Winthrop Congregational Church,United Church of Christ
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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 round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
What Does It Mean to Bear Fruit? Luke 13:1-9
What is it about humanity that likes to find blame in the aftermath of tragedy? Like, when a woman is sexually assaulted, far too often, the first question that is asked is "What was she wearing," as if her clothes were an adequate explanation for someone else's decision to hurt her. Several years ago, when 16 year old Trayvon Martin was killed while defending himself from a armed vigilante who was stalking him through his father's neighborhood, his life history and cell phone records were mined for any confirmation that he was, in fact, a dangerous thug who deserved to be followed and who was frightening enough to be shot. My personal favorite tragedy/blame combination is when there is a some horrible natural disaster, like tornadoes or hurricanes, and a televangelist rushes to the airwaves to share, with utter sincerity, that our Godless ways brought the disaster upon us. Did you know that I, as a woman who married another woman, am personally responsible for two hurricanes, 17 tornadoes, and one really foggy afternoon. Sorry about that.
"Why do bad things happen" has been an important question to humans for a very long time. Jesus would have, no doubt, been familiar with the many examples this question in Jewish Scripture. He would have likely remembered that when Job lost everything... his family, his belongings, even his own health... his three friends all said that he must have done something to deserve all of the disasters that befell him. Scholars also note that Job was said to have been completely innocent. Maybe Jesus would have also remembered parts of Scripture where disasters were understood to be consequences of poor behavior. The plagues that took down the Egyptians were punishment for their enslavement of the Hebrews. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was supposed to be punishment of the Israelites for their sinful ways. The prophet Jeremiah once specifically said that people will die for their sins (31:30). It seems very likely that Jesus would have familiar with the idea that people must have deserved whatever problems that they had. He would have known people who believed that good fortune was a blessing from God and bad fortune was obviously punishment.
He probably wasn't surprised when he began to be asked questions about punishment, sin, and suffering. Suffering definitely seemed to be on people's minds. They asked about a recent tragedy, one that we now know few details about. It appears that Pilate had orchestrated a massacre of a group of Galileans while they were in Jerusalem. It also appears that some people were speaking unkindly about the people who had been killed in state-sponsored violence. People must have said that they deserved it. They must have been really terrible people or maybe they made the centurions mad. They were probably disrespectful. They should have known better. It's no wonder the soldiers killed them. They should have kept their mouth shut. They'd still be alive if they'd just done what they were told.
Jesus must not cared for the manner in which the people brought him news of this attack. He said to these bearers of gossip in the guise of bad news, "Do you really think these people were killed because they did something wrong, or more wrong than your average Galilean?" He seemed insulted at the idea that these folks did something to deserve destruction. He was very clear just what he thought about such an explanation for cruelty. He told the people, "Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did." Jesus connected this massacre to an accident that had recently occurred. Eighteen people had died when a wall fell on them near the pool of Siloam. Jesus said that these Jerusalemites weren't killed because they deserved it either. Be it through intentional acts of violence or tragic accidents, sometimes people die unexpectedly. This does not mean that that they did something awful to merit punishment.
With these statements, Jesus stakes out a theological claim that is very different from common wisdom and accepted tradition of his time... and, if we're honest, of ours. He is saying that death is not dealt out as a punishment from God. It is simply part of life, though a hard part for sure. It is not necessarily something you can control by your actions, like if you are always more holy, you can avoid the whole messy thing. While he is clear that actions do have consequences, we cannot assume that we know correctly when a death is a consequence of some unseemly behavior verses when an accident is simply a hard, sad part being alive. In times of great tragedy, Jesus does not want us to spend time dealing out blame to try to explain why something horrible happened. Instead, Jesus calls us to a different kind of discernment... that of the work of introspective work of repentance. That kind of work sounds much harder than gossiping about the deaths of strangers.
