The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
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Year A - 2001-2002 | Year B - 2002-2003  | Year C - 2003-2004

The Blame Game
Year C - 3rd Sunday in Lent Luke 13:1-9

She heard a knock on the front door at about 10:00 am. Two young boys asked if Carl, her son was home. Andrea went to his room to see if he was up. Finding him asleep she suggested that the two teenagers to come back in about an hour. After the young men, left, he noticed that a leather cigarette case was missing.

Two hours later, when they returned with another friend, Andrea accused them of stealing during their previous visit. They denied responsibility but she demanded that they leave.

She answered the door again later that afternoon and was greeted by the first two teens wearing masks with large eyeholes. One pulled a gun and put it against her forehead. The other rummaged through the house looking for money. The boys left and she called police. Knowing that the story would make the evening news, she called her employer and told them what happened and that she was all right. Eight days later, someone fired three shots into her house. One went through a window and two through the front door.

Her pastor suggested she leave the neighborhood and paid for a hotel room for the family. She has not been back home since, except to collect belongings.

Three days later, the house was shot up. Eventually, three brothers were arrested and charged wit robbery, burglary and conspiracy. The day after the arrest, police suggested Andrea enter the Witness Protection Program. Her doctor recommended that she take a couple of weeks off work to recover from the emotional trauma. When she called her employer to arrange a temporary leave of absence, her supervisor told her to stop in the human resources office. 

Andrea was shocked when the human resources coordinator told her she was fired because the agency considered her a danger to its clients and staff. The letter signed by the company director read:

"As per our conversation on 10/13/03, you indicated the danger that you were recently subjected to. This has raised safety issues for our staff and clients. We believe there is potential danger to our staff and clients as long as you are employed with Pyramid Healthcare Inc. As a result of this, effective immediately your position with Pyramid Healthcare Inc. is being terminated."

Part of the irony, is that many of Pyramid's clients have criminal backgrounds or dealings with criminals.1

Blaming the victim is an ugly but favorite pastime. Someone once wrote a poem that expresses the causes for our negative response:

Blaming you, blaming me...
endless assigning of responsibility
Feeds my illusions - gives sense of control...
at least now I know why my life's in a hole!
And negative feelings have somewhere to go
- expressions of rage about life's bitter blow

Feelings with targets can flow with such ease
What matter if reason is brought to its knees?
Nothing happens without someone at fault
giving me permission to give them a jolt

Oh how I love my super blaming game!
Take on my judgments - hang head in shame!
I rise superior, moral high ground is mine!
Others feel terrible - but I feel quite fine

For I never make mistakes - I 'm never wrong
And I like to press advantage - it makes me feel strong!
Much better this, than face awful truth
that life is chaotic - life is uncouth
That rough goes with smooth, and sorrow with joy,
winning with losing - like girl goes with boy

Blaming relieves feelings of personal culpability and defends our pseudo-innocence. It allows us to rise above the other person to a position of righteous superiority. It separates us from the problem and the responsibility of working toward a solution.

Jesus had little patience for people who attempted to mask their sin with painted layers of self-righteous justification by condemning others. His acidic cleansing dissolved Sunday schoolish innocence to expose their malicious heart. He would not allow his disciples to become entangled in a theological discussion to identify the causes of a man's blindness. They wanted to know who had sinned the man or his parents. He simply healed the man and uncovered their lack of faith. He refused to debate the Pharisees on the just punishment for adultery. He invited the sinless man to throw the first stone and they all walked away in shame.

In this morning's passage, several people attempt to engage him in another theological discussion to paint a coat of self-righteous justification over their own sinfulness. The timing or Luke's placement of their remarks is strategic. Jesus has just told the crowd to do whatever it takes to reconcile with your opponent. The report of Pilate's repulsive response can be seen in two ways. First, as an attempt to cast blame on Pilate. How is reconciliation possible with such a man? Sometimes my opponent is so evil I am justified in resorting to any form of vengeance; sometimes the actions of my adversary are so perverse, I am free to even break the law in retaliation. 

Jesus completely ignores this motive and focuses on the second--to cast blame upon the Galileans. By suggesting that the Galileans were responsible for the repugnant deeds by the military commander, they hope to avoid reconciling with their opponent. If the Galileans suffered a deliberate and gruesome death because of their sin, the Jews would not need to worry about their relationship with their opponent. Assuming themselves righteous, assuming themselves innocent, they need not fear the consequences. God will protect them. God would not allow them to suffer an injustice. 

Jesus will not acquiesce to their reasoning. The Galileans were no different than anyone else. Their sudden death should challenge anyone and everyone to repentance. He then scores with a matching story, the accidental death of 18 Jerusalemites. They were no more guilty than anyone else. They were unwary victims of an unfortunate accident, yet they also met an unfortunate death. If anyone objected to this reasoning, Jesus silences them with the parable of the fig tree.

The fig tree is one of seven species of trees mentioned in the Scriptures. The pear shaped fruit is produce more than once a year. It is eaten fresh or dried into cakes. It also had medicinal purposes and applied to wounds and boils.2 It was an important source of food and therefore often mentioned when in connection to the pronouncement of judgment or blessing. 

