Luke 13:1-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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.’”
Spending time with this scripture this week I noticed that there are three separate questions that Jesus asks that make the same point: repent or perish. The deeper question being asked was: what did they do to suffer in such a way?
In the first section is where Pilate mingled the Galileans blood with the sacrifices they were offering. Jesus asks: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Jesus’ bottom line: Repent or Perish
In the second section we learn that there were 18 who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them. Jesus asks: “ Were they worse offenders than all others living in Jerusalem?” Jesus’ bottom line: Repent or Perish.
In the third section is the parable of the fig tree – also known as the parable of the fruitless fig tree. Each of these sections is focused on individual and community questions of suffering because the common thought was that someone or some group was sinful and that was the cause of these horrendous events. Throughout history we, too, want to know who/what caused bad things to happen to us in the world. We tend to want to place blame and judgment on someone or something – for these things to make sense. Often – we hear it in the lament – why did God allow these things to happen to me?/to happen to my family?/to happen to my country?
This parable about the fig tree informs us that it was not unusual for a vineyard owner to give a little bit of his soil up for a fruit tree but the tree took up the best soil, the deepest soil, and required the most water. A fig tree doesn’t grow fruit until three years after planting. The owner in this story, had given the tree “due season” to bear fruit and yet the tree bore no fruit. It took up valuable space and resources. The owner questioned why the tree was allowed to “even use up ground.” (Jerry Goebel, Why Does HE Even Use up the Ground? Sermon.com)
But the gardener was not yet ready to give up on that tree and asked for one more year – for the opportunity to dig around it and put manure on it to help it along. The gardener saw the potential and was willing to risk another year to help the tree produce fruit.
These are parables Jesus needed to share during his time in history and these are parables we still need to hear 2000 plus years later.
Two contemporary stories come to mind for current day parables in this line of thinking. One is what happened on 9/11/2001 with the attack on the twin towers – an attack on the US. Many of us asked: what did we do to deserve such suffering? Why did God allow this to happen in my country?
The other story was when the emergence of the HIV/AIDS virus became known in the world and especially in the U.S. in the 1980s. Many conservative brothers and sisters rushed to tell that this virus was God’s clearly God’s punishment on the gay community. Different cultures and centuries and often same questions and judgments emerge.
But today’s scripture reminds me of another – that the rain falls down on the righteous as well as the unrighteous. And the sun shines on the deserving as well as the undeserving. The reality is that God’s grace knows no bounds. It is radical. God’s love and mercy pours over each of us – even those times we deserve it as well as those times we don’t deserve it. God’s grace knows no bounds.
The words perish or repent are most often relegated to the season of Lent. Growing up in the 50s and 60s in the Roman Catholic tradition we were guided more to the Mea culpa, Mea culpa, Mea maxima culpa side of things – it’s my fault; it’s my fault; it’s my great fault. I grew up more with the following belief: I’m a sinner, I’m a sinner, I am a great sinner. The church taught us one aspect of being human, but this was not balanced out by hearing words about God’s mercy, forgiveness and love.
To our ears today, the words Perish or Repent may sound like harsh words of judgment from Jesus, but let’s look at that a bit closer, especially what it means to be culpable. Perish or Repent are saving and loving words. Through these stories we are basically told to wake up to our own lives and to do a review of our own words and actions and to acknowledge where we fall short of the mark. This is not meant to produce guilt, but to wake us up to the fact that we are responsible for ourselves and our relationship with God.
Commentator Wiley Stephens wrote: “Garrison Keillor warns us, ‘You can become a Christian by going to church just as about easily as you can become an automobile by sleeping in a garage.’ What we’re speaking of is the danger of presumed spiritual security. Our parable says that we’re not called just to be here. It is a clear warning against a fruitless existence in the light of God’s grace given to us.” (Wiley Stephens, Missing Is Not Final, sermons.com) In the heart of these stories is God’s grace – always giving us the second or third or fourth chance to grow to become the best we can be. God’s grace knows no bounds. I recall a statement from the 1980s – under construction – be gentle with me. God is not finished with me yet. Each stage of life brings with it an awareness of how we are each called to live healthy, fruitful, lives – physically, emotionally and spiritually. And in each stage of our lives we are called to repent whatever it is that is keeping us away from that fullness.
In his autobiography Summing Up, author Somerset Maugham wrote: “I knew that I had no lyrical quality, a small vocabulary, little gift of metaphor. The original and striking simile never occurred to me. Poetic flights…were beyond my powers. On the other hand, I had an acute power of observation, and it seemed to me that I could see a great many things that other people missed. I could put down in clear terms what I saw…I knew that I should never write as well as I could wish, but I thought, with pains, that I could arrive at writing as well as my natural defects allowed.” Somerset Maugham discovered the secret of genius.
“The point is that life does not ask us to become what we are not. The fig tree was only required to produce figs. No more. You and I are asked only to accomplish what our natural gifts allow, but we are asked to accomplish just that.” (King Duncan, Collected Sermons, www.Sermons.com)
We are planted for a purpose – each of us and it’s important to recognize that God doesn’t ask a fig tree to produce a banana. But we are called to be the best we can be – to do the best we can do. And we are called to repent whatever it is that is keeping us away from that fullness God intends for us.
I understand the gardener in the story is the guide and helper – the see-er of the potential within us. This is the one who digs around the roots so they don’t become rigid – so they can spread out and grow. This is the one who throws manure on the soil when needed. Sometimes we all need a good sprinkling of that to grow. The role of the gardener is also what I think the role of the church is. It is not the rigid rule makers and judge of who is holy and who is not; of who is worthy and who is not.
The church, however, hasn’t always been such a healthy guide. The church is also culpable and the statement, repent or perish is one that must be taken seriously by that institution as well. According to Richard Rohr in a recent devotional he wrote: “When the Church doesn’t grow up or support its growing members it focuses on something that’s quantifiable and seemingly clear and has no subtlety to it. It’s mostly black and white thinking, usually about individual body-based sins. We know who the sinners are, and we know who the saints are, and we don’t have to struggle with the mixed blessing that every human being is. We’re all mixed blessings.” We are both saints and sinners – we are all mixed blessings, and we are also culpable.
Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) wrote: God’s seed is in us. If it were tended by a good, wise and industrious laborer, it would then flourish all the better, and would grow up to God, whose seed it is, and its fruits would be like God’s own nature. The seed of a pear tree grows into a pear tree, the seed of a nut tree grows to be a nut tree,[the seed of a fig tree grows to be a fig tree] the seed of God grows to be God.”
God calls each of us. As Rohr points out: “Vocation, even in the most humble of circumstances, is a summons to what is divine. Perhaps it is the divinity in us that wishes to be in accord with a larger divinity. Ultimately, our vocation is to become ourselves, in the thousand, thousand variants we are. . . . ”
May God continue to bless us on this Lenten journey and may we flourish to be all that God calls us to be. Amen.
Copyright DMC 2019