any.  And he said to the vineyard-keeper, 'Behold,
for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without
finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?'  And
he answered and said to him, 'Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until
I dig around it and put in fertilizer;  and if it bears fruit next year,
fine; but if not, cut it down.''"
The opening words of the unnamed people and Jesus' immediate reply,
reference events that we have no definitive information on. The people
mention an event where Pilate killed some Galileans and Jesus mentioned
eighteen people that died when the tower in Siloam fell on them-both tremendous
tragedies. I'm not sure if verse one is talking about this specific event,
but there was a time when Pilate's soldiers killed some civilians while
they were on a crowd control assignment. The mob scene occurred after Pilate
decided to use temple money to pay for some government infrastructure.
Jerusalem needed a new source of water, so Pilate chose to finance the
project with money from the temple. The Jews reacted strongly against this
commingling of funds and began to protest. Pilate ordered his soldiers
to conceal their identity, mingle with the Jews, and use force to disperse
the crowd when he gave the signal. They did as they were ordered and beyond-they
used deadly force and several Jews lost their lives. Perhaps it was this
event that the people in verse 1 were telling Jesus about. (Barclay, p
177) Look at Jesus' response to their news in verse 2: "Do you suppose
that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans, because
they suffered this fate?"
Jesus raises the age-old question, "Is sin and suffering connected?"
Do bad things happen to us because of the bad things we've done?
When I was a young tike, my brother and I were wrestling on the living
room couch. Our mother told us to stop. And we did while she was in the
room, but as soon as she left, we went right back at it. Before long, I
was writhing in pain on the floor, I'd fallen off the couch and landed
on my shoulder, with my brother in tow, breaking my right collar bone.
Exasperated, Mom gave us both a spanking and then took me to the hospital.
Before treating the injury, the doctor followed the standard medical procedure
of the day and took an X-Ray of my collar bone. Sure enough it was broken.
He gave me a sling to wear until the bone healed and sent me home. End
of story, right? Well, not exactly. Thirty some years later, I felt a strange
tightness in my neck and went into the private bathroom in my study to
take a look in the mirror. There it was, just above my collar bone-a lump.
My eyes immediately shifted from the tumor to my eyes. I don't know what
startled me more, the size of the lump or the look in my eyes.
The next day, I saw my doctor who sent me straight to the hospital for
an ultrasound and made an appointment for me with a surgeon. The surgeon
didn't waste any time, "There's no need to biopsy the tumor," the doctor
said, "It needs to come out." He described the operation and told me about
the possible complications. The only one that caught my attention was that
there was a slight possibility that he could paralyze my vocal chord while
removing the right lobe of my thyroid. And of course, that's what happened.
Where did my cancer come from? We'll I'm not sure, but one cause of
thyroid cancer is exposure to direct radiation as a child-the kind a person
would get having their collar bone X-rayed. So was my cancer and subsequent
problems with my voice punishment for disobeying my mother and continuing
to wrestle with my brother on the family couch?
Eliphaz, Job's friend would probably say "yes," Here's what he said
to Job: "Remember now, who ever perished being innocent? Or where were
the upright destroyed?  According to what I have seen, those who plow
iniquity And those who sow trouble harvest it.  By the breath of God
they perish, And by the blast of His anger they come to an end." (Job 4:7-9
Personally, I don't believe God zapped me with cancer for wrestling
with my brother. The radiation exposure and the botched surgery that left
my vocal chord paralyzed were just examples of what happens when doctors
practice medicine. Humans make mistakes and those mistakes have consequences.
Jesus further responds to their news with a question about eighteen
people that died when a tower fell on them. Again, we aren't sure who these
people were or what event Jesus is referencing, but it could be Jewish
men who actually took jobs working on Pilate's aqueducts and died on the
job. (Barclay, p 177) Conventional wisdom of the day would say they got
what they deserved-that ultimate justice was done. But I don't believe
that was Jesus' position. In Jesus' teaching, there is a distinction between
sins, but not a distinction between sinners. Churches often errantly teach
that there is no distinction between sins-a teaching that fails the common
sense test and the scriptural test. Common sense tells us that raping and
killing a child is a worse sin than lying about your weight. In Matthew
5:19, Jesus said: "Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments
and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of
heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called
great in the kingdom of heaven." (NIV) There are "lesser" and "greater"
commandments. Later, He said: "'You shall LOVE THE Lord YOUR God with all
your HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.  This is
the great and foremost commandment.  The second is like it, You shall
LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.'" (Matthew 22:37-39 NASB) Though there
is a distinction between sins, there is no distinction between sinners.
Or to put it another way, you won't be any more dead if you drown in the
ocean then you would be if you drowned in a bathtub.
The one thing we all have in common is our sinfulness. Paul wrote: "for
all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," (Romans 3:23 NASB).
He also wrote that those sins have consequences: "For the wages of sin
is death," (Romans 6:23 NASB) It isn't that small sins are without consequences
and large sins have them-all sins have the same ultimate punishment-eternal
death. And that's where the parable comes in. In this parable Jesus teaches
that God gives us a second chance. In the parable, Jesus said: "A certain
man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came
looking for fruit on it, and did not find any.  And he said to the vineyard-keeper,
'Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree
without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?'
 And he answered and said to him, 'Let it alone, sir, for this year
too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer;  and if it bears fruit
next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.'" (Matthew 13:6-9 NASB)
Three years was plenty of time for the fig to put on fruit. The man
was just in telling the vineyard-keeper to destroy the tree. Just as God
is just for punishing sinners-all sinners-even those who sin small sins.
But God's justice is always tempered with mercy. The vineyard-keeper pled
to give the tree another chance. He pled for mercy. God is a merciful God
who gives us another chance. That is the gospel message. Yes it is true
that we've sinned, but is also true that Jesus Christ died on the cross
to pay for our sins and rose from the grave to defeat sin, hell and the
grave, empowering us to experience life after life instead of death after
death. God is a God of the second chance. But there's more to this parable
than just that. He is a God of the second chance, but there comes a time
when the second chance is the last chance. There is no other way we can
In this life, there are times that we suffer because of things we do.
If I jump from a plane without a parachute, I have no one to blame but
myself for my death. It won't be society's fault, the pilot's fault or
the parachute manufacturer's fault-it will be my fault. Sometimes we suffer
consequences of other people's actions. 9-11 is a perfect example of that.
Sometimes we suffer because of random chance-a percentage of people will
get cancer even if they have healthy lifestyles. In the words of Forrest
Gump, "Stuff happens." Some times we suffer because of the work of the
evil one who wants to harm us or even at the hand of God who uses our trials
to strengthen our faith and build our endurance.
But in the life to come, there is only one reason we will suffer. Because
we've sinned against a Holy God, and we squandered the second chance he
gave us-the chance to accept His sacrifice for our sin. Don't make that
mistake. If you don't know Christ as your Savior and Lord, receive Him