Tuesday, March 5, 2013

What Do You Do with a Fruitless Fig Tree?

Sermon on Luke 13:1-9

What do you think of when you think of Jesus? What words and stories come to mind? For many of us, I imagine it is famous stories that Jesus told, like the parable of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan, or his teachings, like the beatitudes: “blessed are the hungry… the meek… the peacemakers.” Others may recall miracle stories of Jesus healing people with the touch of his hands, or feeding crowds with a few meager loaves and fishes. Or we may think first of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, and his glorious resurrection on Easter morning. What you probably don’t think of when you think of Jesus are stories like the one we find in our lectionary for today, stories of Jesus saying things that are dark and cryptic, threatening and foreboding.

Two of the young people at my church are preparing for confirmation this year, and as part of our studies, we all read through the Gospel of Luke together, from beginning to end, over the course of about a month and a half. One of the surprising things about the Gospel of Luke – and, in fact, all of the gospels – is how often Jesus’ teachings sound frightening, apocalyptic and mysterious. So it is with today’s reading – in my study Bible, each little section has an italicized heading, and today’s reading is entitled “Repent or Perish.” We may not be familiar or comfortable with these teachings, but if we want to walk with Jesus this Lent, we would do best to walk with him through unfamiliar parables and enigmatic teachings, as much as we walk with him through the green pastures and still waters of familiar words and comforting stories.

You probably noticed that today’s lesson actually has two pretty distinct sections. In the first, Jesus hears news of a tragedy. Apparently Pilate, the Roman governor who oversees Judea, has slaughtered some Galileans, people who had probably traveled to the temple for religious observances. Not only has he killed them, but he has mixed their blood with the blood of the sacrificial animals that were sacrificed at the temple – an act of desecration, of disrespect for Jewish faith and practice, beyond the cruelty and injustice of killing these people for no reason we are ever told. Jesus is told of this atrocity, and challenges the common notion – as common today as it was two thousand years ago – that bad things only happen to people who deserve it. He asserts that neither the Galileans nor those who died in another tragedy, the collapse of a tower in Jerusalem, were deserving of their fate. The listeners’ sins are just as bad, he says, as he calls the crowd to repentance. That is the first section of the lesson.

The second section of the lesson is a parable. Parables, as I’m sure you know, are symbolic stories, meant to teach deeper spiritual truths illustrated by ordinary things. They tend to look simple at first glance, but as we explore them, we find deeper layers of meaning and multiple angles of interpretation. Like a kaleidoscope, we turn them over and over and find new and beautiful reflections of sacred truths. This parable is an unfamiliar one, a parable about a fig tree. There was a man who owned a fig tree, Jesus says. Like many land-owners of the time, he did not farm the land himself, but was more of an absentee landlord. One day, he comes to inspect the fig tree and finds that, once again, for the third year in a row, it has not born any fruit. “Why should it waste the soil,” he asks the gardener. “Cut it down at once!” But the gardener intervenes: “Let it alone for one more year,” he says, “I’ll dig around it to aerate the soil, and put manure on it to fertilize it. Maybe it will bear fruit next year. If not, you can cut it down.”

The parable is left, in a way, unfinished. When I told friends about the text I was studying this week, I would tell them the parable and they would respond, “And then the next year the fig tree bears fruit?” We don’t know, in fact we don't even know how the landlord responds to the gardener – we are left wondering what will happen to this fig tree. Will it get one more chance? And if it does, will it produce fruit? Perhaps a year later the landlord will come back and find it fruitless again. Will the gardener allow it to be cut down then, or beg once again for more time? And by the way, does this have anything to do with the first part of today’s reading, about the slaughtered Galileans?

If you’ve heard this parable before, and perhaps even if you haven’t, you may be familiar with the most traditional interpretation of the parable: the landlord is God, interpreters have tended to assume. The gardener is Jesus, and the fig tree is either humanity in general or the Jewish people in particular. (This last interpretation is because there are some scriptural images in the Old Testament that envision Israel or its people as a fig tree.) The fig tree is fruitless, the standard interpretation goes, because humans are unrepentant sinners, refusing to turn toward God, to love and serve God and neighbor. God is ready to call us to account – to chop that tree down. Jesus, according to the traditional interpretation, is the gardener who intervenes on our behalf. In the face of an ax-wielding God, Jesus intercedes for us, asking God to have mercy on us. Jesus’ love for us may yet nourish us into fruitfulness, if we just have a little more time. In this interpretation, the parable is a call to repentance, telling us that Jesus has intervened with God and bought us some time, but we had better repent and produce fruit before that landlord’s patience runs out. Or so the traditional interpretation goes.

