How many times have you looked at scenes of devastation on your TV, read about a horrific episode of so-called "ethnic cleansing", listened to reports of a child brutally killed by a parent, and thought in your heart "What have they done to deserve that?" or even "Why does a loving God allow such things to happen to innocent people?"
They're terribly difficult questions to answer because they cut right to the heart of our faith, and in many cases are the catalysts for some really deep soul searching. They're questions that we'd rather shy away from, questions that if we're challenged by non-Christians we can only honestly reply "I'm sorry, I really don't really know the answer to that one."
And yet that honesty, that admittance of ignorance is often the best reply we can give. For the alternative might well be a trite simplistic answer that does more harm than good. There are for many Christians, and I include myself in this category, some issues regarding our faith that we can only honestly reply "I'm not sure yet . but I'm open to being convinced."
Jesus of course was someone who oozed confidence, and yet people were forever trying to catch him out, make him trip up over his challenging words.
" There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices"
The Galilaeans were always likely to get themselves into trouble with the authorities - they were just that sort of people, rather hot-headed. It's possible that this incident relates to work that Pilate was doing on the water supply into Jerusalem. A truly laudable project other for the fact that he was apparently using Temple money to finance it.
This was anathema to the Jews and they were up in arms. Pilates legionnaires then seem to have overstepped the mark when it came to dispersing the protestors, choosing a time when they were most vulnerable - whilst sacrificing at the temple - and blood of Galilean and sacrifice became mingled together. Nothing changes, does it? It's a scene that has been echoed many times since, if we think back to Ruanda or Kosova.
There is another tragedy mentioned in the first five verses, and this mysteriously concerns eighteen people killed when a tower in Siloam fell. The Authorised Version has an alternative translation for the word 'sinner' here, and allows for 'debtor'.
It's been suggested that these people, presumably men, were also working on Pilate's aqueduct scheme for Jerusalem. If so, then the money that they were being paid was rightly God's money and should have been handed over, as this money had been "stolen" from the temple. It's possible to think of the daily papers of the day carrying headlines to the effect that the tower had obviously fallen on these men because the work that they were undertaking had been dishonestly financed.
To the Jews sin and suffering were deeply connected. Read the often depressing story of Job, to whom Eliphaz said "Who that was innocent ever perished" (Job 4:7)
Jesus of course will have none of this. He knew, as we do that it is often the very gentlest of saints who suffer most in this world.
"Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things?
"Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?"
Unfortunately, Jesus then adds a very big 'BUT'
"I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish."
What on earth did Jesus mean by this? Well, it's not an easy one to unravel other than we know that Jesus foresaw and prophesised the destruction of Jerusalem which happened in AD 70. There are some terrifying words to be found later on in Luke's Gospel
Jesus knew full well that if the Jews carried on the way they were, with their political intrigues, plotting and selfish ambitions that they were heading towards a form of national suicide. There was no way that Rome would put up with a rebellious nation. The end was inevitable, and that's exactly what happened in AD 70.
Was there a message to the nation rather then to the individual in these words of Jesus? Having said that the apparently tragic death of these people was not as a result of individual sin, is he hinting perhaps that it's a different matter altogether when it comes to a nation. If the Jewish nation continued to seek an earthly kingdom, and rejected out of hand the kingdom of God, then indeed they would come to a very sticky end.
In such a situation the individual is often caught up quite innocently - a lone voice against a corrupt regime. Remember those vivid pictures of the lone protester in Tienaman Square standing bravely in the path of a tank until it was forced to a stop. What a symbolic gesture, and yet that brave student was yet another protestor who was to suffer for his stand. Others suffer in silence, unable to stand up and be counted. Yet when a nation's course of action leads to its downfall as it was with the Jews, it is individuals who suffer.
And so it is that we can take Jesus' words in the first part of our reading to mean this; we can't say that an individual's suffering is an inevitable result of sin, but we can say that a nation's sin and suffering are connected. A nation that sets a course of action against God is asking for trouble and in a situation like that innocent individuals may well pay the price for a nation's decision.
