Reformed Quarterly Volume 10, Issue 1
Dr. David O’Dowd is the senior pastor of Seminole Presbyterian Church in Tampa, Florida. He was formerly Assistant Professor of Preaching at RTS/Jackson and now serves as Adjunct Professor of Preaching at RTS/Orlando.
When the bomb destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, most Americans were angry at the Middle Easterners who carried out the plan. But some Christian somewhere wondered, “Who was the Jonah on board who sinned and brought down the ship?” In 1983, when a Kansas City hotel balcony fell on those dancing and drinking below, most people blamed bad engineering, but some Christian somewhere blamed the “sinners” on the dance floor below. When the 1989 earthquake struck San Francisco and leveled the double-decker freeway, most people worried about highway design. But more than one Christian thought about those in the Bay Area who thumb their noses at God.
Knowing how to evaluate life’s hazards and happenings is of no small concern to each of us. And no time could be better for such consideration than now — the final decade of both the twentieth century and the second millennium after Jesus walked on planet earth. In Luke 12 and 13, the Lord of the universe gives us seven principles for evaluating life’s enterprises and events so that we can honor Him in our response to them.
Many times when life hands us tragedy, we erroneously assume that God is punishing us. This type of thinking isn’t new; Jesus had to refute it during His earthly ministry. In response to His teaching about discernment (Luke 12:34-39), the crowd tells Jesus about some Galileans whom Pilate’s soldiers had beaten at the temple (Luke 13). From extra-biblical sources we know that mobs had gathered to protest Pilate’s use of temple taxes to pay for a non-religious public work — a new and needed water system for Jerusalem. The crowd appears to think that Pilate’s beating of these revolutionary Galileans was a judgment from God.
However, Jesus contradicts the crowd by asking if they think those Galileans were worse sinners than any others since they suffered in this way. He doubly emphasizes His point by telling of eighteen people who had died when a tower near the Pool of Siloam fell on them. These deaths might have been related to the new water system, and a story might well have been circulating that God had judged these workers for robbing His offerings — accepting as wages the money Pilate had stolen from the temple. At any rate, Jesus clearly refutes the belief that calamity always equals judgment.
Job’s counselors make this same error, assuming that Job’s calamities must be the result of specific disobedience. Jesus’ disciples have the same problem in John 9:1-3 when they believe that a man blind from birth was made so because of his own or his parents’ sin.
With our twentieth century enlightenment, we don’t tend to blame plane crashes, earthquakes, and tornados on the wickedness of the victims. But, in spite of our modern wisdom, we still blame ourselves when calamity strikes close to home. Have you or a family member ever asked, “What have I done to deserve ‘this’?” Whether it’s cancer, an accident on the highway, financial collapse, or the death of a child, we too easily assume that God is getting us. Most often, this belief is the result of erroneous estimation.
Occasionally, however, God does seem to step in and make His opinion known. A few years ago the Prague newspaper, Vicerni Praha, reported that Vera Czermak, upon learning that her husband had betrayed her, jumped out of her third story apartment. The paper noted that she was recovering nicely at the local hospital, having landed on top of her unfaithful husband who was killed instantly. It’s hard to “mis-estimate” that one.
Most of the time God’s judgment comes not through calamity but through legitimate consequences. Scripture makes it clear elsewhere that the final judgment will come after Christ’s return. For now, man’s folly and sin usually yield punishment through the ordinary course of events. If you drink when you drive, you are likely to hurt yourself and others. If you are irresponsible in relationships, you most likely will never receive the blessings that only close and trusting attachments can bring. If you are sexually loose and spread a lot of “love” around, you won’t have much left that has belonged only to you and your beloved. If you lie and cheat and steal, don’t be surprised if your kids do, too.
Behavior in God’s world — and it’s the only world around — has specific and legitimate consequences. Too many a young person has sown his wild oats and spent the next ten or twenty years praying for a crop failure. Putting it another way, “God’s providence will get you almost every time!”
Jesus, the master teacher, rarely missed an opportunity to drive a truth home once He had His audience’s attention. So in Luke 13:6-9 (NIV) He told the crowd a parable about a man who had planted a fig tree in a vineyard and had looked for fruit on it for three years. He finally said to the caretaker, “Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?”
