The gospel for last Sunday, the 3rd Sunday of Lent, sees Jesus reminding us that people are not responsible for their own misfortune. Rather, he says, we should stop blaming people and look to our own fruitfulness.
Every once in a while, someone comes up with a catchy or succinct phrase that enters the public consciousness – and that phrase is then used and quoted years after it was first coined and the original context has been forgotten. One such phrase that comes to mind at the moment – I can’t think why – A week is a long time in politics. Former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, of course.
Often, though, it’s advertisers. It was The Accident Group, whose founder failed to see the irony of sacking two and a half thousand workers by text message when it went bust and then disappearing to Spain with millions, that came up with the slogan in their adverts: Where there’s blame, there’s a claim. It’s a phrase that people still use.
Where there’s blame there’s a claim.
We’ve all heard or seen those kinds of adverts. Accidents happen – and yet someone must be to blame, we are told, and must pay the price. We find it hard to cope any more with the concept of ‘accident’ or ‘human error’. These days if anything goes wrong we feel that someone, somewhere, must be to blame and that it’s important that they accept the consequences. We’re encouraged to think not just, “Is there blame?” but “Who is to blame?” Simply human fallibility is no longer seen as an allowable option. And people now think:
Where there’s blame there’s a claim. Because someone must be to blame.
It seems from today’s gospel reading that people haven’t changed all that much over the last two thousand years. People, then, as now, avidly discussed the latest news of death and destruction and tried to understand its significance. We do not know precisely what tragedy some people told Jesus about on the day that our reading originally took place. All we know for sure is that several Galileans were killed in or near the temple by Pilate’s soldiers as they prepared to offer their sacrifices to God.
Nor do we have a record of the tragedy involving the collapse of the tower in Siloam that killed eighteen people. All we know for sure is that then, as now, tragedy struck and people died and still other people talked about it, and tried to make sense of it.
And they thought that someone must be to blame – most probably the people themselves, or their parents. At the time it was a common belief that if tragedy struck it must be your own fault or that of your parents.
Even today people will look for someone to blame. Whenever bad things happen, whenever senseless things happen, human instinct is to try to make sense of it. And so often people end up blaming God or other people. Someone must be to blame.
She wouldn’t have been attacked if she hadn’t been there, dressed like that. It’s her fault!
They wouldn’t have drowned if they hadn’t been crossing the Mediterranean in a boat that was too small. It’s their own fault for paying people smugglers to transport them!
Why does God let cyclones happen – like the one we’ve just seen across Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi in Africa? God could have prevented it if he had wanted to!
People want to have someone to blame!
We all want to make sense of the senseless, we want to know why certain things occur, and that is often a good thing. For example – when buildings collapse, like the tower in Siloam that collapsed, investigations are done to find out why so that, just perhaps, such a similar tragedy can be prevented from happening.
Generally speaking wanting to know why bad things happen is not a bad thing, but sometimes the urge to figure out why leads us to point the finger in the wrong direction. We live now, as I’ve already mentioned, in a culture that seeks to blame someone for almost every bad thing that happens. It leads us into assigning blame and guilt to people that do not deserve it, or who at least do not deserve it any more or less than do we.
Let me tell you two stories.
The Revd Richard Fairchild tells of a young man who was killed outside a bar in 1976. His name was Neil and he was the brother of a friend. He was out with his girlfriend for a quiet evening. He was minding his own business when he was assaulted. People, talking about the incident, were heard to say things like: “Well, if he hadn’t gone to the bar he wouldn’t have been killed.” and “People who drink deserve everything that happens to them.” People started to blame the victim, not the perpetrator.
In a previous parish I, along with the other clergy, used to take communion into a local hostel for those dying with AIDS. This was in the 80s when AIDS was still relatively new and threatened to be an epidemic in the UK. It was very much feared and still erroneously seen as a gay disease. The volunteer cook in the hostel was a member of a local church – not an Anglican one. She told me how fellow members of her church had said to her: “How can you work in such a place – it’s their own fault those people are in there!” What an appalling attitude!
And yet such attitudes – that people must deserve their own suffering, that they must be responsible for their own misfortune, are all too prevalent today. If anything the use of social media has made the problem far, far worse than it has ever been.
But as followers of Jesus we are called to be different. And such attitudes in our culture where someone must be to blame, and where so often people are blamed for their own misfortune, have to be challenged – just as Jesus challenged them in his day.
Why else would Jesus have replied “Because those Galileans were killed in that way, do you think it proves that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? What about the eighteen people killed when the tower fell on them in Siloam? Do you suppose this proves that they were worse than all the other people living in Jerusalem. No indeed, and I tell you that if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they did.”
Jesus suggests that we make sense of the senseless, not by condemning the victims of tragedy for their complicity in their own deaths – but by considering our own mortality, and our own sinfulness, and working to produce fruit befitting our salvation before we are called to account for our lives before his eternal throne. For as the parable of the unfruitful fig tree in today’s gospel reading tells us – God expects us to be fruitful for him. He expects us to produce that which is pleasing to him, lest we be cut down and perish like those we think have somehow deserved their suffering.
The question isn’t whether or not other people’s suffering makes sense, or whether or not they have deserved their suffering – but whether or not our lives make sense, whether or not we are fruitful for God, whether or not we are ready to reach out to care and to fight for justice for anyone who suffers no matter the cause, and whether or not we are ready to meet our maker.
The reality is that suffering happens – to good people and bad people alike. And instead of blaming people for their own misfortune Jesus reminds us today that far from pointing the finger we need to extend hands of compassion.