Asked about current tragic events, Jesus turns a lesson about whether suffering is deserved into a hard call to obedience. He then tells a parable that holds out hope that the timeline for ultimate judgment will be tempered by patience.
1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.2[Jesus] asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or 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? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6Then 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. 7So 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?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”
Well, they can’t all be ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ – “The Lord is my shepherd” – Sundays, can they? This gospel hits some sore spots for us, as we watch innocent suffer daily, children bombed while taking shelter. As we try to make sense of tragedy and sickness and death – and hear all around us the language of justification.
Especially with those we know and love, we say “there’s a reason for everything” or that suffering is some sort of divine preparation or holy obstacle course to get through. With those we do not know – we are much quicker to justify suffering in other ways.
…They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
…Well, look at what she was wearing.
…They should have done x, y, or z to prevent this.
…Maybe this is God’s way of telling us something.
Jesus first addresses and refutes a way of thinking about suffering that pervades scripture and unfortunately has stuck around. This line of thinking is something like, if you are suffering, you must have done something to deserve it. Maybe your parents did something and God is taking it out on you. Old Testament, which operated on the principle that if Israel did right, things would go well, and if Israel did not do right, tragedy would ensue. On a national level, and on a personal level. Bad things don’t happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people.
In the later Old Testament, the book of Job begs to differ. In the New Testament, Jesus does as well. No, those Galileans who suffered were not bigger sinners than other Galileans. No matter if the suffering is due to political violence, or due to a building collapsing. They didn’t “get what was coming to them.” They didn’t deserve it. This was not an “act of God.” But YOU, who wants to figure out the justifying properties behind this suffering, YOU may be closer to death than you know Jesus reminds them, so change your perspective. Repent.
We usually just think of repentance in terms of guilt, penance, and a change of behavior. Stop doing that thing that God doesn’t like. But the word translated in English as repentance doesn’t mean just change your behavior. It means change your mind, change your perspective. Think on what YOU have done and not done – and rethink what God could do.
Jesus calls people away from thinking of suffering as punishment for sin or punishment for debt. So if Jesus is trying to explain repentance with this parable let’s dig in and get to the root of the matter. Parables rarely give us straightforward answers but help us to ask better questions.
“It’s a fairly common interpretation to assume that the landowner is God and the gardener Jesus. But nowhere in Luke do we find a picture of an angry God that needs to be placated by a merciful Jesus. Rather, Jesus portrays God as a father who scans the horizon day in and day out waiting for his wayward son to come home and as a woman who after sweeping her house all night looking for a lost coin throws a party costing even more to celebrate that she found it.” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher
Earlier in Luke, John the Baptist had said “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down” (3:9). The Gardener now intercedes, “Lord, let it alone”–kyrie aphes auten. Aphes also means “forgive.” It is a word Jesus will use from the cross–“Father, forgive them (aphes autois, 23:34).
Perhaps even John the Baptist changed his perspective in the end. What about our perspective needs to be changed? What if the landowner represents our tendency to cast aside what is unproductive and not bearing fruit according to our wishes? Where does the gardener servant get the courage to talk back to his master and defend a dumb tree that isn’t treeing very well? What sort of mercy and attention does this gardener give to the tree when it has been given a reprieve? What sort of mercy and attention have we received from God when we have been given a reprieve?
Some of the most memorable sermons I’ve heard on this parable, have focused on the mercy and attention of the gardener. If productive fruit baring is the goal, the process is fairly hands on, uncomfortable and messy. The soil and roots are disturbed. Manure is hauled in and piled around the base of the tree. While the gardener may have asked the landowner to “leave it alone” – the gardener has no such intentions. He goes right to work at the root of the problem.
The abundant mercy in this parable is striking, to waste good fertilizer and waste time on a tree that hasn’t produced any fruit in three years seems like bad business. But when you know your figs, as this gardener does, because he planted them himself, he may very well know exactly the day this tree was planted. He likely also knows that it takes a while for fig trees to get started. They are a bit of a late bloomer. They don’t even start producing fruit until they are three to five years old.
The Gardener knows all of this. The gardener knows his plants because he’s put them all where they are supposed to be. He cares for them daily and they are his. He’s invested in their wellbeing and knows how to best care for them. The landowner, who checks once a year apparently, may think he owns the land – and certainly can do whatever he likes. But these fruit trees are the gardener’s children. He pleads for their lives and knows just what to do. He also knows the seasons and the times of the year. There will be dark times and light times – productive times and dry spells. He knows how to carefully prune and cut back – and fertilize and let alone. And is abundantly merciful – and patient – knowing just how long we may take to bear that one fig. And the gardener, for his great love of the tree, will know that believe that one fig to be worth all the effort.
In this Lenten season, we are called to repent of all the things that draw us away from God.
Let us also repent, change our perspective, on what God can do with us, and for us. Amen.