This leads us to our third principle –rightful expectations. God is personally involved in His creation. He planted for a reason. He created for a reason. Life is not the result of random molecules going bump in the night. Therefore, it is not okay to fill your days randomly either. It’s obvious that the fig tree represents Israel in the vineyard of the Kingdom of God. It was not producing fruit.
God planted you in His vineyard, too. And He planted your local church. How are you doing? Are you bearing fruit? Does your life show the love of God you have received if you have truly accepted Christ? Are you merciful to others with the mercy and forgiveness that are yours if you claim Jesus as your Savior? Do you live your days basically satisfied with life because you know your life has purpose and meaning and that you are valuable enough to God to have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb?
God has rightful expectations, and He demands that the response to those expectations come now, not in eternity. The kind of fig tree in the parable doesn’t take more than three years to become a mature, fig-bearing tree. How long have you been sitting under the teaching of God’s Word? Have you really believed? Have you truly yielded your life to bear fruit for the kingdom? When He inspects the vineyard, will He find faith in your heart? Next time calamity strikes near you, let it be a warning to repent.
A friend of mine told me of a client whose tardiness kept him from buying an airline ticket for his wife to visit her mother so he could spend the weekend with his mistress. The plane crashed. God probably won’t give that man many more providential warnings. Don’t use up the ones He gives you. A wise man said, “When you kill time you should always remember it has no resurrection.”
The parable in Luke says, “You’re taking up space. You’re receiving resources. You ought to be bearing fruit — either thirtyfold, sixtyfold, or one hundredfold.”
Three years was appropriate time for the fig tree to mature and bear fruit. It’s not a bad measure for Christians, either. My friend, Earl Radmacher, once said to a young man who called himself a baby Christian after six years, “If you’ve known Christ six years, ‘baby Christian’ isn’t a description, it’s an excuse!” The true trees in God’s vineyard produce appropriately. Dig your roots deep, then let God work through you.
It amazes me that God should fuss over us. The simplest way for Him to deal with those in His world who are just taking up space, who are in no way furthering His purpose, would be to cut them off, to dig them out, and to plant somebody else. But God is not an absentee landlord; He is the superintendent of the building, a worker, a vineyardman. He cares for us.
God is willing to sweat with a shovel and smell with manure that men might repent. Israel’s time was up, but Jesus’ words bleed from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Let me dig around it, the vineyardman said. Give it one more year. If not, then cut it down.
Edwin McMasters Stanton treated Abraham Lincoln with tremendous contempt. He called him “a low, cunning clown” and nicknamed him “the original gorilla,” claiming that Du Chaillo, a circusman of the day, was a fool to go off to Africa looking for gorillas when he could find one in Springfield, Illinois.
Lincoln said nothing in response. Instead, when the Civil War broke out, he appointed Stanton his Secretary of War, believing him to be the best man for the job. After Lincoln was shot, Stanton was reported to have stood over the dying body and said through his tears, “There lies the greatest ruler of men the world has ever seen.” That is merciful forbearance. Lincoln learned it from the Word of God, from the Lord Jesus.
God lets men and women achieve greatly in this life, even while they use His resources to mock Him. He does it out of merciful forbearance, not desiring that any should perish. But this wonderful forbearance should not cause us to neglect the seriousness of the final words of the parable: “If not, then cut it down.”
The tragedy of twentieth century educational enlightenment is that many men and women will do almost anything to avoid making final decisions. Couples will date nearly forever and neither marry nor break it off. Parents will promise discipline for their children and rarely deliver. Plea bargaining reigns. Prisons can only be used for rehabilitation; capital punishment is a capital offense. Up with merciful intercession; down with final conclusions.
Why is this the case? I believe that it’s because people who have been taught that life is a product of chance, that truth is based upon a majority vote, and that nothing is absolute or forever are going to have a problem making decisions. People with wrong absolutes make wrong decisions. People with no absolutes love the hesitation step as they waltz their way through life. The world’s problem is that people have forgotten what God is really like. Ultimately, He always settles things, completely and forever.
So often, we as believers do not tell the world the truth because we’ve been squeezed into the world’s mold ourselves. When any day might just be the final day — the day when the owner inspects His vineyard and makes His final judgment — we ought to be using the energy and resources He gives us wisely. The apostle Paul admonished the Colossian believers (4:5) to redeem the time for the days are evil. Jesus tells us to redeem the time, for God’s judgment on those who fail to repent is as certain as His mercy on those who cling to Christ and seek to bear fruit for the Father who has accepted them into His family.