This story begins with Jesus hearing a news story. Jesus approaches his teaching (at least in this case) like many preachers do. He hears a news story, or takes what is happening in life and politics and he teaches from it, or relates to it. He hears about some people whose ‘blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices’. We have no way of knowing whether this was a real event – no historical evidence confirms it. But we do know that Pilate’s troops killed a group of Samaritans while on a pilgrimage to their holiest site. It seems that this was something similar – massacre while at worship. And then after he hears this news, Jesus points to another current events story, the headline might have read ’18 killed when tower collapses’. We also don’t know whether this is a real historical event (although there’s no reason to think it isn’t).
To us, of course, this is literally ancient history, to his audience, these stories were very real, and very immediate – as real and immediate as any news stories in our headlines: the sequester, or New Town CT or the floods and storms in the NE, wildfires out of control in Australia.
So, Jesus meets his audience where they are. And the most common reaction to catastrophe – or illness or disaster – was to ask the question ‘What might these people have done to deserve such a fate?” “How have these people offended God? How have they sinned?” These are questions is as old as the Hebrew Bible’s Job, whose friends accused him in chapter 4, “‘Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.’” It pops up all over the Gospels – in John 9 Jesus is asked “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” We may not ask the question in terms of ‘sin’ in this day and age, but the question definitely lingers. We absolutely need someone to blame when bad things happen. Why do good things happen to bad people, and why do the faithful suffer? Or why do some faithful suffer or die, while some of us escape unscathed.
In recent stories of random shootings or in stories of natural disasters – floods or earthquakes – some are injured, some die, some escape unharmed. Are those who survive more virtuous, do they live more upright lives? A few years ago, when the first earthquake hit Haiti, Mennonite Central Committee workers there escaped with their lives from their collapses building because they lived on the top floor. Had those who lived on the first floor lived lives that were deserving of death? Had they done something in their pasts to warrant something so horrible? Had Haiti as a nation? Indeed no, I tell you.
I have been listening to the recent episodes of This American Life in which reporters from that program spent 5 months in a school called Harper High School, a school from which 29 students were shot and killed last year, and many more shoot with non-fatal results. What becomes clear from listening to the program is that many of the victims of these shootings, although wrapped into the unavoidable life of gang territory and warfare in the neighborhood, were not any different, or worse, than other kids. In fact many of them were student athletes, leaders in their school and community. So why them? Why this particular neighborhood? Are the people around Harper more horrible than we? Indeed no, I tell you.
That is Jesus’ answer as well. No, I tell you! Specific situations, specific disasters are not, in fact, linked to specific ‘sins’ or wrongs of persons. But Jesus also says, ‘repent, or you will perish as they did. Jesus offers grace and he calls to account those who might judge for their own behavior. Examine your own actions. He says is twice!
That’s how you know that it must be important. Fred Craddock wrote, “Life is the kingdom is not an elevated game of gaining favors and avoiding losses. Without repentance, all is lost anyway.” Karma is not a thing. At least not in Christian theology. We do not somehow avoid destruction by being especially good, nor do we invite karmic destruction when we act thoughtlessly or with mindful cruelty. We will all come to our end at some point and face God. Repentance is an invitation to fruitfulness.
To further illustrate the balance of judgment and grace, Jesus tells a story. A man plants a tree and is dissatisfied with its performance. The gardener pleads for mercy on behalf of the unfruitful tree: give it one more year. One year of nurture and nourishment and care so that it has another chance to bear fruit. It is a story that is as vivid now as it must have been then. Seattle is a city of gardeners. I grew up with an avid gardener – always wishing I could be more attuned to the earth as my dad was and is. I feel blessed in having many people around me who have both interest and skill in gardening. I have been pestering people lately with questions about where to get good soil and fertilizer.
We are careful with our gardens – we make decisions about where to put the plants, how to fertilize them, when to prune.
And we have to make the tough decisions about what will stay and what will go. Which gardener are you? I tend to be pretty ruthless about plants. When I lived down here in cohousing, I remember how, with much satisfaction, I sawed off a rhododendron that was both getting in the way and not flourishing so that we could have better access to our garden beds. In my current home, I have a spindly ugly hydrangea that I plan (as soon as I find my pruning shears) to hack off down to its stump. And maybe it will grow back but if it doesn’t good riddance. It’s just looking ugly and taking up space that could be filled by something else.
