“It is not certain”

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.  Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’  He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

I am fascinated by Chaos Theory. A relatively new branch of physics that has been applied in many other fields such as biology and meteorology. Chaos theory stated at its most simple, suggests that systems evolve and are not static, that even orbits can become irregular over time due to irregular actions of “strange attractors”.

An early pioneer of the theory was Edward Lorenz whose interest in chaos came about accidentally through his work on weather prediction in 1961. Lorenz decided to cut time on running a very long computer programme, by inserting values, (which the first half of the programme would have calculated), at the halfway mark of the programme. To his surprise the weather that the machine began to predict was completely different from the weather calculated before. Lorenz tracked this down to the computer printout. The computer worked with 6-digit precision, but the printout rounded variables off to a 3-digit number, so a value like 0.506127 was printed as 0.506. This difference is tiny and the consensus at the time would have been that it should have had practically no effect. However Lorenz had discovered that small changes in initial conditions produced large changes in the long-term outcome. Lorenz’s discovery, which gave its name to Lorenz attractors, proved that meteorology could not reasonably predict weather beyond a weekly period (at most). Wikipedia: Chaos Theory

This has given rise to what is now called the Butterfly effect, and that in turn to the famous saying, “The flap of butterfly wing in Brazil may cause a hurricane in Hong Kong

All this is fascinating to the intellect but there is one significant challenge. Our minds crave order! It is this natural ordering drive in all humans that has made us such a diverse and successful species. We prefer to make order out of chaos (except for some teenage years) and not the other way around.

Our mechanistic universe, so eloquently described and mapped by the early Western scientists was the fruit of this ordering drive. The Newtonian world that ran like a machine made us feel safe and comfortable. When people like Darwin, Einstein and Bohr came along, we became insecure and twitchy once again.

We find it difficult to deal with randomness and chaos, because the ego, which you can translate as “Satan” wants’ to be in control.

The problem however comes when, what has now been scientifically proven to be a fairly chaotic and random world, will not allow us to control it as we desire.

Halley’s comet did not return where we said it should, we cannot predict the weather as accurately as we would like, and as to what we will find in the Large Hadron Collider when we really get those atomic particles colliding who knows?

So because the world is now revealed as being random and chaotic, and because we refuse to accept that not everything can be explained or controlled, as a final frontier of control and resistance we now still expect our religion to explain and control what we know from science that we cannot.

And Fundamentalist religion falls right into this trap laid by our fear and expectations. that of offering certainty where there is none. Pandering to humanity’s quest for blind certainty is a hallmark of unskilful religion. Trying to explain, and thereby control the mystery, instead of celebrating the limitations of our understanding and the mysterious and unfathomable nature of God is not helpful.

Skilful religion, points to the mystery that is God, with awe, instead of trying to explain everything with arrogance.

Luke tells of how people come to Jesus and tell him of a massacre of Galileans whilst they were offering sacrifices to God. The assumption is that they must have done something wrong to deserve that. The certainty principle at work, “Bad things happen to bad people” Jesus’ response is to deny that who the Galileans were, made them in some way the deserving of the massacre.

He then sites the tragedy of the collapse of the Tower of Siloam just outside Jerusalem as another case for consideration. Were the eighteen people who were killed in that tragedy worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem. Jesus is again denying the certainty principle.

You see in Jesus day, the certainty principle stated that bad things happened to bad people and good people only received blessing upon blessing. So tragic accidents, massacres and any other suffering had to have a cause that lay in the people who suffered in the event. They must have drawn it to themselves!

We have just recently seen the Christian Fundamentalist certainty principle, at work through the odious statement of televangelist Pat Roberston: on the earthquake in Haiti that destroyed the capital and killed tens of thousands of people, Jan. 13, 2010, “It may be a blessing in disguise. … Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. Haitians were originally under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon the third, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you will get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it’s a deal. Ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”
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Blame the victims is what this kind of thinking is. It is the same mentality that says women who get raped must have acted provocatively! It is a shocking line of argument but it feeds off the need to always explain what cannot usually be explained.

