Romans 8:1-11; Psalm 24:1-6; Luke 13:1-9
Luke 13:1-9 (NRSV) 1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 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? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” 6 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. 7 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?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.
Referring to a murderous outrage committed by Pilate and a tragic building collapse in which people lost their lives, Jesus says, “Do you think that the reason these people suffered in this way was because they somehow especially deserved it?” asks Jesus. “No, I tell you . . . And what about those people who were killed near the Temple when that tower crumbled, do you think that they were somehow worse sinners than everybody else in Jerusalem? . . . No, I tell you.”
Jesus is crystal clear about this. The course of human life is not determined merely by our relative sinful- or sinless-ness. “Why do bad things happen to good people” is not just the title of a perennially popular twentieth century book. It is a question as old as Jesus, and even older; it is a question as old as Job.
The fact is, tragic events do occur to good people; and these events are not the result of some secret score book in the sky. If you have ever walked the halls, as I have, of a children’s hospital, you know that what happens to us is not, cannot be, some kind of divine personal payback system.
Well, what then, are we to make of these kind of events? What are we to do in the face of a life whose events do not always, or even often, seem to conform to our understanding of fairness. The first thing to do is what Jesus tells us to do when such questions occur to us. “Repent,” he says, “for you are no better than they are. You too may turn the corner and find yourself at the bottom of a pile of stones.” But I don’t think Jesus meant that as a threat. Jesus is not in the business of scaring us into the Kingdom of God. If what he is saying is no more than “Be good, or God’ll getcha,” what was the point of saying just a moment earlier that this is not the way it works?
The answer to that question is in the parable he tells to make his point. Jesus is always happier telling a story to make us think than he is in providing doctrinal, philosophical answers. If only the church could be as happy with that, too, I might add.
The story he tells is of farmer who had a fig tree. A fig tree that did not bear fruit. “Cut it down,” he orders the gardener, “why should it be wasting the soil?” Let me hasten to add that I do not think the farmer giving the orders to cut it down is meant to be God. I think the one condemning the fig tree is someone more like you and me. Someone whose patience has run out. Someone who might be willing to believe that we get what we deserve and deserve what we get. Someone who is interested in the bottom line, in balancing the books, in getting things figured out, in pursuing their own small definition of justice.
But the God of Jesus is not nearly so interested in justice in the legalistic sense as he is in mercy. The voice of God in this story is the voice of the gardener: “Sir,” says the gardener, “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.” “Let me care for it,” says the garderner. Let me give it the attention it needs to make it grow,” says the gardener. “Sir, let me love this tree,” he says, and then you come back in a while and check things out again. The gardener wants to give the tree time to repent, to grow into the fruit-producing tree it was created to be. And furthermore, the gardener takes responsibility for caring for it, and for giving it the attention it needs. The gardener takes full responsibility for loving the tree into being all that it was put on earth to be. Though we may act like the very practical landowner, we are, in fact, the fig tree. You and I are God’s pleasant planting.
God is the gardener who longs for us to receive God’s love because that love is as essential to us as water, sunlight, and soil are to the fig tree. God is the gardener who, in the words of the psalm “forgives all your sins and heals all your infirmities. [He] is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness. He will not always accuse us, nor will he keep his anger for ever. He has not dealt with us — or with the victims of life’s tragedies – – according to our wickedness.”
Now be very clear about this. This is hard for us to understand. Hard for us to understand with our heads; and even harder for us to allow to penetrate into the deep place where our values and assumptions are housed. We are finally more comfortable with a more sensible system. We are finally more comfortable, I am afraid, with a God whom we may be fed to, than with a God who longs to feed us. Part of what it will mean for you and me to repent will be to begin to imagine, experience, enjoy just such unconditional love. Enjoy it for ourselves and share it others.
But we want a more sensible system. “What have we done to deserve this love?” we want to ask. Nothing is the answer. Love which must be deserved is not all that love can be. Love which must be deserved is, finally, not love at all.
We have great difficulty believing this is true for others because we do not yet fully know that it is true for us. Repenting, for you and me, will include coming to grips with this great unfairness at the heart of God’s message to us. It is, thanks be to God, unfairness which works in our favor.
The rain and snow which water the earth, may I remind you, fall on the just and the unjust. On the fig trees that produce and on the fig trees that do not. And all to one purpose, that knowing they are loved and infinitely cherished by the one who made them, they may grow, and flower, and produce the fruits of repentance — the first of which is a sense that this love is really, really real.
I imagine the owner of that fig tree coming back the following year. Maybe this time he finds figs on the tree. But what if he does not? “OK, Cut it down,” he says to the gardener. “Tell you what,” the gardener replies. “ Let me try again. Let me keep on caring for this tree. Let me keep on doing all I can to help it to grow.”
“That’s what you told me last year, isn’t it? You know, I believe that is what you are going to tell me every time there is a question of cutting down this tree. This tree must be very special to you. You must love it very much.”
“Indeed I do,” says the gardener. “Indeed I do.”