There is another view of why suffering should not simply happen to the ungodly and not the godly among us. For if that was the case, that God was continually protecting His people against all manner of accident, injury or illness then it would in essence be profitable to be godly, and that would drag our faith down to the level of the worldly values. If we are to believe, then it must be in spite of everything and not because we are promised special treatment.
The second half of the reading (Luke 13:6-9), concerning the fig tree planted in a vineyard, is very much connected with Jesus' message about sin and suffering. However, instead of looking at what seems on the surface to be about the individual and relating it to the nation, we can look at this passage which seems to be about the nation and relate it to the individual.
It was quite usual to find fig trees, apple trees and other types of tree or bush in a vineyard. Soil quality was poor, and therefore farmers would plant wherever there was a chance that something would grow. A fig tree could reasonably be expected to give a crop of fruit by its 3rd year after planting and we are given no doubt that this particular fig tree had been given plenty of opportunity to show what it was capable of, and had failed dismally.
We have a corkscrew willow in our garden. You know the one with the twisted branches that flower arrangers like to use. When we bought it we envisaged lots of catkins in the spring. In four years I think we've had a grand total of six catkins. The tree has manifestly failed to live up to our expectations and is asking to be dug out and replaced with something a bit more productive, and yet I keep thinking "Go on then, have another year and prove to me you can do it."
Now the early readers of this story would have seen that fig tree as representing the nation of Israel. From generation to generation they had failed to live up to the expectations of God, who had chosen them as a nation, nurtured and fed them and watched as they continually turned back to pagan gods. They had taken much from their God and given little or nothing in return. They'd been a continual disappointment in not showing the fruit of their faith in their lives, just as the fig tree was drawing sustenance and life out of the soil and giving nothing in return.
But this isn't just a story concerning a nation. Jesus has already told the nation what will happen if they continue the way they're going, the dreadful word "perish" hands there like the sword of Damocles over the nation's head. But surely here we can also look at the individual in the light of that poor fig tree.
William Barclay, the bible commentator says of this story "In the last analysis there are two kinds of people in this world. There are those who take out more than they put in - and there are those who put in more than they take out."
We have responsibilities in this world that we may not even realise. We have inherited the freedom, the faith and the society in which we live. Men have fought and died so that we might have each of these. But it is not a perfect situation and our stewardship of the world in which we are a part involves making it a better place than it was when we arrived on the scene.
"Die when I may," said Abraham Lincoln, "I want it said of me that I plucked a weed and planted a flower wherever I thought a flower would grow."
The parable that Jesus told of the fig tree tells us that as individuals we cannot simply expect to just take, take, take without giving something back in return. God is patient as the keeper of the vineyard was patient, but in the same way that we might become disappointed by an apple tree that failed to fruit after several years of careful nurture, there comes a point where questions have to be asked, and often painful decisions made.
Our faith teaches us that we have a role in this life. The bible talks about the body and how each one of us comprise a part of that body, some large and more visible parts and others smaller and less conspicuous parts. The point is however that if the smallest parts are not functioning correctly then the whole suffers.
The first reading pointed to the nation, and how a nation's sin could affect the individual, however innocent they might be. Now Jesus perhaps can be seen to touch upon the individual. If one part is not functioning then the body as a whole will inevitably suffer.
We have a part to play and responsibilities that need to be addressed. We must not allow ourselves to be seen in the same light as that fig tree, happy enough to receive but unwilling to give anything in return. Reluctant to show the fruits of the faith that we claim to believe in.
Do we already feel a bit like that? That our lives have been all take and never give? Well, Jesus ends his parable by indicating that it is in his nature to give another chance, although his generosity does not extend forever.
"But he answered and said to him, Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.'"
This can be taken as a warning for all of us. Not that God will ever give up on us, but that we must never get to the point where we by our own free will and deliberate choice give up on Him.
We experience each and every day of our Christian lives the love and nurture of a God who cares for us, gives us everything we need to blossom and produce the fruit that he wants to see in our lives. If we then continually refuse to reciprocate, to give back some of that love to the world through our lives, then we must heed the warning implicit in Jesus' parable of the fig tree.
It's not a comfortable message, but at this time of year when we think of all that Jesus went through for us in order that mankind might not perish - might have another chance - we do have to ask ourselves if the fruit of our faith is visible.