On the other hand, I think there are those among us who might speak with the voice of the gardener: give it another chance, maybe we can help it produce. Let’s give it one more year. I hope to transplant a few raspberry canes into my little garden this year. When they get planted they look like little more than sticks in the mud, but maybe if I care for them, tend them, mulch and fertilize them, hopefully we can eat berries this summer.
The owner in Jesus story is being practical, really – it’s a fruit tree – a fig tree – and it is not living up to it’s purpose of providing figs. And the gardener has already given this tree time to prove itself. The gardener in Jesus’ story is hopeful.
He pleads on behalf of the fig tree, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, while I dig around it, put manure on it. If it bears fruit, well and good. If not, you can cut it down.” Not only will the tree be spared, it will be fed and worked with – maybe pruned, watered – given even more attention than it had had before.
One of the commentators that I read asked pointedly in his reflection, “What would you do if you only had a year left?” I found this a very compelling question because for the most part I avoid thinking about my own mortality. At least I avoid thinking about it in relation to the need for change or repentance. And because, although I’m not afraid of what is after death, I feel like I have plenty of living left to do. And also because it’s a short time, but a long kind of short. I mean it’s long enough to be really intentional and not have to rush, but it’s short enough that you would have to be intentional and really choose what to hold onto and what to let go. It’s hard to know, in one year, of what do I need to repent?
For those of us who really do try to live faithfully and with integrity as disciples of Jesus, it is hard to know what it even means to repent. If repentance means a turning away from something, enabling the repentant one to turn toward Christ, we might respond, “I’m already facing Christ.
What more can I do?” In what ways might we perish if we do not consider how to change, how to act, what we are fertilizing and tending?
We may need to look beyond our immediate lives and relationships. For example, the fires in Australia. Those affected by those fires were not any more evil or sinful than we, but if we do not repent of our sin of increasing carbon consumption and treading heavily on the earth, we may perish as they did. Or gun violence: those folks in Aurora or New Town or even the kids at Harper High school, were no more sinful than we, and yet how are we tending and fertilizing the soil of peace-making and non-violence in those communities or our own?
The idea of repentance being ‘ever turning’ – both from something and to something – is attractive to me. I know that personally, I have prevailing sins – things that I will continually need to turn from with Jesus’ help. I think we all have parts of us that we know are our growing edges – the ways that we fail again and again. It’s that reason that those of us who are married often have the same fight with our spouses over and over again. And if repentance means a new way of thinking and acting, there are always many ways, big and small, that we are constantly being changed. This is equally true corporately.
We have to keep at it, keep turning, keep adding the manure after we forget to pay attention for awhile.
Just as he did when he addressed those news stories of his day, in his parable Jesus balances judgment with mercy. In the story that Jesus tells, there is gardener to intervene on behalf of the failing tree. The tree’s owner doesn’t just come in and make the decision unilaterally and yank it out of the ground. And with the help of the gardener, the tree is given a reprieve. The gardener of Jesus’ story is willing to work hard on behalf of the tree. If on one hand Jesus is calling for repentance, he is, on the other hand offering a year of nurturing and opportunity for growth.
Interestingly (I thought) in the NRSV translation we hear, “’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.” The Greek is actually somewhat ambiguous. If is bears fruit… If not you can cut it down. There is an ellipsis about bearing fruit. I like the unknown. I sort of see as a ‘Let’s just take it a year at a time.’ There is less determination and more openness.
Each year the teachers and administrators at Harper High school say, “one more year” and they pour their energy and time into fertilizing the soil of that tree, hoping that they will see the fruit. One year at a time.
From Isaiah 55 we heard a clear and unambiguous invitation to drink and eat and be nourished at God’s table without cost, without price. But what is also unambiguous is that the good food is found in seeking the Lord. Those imperative verbs: Come. Listen. See. Seek. All imploring the listener to come into God’s presence for what is good. Why do you spend your money – or your time, or your energy, or your talent, or your good soil – on what does not satisfy? Why do you spend time on things for which there is not even hope of fruit? Fertilize what may yet produce. Nurture what is good.
In the ever-turning always renewing state, every year is the ‘one more year’. The season of Lent, though six weeks long, is also ‘one more year’. I have heard some interesting ways that people are being intentional about deepening their relationship with God and strengthening the ways that they may bear fruit. We can take the season of Lent to tend and fertilize our own lives, and the lives of our communities in thoughtful and intentional ways.
This is an open ended parable. We do not know what became of the tree. Jesus leaves the outcome up the listener. That is as good as an invitation to life. “Come to the water, come and eat, listen and live!” May we find new life in the garden.