Before you hear the word repentance and worry that I will go all televangelist on you, it might be helpful to have a sense of what the author of Luke meant when using the word. Scholar Matt Skinner reminds us that repentance is not simply being good or apologizing for all the bad stuff that you have done. In Luke, and in other parts of the Bible, it has more to do with changing one's mind, seeing life in a new way, being persuaded to adopt a new perspective. Repentance is primarily a sense that one is living life with a new orientation, fully aware of one's shortcomings while also using the short life that one has to more fully serve God and neighbor. Luke sees the act of repenting, of completely re-orienting one's life towards God, as one of the most important aspects of living the life God calls us to. When one has repented, one begins make decisions not just for oneself, but with the Gospel in mind.
Earlier in Luke, Jesus gives some examples of behaviors that are evidence of a life-changing repentance. He calls it "bearing fruit." He told people that if they had two coats, they would share with those who have none, and to do the same with food. To tax collectors, people who many understood as being beyond God's grace, he said that they should collect no more money from people than the amount they were required to. To soldiers, the Roman empire's bearers of death and tyranny, he told them not to extort money from the people through threats of violence or from false accusations. Now, these actions weren't to be understood as simply a list good deeds to check off in order to show off how good these folks were. They were seen as evidence that changes in our thoughts beget changes in our actions. When we repent, our life reorientation will be more than just us thinking differently about things. It is about doing things differently because of what we believe. Our own repentance points us to a new way of compassionate living.
Jesus shared a parable with the people who had gathered. He spoke of a vineyard owner who had planted a tree and grew frustrated when, after three years, it had grown no fruit. He instructed his employee, the gardener, to cut it down because it was a waste of space. The gardener, knowing that young trees can take some time to produce, asked for one more year. He said that he would work the soil some more and add fertilizer. "If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down." Now, some may interpret this passage has Jesus, the kind gardener, pleading on behalf of the tree with grouchy God the vineyard owner. Humanity would be the tree in this situation, simply taking up space and resisting the called to a fruit-bearing life of repentance. I, however, am not sure that that is the best interpretation of this parable.
Scholar David Lose reminds us that nowhere else in Luke does Jesus describe God as being angry and waiting to deal out punishment to sinful humanity. Luke doesn't seem to believe God and Christ are playing some kind of Divine good cop and bad cop where Jesus steps in to save us from a mean God. Instead, as we'll hear more about next week, Jesus describes God as the loving father who celebrates when his wayward son finally comes home. Jesus also describes God as a woman who celebrates finding a lost coin by throwing a party that is worth more than the coin that she had originally lost. In chapter 15, it even says that there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who has repented than ninety-nine who need no repentance. We would do well to remember that repentance is not primarily connected with God's anger but with God's love. God seems to always be in a stance of invitation to new possibilities, not in judgment of repeated wrong-doings.
With that understanding of God in mind, Lose suggests that God, through Christ, is the gardener who lovingly tends to the tree, giving it the care it needs to bear fruit. The landowner, then, is humanity's own sense that good people are rewarded and bad people punished. Lose suggests that "perhaps the gardener is God, the one who consistently raises a contrary voice to suggest that the ultimate answer to sin isn’t punishment – not even in the name of justice – but rather mercy, reconciliation, and new life." God is the one who asks for a chance, one more chance, to help us bear fruits of compassion and love. Jesus tills the soil, turning in some compost, fertilizer, some Holy Spirit, enriching our soil so that we have the chance to grow new life.
What a powerful interpretation to offer! Lose says that suffering is real and actions have consequences, but, ultimately God is not interested in making sure you pay for your sins. God is interested in giving you fertile ground for growing. God is interesting in helping you re-orient your life. God rejoices when you actually do. So, make that change. It really needs to happen. But you don't do it on your own. God is working with you, right beside you, even as you suffer, helping make that new growth happen. Don't let the common sense of the punishment and blame prevent you from the compassion that God calls you to. Do let God's uncommon sense of grace and re-creation invite you to orient your life away from what is death-dealing. That is a way to grow with God. That is how we bear fruit. That is our truest calling.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Matt Skinner: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2789
Arland Hultgren: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1578
Sermon Brainwave: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=374
David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/lent-3-c-suffering-the-cross-and-the-promise-of-love/
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.