As you may be able to tell, I am not a big fan of the traditional interpretation. Too often, we forget that the doctrine of a triune God means that God is one, one as well as three. If God is one, how can we imagine a creator God eager for our destruction, held off temporarily by the merciful and compassionate Jesus? If God is one, then not only does Jesus Christ, our savior, love us and want to show us mercy and nurture us into fruitfulness, but God, our creator, loves us just as much and wants these very same things for us. An interpretation of a parable that imagines God and Jesus squaring off against each other, arguing over whether to be punitive or merciful, seems to my mind to be on theologically shaky ground. That’s not the God I know, and that isn't the God we proclaim.

What other option is there? What other ways could we interpret this parable of the fruitless fig tree? When we consider that Jesus has just heard bad news of senseless violence done to innocent people, we could hear the story this way: the merciful gardener is the triune God, and the ax-happy landlord is the powers that be, the powers of violence and empire and oppression that demolish and destroy whatever gets in their way, whatever doesn’t conform to their desires. The landlord is human violence, evil, and sin, individual and systemic. This interpretation offers a bit of an answer to the question that the crowd may have posed to Jesus, and the question that has been posed so often since then: where is God when bad things happen? This interpretation imagines God as the gardener, trying to stand in the way of destruction, at work in the world to protect us, time and again. If God is the gardener, then God is always trying to intervene with those who hold the power to do violence, although God’s pleas sometimes go unanswered.

Perhaps, then, this parable is not a warning that Jesus can only protect us for so long from the destruction that God wants to bring upon the fruitless fig tree. Perhaps this is a promise that God is at work on our behalf, trying to protect us from forces of violence and evil.

But what if we are not the fig tree at all?

What if we are the landlord, so quick to judge and find lacking, so ready to condemn, if someone or something doesn’t meet our standards or benefit us? Before telling this story, Jesus has just heard the news of the deaths of the Galileans. He hears the news and he asks, “Do you think they were worse sinners than you?” It sounds like he’s responding to a familiar old refrain; perhaps the crowd is starting to wonder whether the Galileans somehow had it coming. So often when a tragedy befalls someone, voices start to rise up saying that they brought it on themselves; it was their own fault; they had it coming. When natural disasters strike, far-right-wing pundits often blame the calamity on the affected cities or regions for being debaucherous, irreligious, or politically liberal. When a woman is assaulted, people ask where she was, and what she was doing there at that time, and how she was dressed. And how easily do we slip into explaining away everything from heart disease to homelessness as the result of personal irresponsibility, trying to convince ourselves that we are safe and protected from calamity by our own diligence? When we are quick to explain away the misfortunes of others, though, we can become slow to extend compassion, grace, and mercy.

When we hear this story, we tend to assume that we are the vulnerable fig tree, and perhaps that might lead us to look at our lives to see whether we are being spiritually fruitful. That is a fine question. But a more interesting question is this: are there places in our lives where we are too quick to judge, to condemn, to chop down, and too slow to offer grace?

A recent New York Times article entitled “Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?” told a stunning story of a married couple named Kate and Andy Grosmaire. After their teenage daughter was murdered by her boyfriend, they were grief-stricken and angry, but in their grief these two faithful Christians discerned God urging them toward mercy and forgiveness. In their home state of Florida, this sort of crime would most likely lead to life-long incarceration. The bereaved couple sought reconciliation with their daughter’s murderer, and intervened on his behalf. He will serve a very long sentence, and then he will be released, and he plans to devote the rest of his life to anti-violence work. It is not exactly a triumphant story of redemption and rejoicing; there is still pain and sorrow and bitterness; but two people have made the hard decision to choose mercy instead of vengeance, reconciliation instead of retribution.

Choosing mercy and grace does not always come easily to humanity. We struggle to forgive each other; we respond to violence with more violence. We may not always rejoice when we chop down a fruitless fig tree, but we do it with a shrug and a clear conscience. When we hear stories like this one from the Gospel of Luke, we hear them as dark and ominous. But perhaps the dark and ominous presence in this story is not God, but humanity. Perhaps that landlord with the ax in hand is not a vengeful God, but our own vengeful selves. Perhaps we are not the fig tree, threatened with imminent destruction, but we are the landlord, invited to turn away from our own destructive tendencies and towards God’s way of grace, mercy, and regeneration.

If we say yes, if we set the ax down – today or ever—it is because God the patient gardener has been working, year after year, lavishing all of us sometimes-fruitless fig trees with love, mercy, and grace. Thanks be to God.

1 comment:

  1. A fruitless fig tree? Sounds symbolic, I say you keep it alive for as long as possible, and rest under its shade every summer evening.

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    Tree Service Brooklyn