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.’”
–Luke 13: 1-9
We are living in a most anxious time. This strange virus that is penetrating our society moves stealthily under the cover of invisibility. While health specialists can identify the virus with the help of a microscope, there is not yet an effective way to combat it other than social distancing and diligent hand-washing. Hopefully, the reports of possible cures and treatments will come true in the not-so-distant future. But clinical solutions aside, a pressing question for us is: “Where is God in all of this?” We see doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, along with other frontline workers, doing the right things for the right reasons, not to mention the fact that many are people who are highly religious people with firm faiths in God, and yet this virus attacks them, causing disease, death and doubt. “Where is God in all of this?” is not new. If Job is the oldest book in the Bible, as some biblical scholars assert, then this question is the oldest question of humankind: “Where is God in all of this?”
This is the question being asked of Jesus in today’s scripture, and the reason for this parable. The circumstances for the question are found in two events that took place in Palestine during Jesus’ time. The first was a tragic slaying of some Galileans who were in the Temple making sacrifices to Yahweh. Pilate had been tipped off that these Galileans were revolutionaries, men intent on seeking to overthrow Rome. Pilate had his men stationed in the Temple area, disguised with robes put on over their military garb. When the Galileans arrived, the Roman soldiers tore off their robes and slaughtered the Galileans and many innocent bystanders in the Temple. The second disastrous incident alluded to was the “eighteen men upon whom the tower fell.” This related to the fact that these 18 men were working on an aqueduct built by Pilate. This aqueduct had towers which inclined for the water to pass along. One of these towers collapsed and killed the people underneath. These tragic victims were called sinners, primarily because they were being paid by money that Pilate had conscripted from the Temple, which was deemed a sinful act by the people of that time. Thus, the 18 were considered to be accomplices, much like the tax collectors of that day and time.
News of both of these tragedies must have been circulating as Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem. The questions posed were theodical in nature. That is, they dealt with the problem of pain and suffering, the nature of evil. In our day and time they could be phrased, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, a cousin to that haunting line out of Archibald McLeish’s play, J.B. – “If God is God He is not good;If God is good He is not God.” Perhaps the best modern treatment of the question is Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge at San Luis Rey, in which a bridge collapses, killing a dozen or so people. Wilder looks at each of their lives up to the accident: “Why these and not others?”
But what is important to note, I think, is how deftly Jesus moves from the hypothetical question of the issue of evil and suffering to an existential issue that has eternity all about it. He moves from the question of the judgment of others to the call for personal repentance.
Now, one more point about our text today is agricultural. The fig tree is a tree that normally takes three years to reach maturity. But if a fig tree doesn’t bear fruit after three years, chances are that it won’t bear fruit at all. The powerful overtone of this example has all kinds of implications for people who take from the soil of faith and yet never give fruit in return. Jesus is quite emphatic here that God is the God of second chances, but the human reality is that because our lives are limited by time, there is a time limit to our opportunity for second chances. Thus, there is an urgency for us.
Some years back the gifted Lutheran pastor and scholar, Barbara Lundblad, spoke about the gift of the second-chance Jesus in this parable. She said, “Jesus is the gardener, isn’t he? He refused to give up on those who are living in the vineyard. Maybe the vineyard is the whole earth. Maybe it’s the church. Maybe it’s your life and mine. Jesus isn’t giving up on any of us–you, me, the church, the whole earth. There’s hope in this parable–don’t cut the tree down. But there’s also urgency–give me one more year. Could this be the year? We can hear that as a threat [she says]. There’s not much time left. Indeed, some evangelists press us with the question, ‘Where will you be if you die tonight?’ But Jesus’ parable moves in the direction of promise more than threat: I’m going to do everything I can to help this tree live and bear fruit…I’m going to find every way possible to get to hearts that are hard as packed down soil. While we’re speculating about why certain people died at Pilate’s hands or why the others were killed by the falling tower, Jesus, the gardener, is working on our hearts. Yes, those stories were real. They were as real as every tragedy we can name . . . Such realities remind us that our time is finite. Stories like these dig at our hearts. They get to us with the truth that we can’t keep putting everything off until tomorrow. But being scared to death can rob us of all hope [Lundblad says]. Life can then seem utterly arbitrary–if I die, I die. There’s nothing I can do about it, so why try? Into the midst of such despair, the gardener comes. Don’t cut the tree down. Let it alone for one more year. Jesus, the gardener, wants us to live. His passion is marked for us by great urgency–don’t wait! Look at your life and dare to ask the hard questions: Am I stingy in my love for others? Am I withholding forgiveness for old wrongs? . . . Am I so busy making a living that I’ve forgotten to make a life? Jesus digs at us with questions like these . . .Such questions, like the parable of the fig tree, move us toward repentance . . .” Perhaps the question isn’t so much of why bad things happen to good people, but rather the reality of grace for all people. We are called to realize that we yet have time to be fruitful.
Seward Hiltner, the marvelous pastoral theologian, once told about a state-run mental hospital where truly hopeless cases were relegated to a back ward. The psychiatrists and other medical staff avoided this ward, making only the bare minimum of calls, writing off the patients there as unsalvageable. Then a woman’s group from a local church, as a matter of compassion, began to visit the patients in the hospital. No one bothered to tell them that the patients in the back ward were abandoned cases, so they visited them regularly, bringing them flowers, fresh baked cookies, prayer, cheerfulness, and mercy. Before long, some of the patients began to respond, a few of them even becoming healthy enough to move to other wards. At one level, this was merely a church group doing what church groups do. At another level, it was God at work in the most difficult of circumstances.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Even though philosophers and theologians have warned us that suffering is an inevitable part of human life, our current constant exposure to it prompts us to say with the psalmist . . .“O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land…” Consider Jesus’ call, in spite of suffering, to re-orient our lives toward God, with patience, repentance and grace.
The gifted counselor and pastor Myron Madden wrote, “The essence of despair is relegating God solely to the past.” How might we see God at work in today’s world?
If we expect and demand that God rescue and protect us from human suffering, we may miss God’s sustaining Presence during dark times. Ask God for the awareness to see ourselves, others, and the world with God’s eyes and for the wisdom to be God’s grace for someone, in even a small way.
A Musical Guide for Prayer: Natasha Trethewey’s “Repentance”
After Vermeer’s “Maid Asleep”
To make it right Vermeer painted then painted over
this scene a woman alone at a table the cloth pushed back
rough folds at the edge as if someone had risen
in haste abandoning the chair beside her a wineglass
nearly empty just in her reach Though she’s been called
idle and drunken a woman drowsing you might see
in her gesture melancholia Eyelids drawn
she rests her head in her hand Beyond her a still-life
white jug bowl of fruit a goblet overturned Before this
a man stood in the doorway a dog lay on the floor
Perhaps to exchange loyalty for betrayal
Vermeer erased the dog and made of the man
a mirror framed by the open door Pentimento
the word for a painter’s change of heart revision
on canvas means the same as remorse after sin
Were she to rise a mirror behind her the woman
might see herself as I did turning to rise
from my table then back as if into Vermeer’s scene
It was after the quarrel after you’d had again
too much to drink after the bottle did not shatter though
I’d brought it down hard on the table and the dog
had crept from the room to hide Later I found
a trace of what I’d done bruise on the table the size
of my thumb Worrying it I must have looked as she does
eyes downcast my head on the heel of my palm In paint
a story can change mistakes be undone Imagine
Still-Life with Father and Daughter a moment so
far back there’s still time to take the glass from your hand