13"'I will take away their harvest, declares the LORD. There will be no grapes on the vine. There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither. What I have given them will be taken from them.'" 
Jeremiah 8:13

22Be not afraid, O wild animals, for the open pastures are becoming green. The trees are bearing their fruit; the fig tree and the vine yield their riches.

Joel 2:22
Jesus use of the fig tree as a metaphor would have easily caught the attention of his audience. In this parable, the owner of the vineyard comes to inspect his crop. He has waited three years for one particular tree to bear fruit but it is still barren. He had decided that the time has come to remove the tree. 

Such a parable seems harsh coming from the person who tells his disciples to forgive others seven times seven. It seems out of character coming from the man who told a story about a shepherd who neglected his entire flock and spent countless days searching for just one lost sheep. This parable seems out of sync with the another story about a father who waited and waited and waited for his son to return home.

A professor taught a philosophy course. After one class had began a student approached him to explain his difficulty reading and share his fear in taking the course. The professor encouraged him to keep up with the assignments, by studying every day, and he would do fine.

The student claimed that he tried but when the first assigned paper came due, he pleaded for mercy. He had fallen behind, he asked for more time. The professor granted his request and the paper arrived two weeks late.

Having fallen behind on the first project, the student once again asked for mercy when the due date arrived for the second paper. Once again, the teacher honored the request and wait. That paper did not arrive until the end of class and with it another request for leniency on the final project. Again the teacher waited but two months after the course ended, the final deadline passed and the teacher issued the failing mark.

Teachers tell the students at the beginning of class, "Here are the requirements for this course, the boundaries. Stay within these boundaries, and you will be fine. Transgress these rules, and you will have big trouble in this course." Students learn that if they do not comply with these boundaries failure is inevitable. Patience is a virtue, forbearance is a good thing but there are limits.3 

The parable asks us how long will we push God's limits. How long will we remain unproductive procrastinator, casting blame on the difficult circumstances of our childhood, an unreasonable boss, a missed opportunity, a doctor's misdiagnosis or an unsympathetic spouse? Blame is easy. There are more than enough targets. Responsibility is difficult because it begins and ends with us. It assumes that there are no magic formulas, no winning lottery tickets, no undeserving promotions, no miracles just a lot of human perspiration, good time management and a spirit that never gives up.

While difficult, the concluding stanza of the poem also remind us of the joy we receive when we end the game.

When I rise to accept what destiny brings
leaving judgment to God and other super beings
I free-up my future from the curse of 'blaming games'
I free-up the present by not naming names
My feelings stay pure, gracious, divine,
supporters draw near - and I'm soon feeling fine!4
How long are you going to play the blame game?

The parable also has another wonderful insight into the spiritual life. The steward's response reminds us that God gives us a second chance. 

The Sierra Retreat Center sits on the top of a high hill overlooking the ocean on the Malibu coast. The Franciscan Order purchased the land before Malibu became the home of the rich and famous. It is peaceful center of beautiful gardens, stunning scenery and gracious hospitality. During my third and final class, we spent several days at the center to practice the disciplines of meditation and prayer that we had learned in the classroom. I had only been in remission for less than two years. I was 48 years wonder were God was leading me in ministry. Would a church be willing to risk calling me as their pastor? My resume was not stellar. I had few mistakes. It had just enough blemishes to cause a few churches to reconsider. I also was less than two years in remission and clinically only had a 50% chance of being cancer free for five years. I had already been denied one interview after the PNC learned of my bone marrow transplant.

That morning I was walking and praying. while reciting Psalm 63

Oh God, you are my God,
Earnestly I seek you;
My soul thirsts for you 
My body longs for you, 
in a dry and weary land
where there is no water

I turned to ascend a flight of steps. The morning was so beautiful I was walking very slowly, pausing with each step. As I neared a landing, I saw a set of tile with letters across one step. They read

There is always time to do what God has called you to do.

Those words were the closest that I have ever come to seeing the handwriting of God. They reassured me that my ministry was only beginning. God would indeed give me a second chance.

Second chances are God's way of offering us mercy. They are opportunities to start again. To learn from our difficulties, our mistakes, the injustices we suffered, the injuries we had to endure and continue. But second chances require us to accept responsibility by confessing our stubborn disobedience, repenting and rekindling the flame of faith into a raging fire.

I do not care what you have done or what other people have done to you. I do not care if you were the class nerd, the ugly duckling, every teachers target, the rebel without a cause, or the easy date. The time has come to stop blaming everyone else for the way you have been acting and not acting. 

There is always time to do what God has called you to do.

1 Ed Blazina, "Crime victim says she's job victim," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 27, 2004, Online: March 12, 2004,
2 Achtemeier, Paul J., Publishers Harper & Row, and Society of Biblical Literature. Harper's Bible Dictionary. Includes index. 1st ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.
3 William H. Willimon, "Time to Change," Pulpit Resource, March 14, 2004, Vol. 32, No. 1, 45-48.
4 (c) Michael Meredith 2000

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