I love philosopher Sam Keen’s maxim, “Seek simplicity but respect complexity” The mysteries of life and death, tragedy and blessing, demand that respect.

Jesus, in both case studies, ends his exoneration of the victims from any culpability in the disaster, by calling his audience, to repent or else they will perish in the same way.

Now there is a mysterious statement if ever there was one!

The first phrase is relatively simple, “I tell you; but unless you repent” is a call to change direction. In this context it would seem to be a call to change the way people are thinking about disasters and accidents. I would paraphrase Jesus as saying, “Change the way you are over-simplifying these complex matters. You can’t blame the victims. They didn’t deserve what happened. Re-orient(repent) your thinking on these things

The second half of Jesus’ statement is a little more tricky, “you will all perish just as they did.”

This “dying as they did” seems to be the consequence of not re-orienting their thinking. “Repent, or die as they did”. At face value the saying seems to have the same causal problems the statement Jesus is refuting!

I must confess that I find no “simple” grasp of this passage. But the more I meditate on its mystery I seem to glimpse an insight that may be helpful.

The clue lies in the illustrative parable of the fig tree. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’  He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’

This is a parable about a landowner expecting a causal and predictable result from his fig tree. The sequence is logical and simple, plant a fig tree, expect fruit, after three fruitless seasons get rid of the resource sapping barren tree.

But the gardener, pleads for clemency against the logical and causal decision of the landowner. Just another chance. “Maybe there is a mystery at work here you and I don’t understand. Let me feed and mulch the tree and if there is still no fruit next year. Go ahead and chop it down.

Of course the symbolism of the parable is clear. Landowner = God, Fig Tree = Israel, Gardener=Jesus, Fruit = Being a light to the nations. Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

So here we have people in Jerusalem, steeped in the certainty of their doctrine and dogma about who God is and how God works. This doctrinaire exercise of their faith has over centuries, especially since the return from the exile, become exclusive, judgemental and xenophobic. Despite what they may think they know about God, Jesus is suggesting that their dogma is not bearing any fruit for God.

It’s as if Jesus is saying, “You can’t go around making pronouncements about the deeply mysterious tragedies of life, as if you somehow know how these things work!“. There are things only God understands. Take for example God’s patience with us as a nation and a religion. Despite our pathetic lack of fruiting, God has not cut us off yet. If God was as causal as you say, and if God’s ways ran on the narrow rails that your dogma has laid down for God, then we should have been destroyed just as certainly as the people you have been citing as examples of God’s judgement!

So please, re-orient your thinking, or else you are all going to die in your dogma and our nation will never have fulfilled its God given purpose.

Jesus seems to be suggesting that there is more going on in the mysteries of living and dying than of simplistic quest for certainty can couch in trite dogmatic pronouncements.

A dear Buddhist friend, who spent twelve years as a monk in Thailand, tells of his teacher Ajahn Chah, who had a favourite phrase whenever one of the other monks would make some great pronouncement about the meaning of the Universe, or merely about their plans for the next day. Ajahn Chah, would get a wry smile and murmur, “It is not certain”

I think Jesus has an invitation for us as the Church and as individuals.

As we face the barrage of opinion and doctrinaire drivel that spews with egotistical certainty from so many pulpits and podiums, we have an opportunity to pause a moment and consider the mystery of all around us and then respond, “It is not certain”

All that is certain is the mystery.

Does that negate the need for faith? No it does not.

True faith you see, is not belief, it is TRUST. Jesus called the people of his time to trust the God of the mystery and not try to play God themselves.

The call remains the same for us today.

Historic footnote: Many of the people Jesus spoke to in these dialogues did in fact die as the Galileans butchered by Pilate, and the Siloam tower victims, did. In AD 70 Jerusalem (including the temple) was destroyed by the Romans. I wonder who was responsible for that? … It is not certain!


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