Week of Sunday March 7: Lent 3
Gospel: Luke 13:1-9
13At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He 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.’
6 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. 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 round it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
We love to blame the victim. It was their fault. We do this because it makes us safe. The universe is not random. God is not arbitrary. They deserved it! Blaming the victim means we will blame even ourselves, to protect God. To my mind, the whole enterprise of theodicy has been undermined by a determination to keep God off the hook. If there really is an all powerful God, an outsider would be excused for thinking that God has made a rather poor effort in constructing this world. It is wasteful, vicious, capricious, and horrifyingly cruel and unfair. But rather than deal with that, many churches come down to saying, “It’s our fault. We deserved it.” The theology may be more subtle, we’ll talk about sin, but this is its essence. We will victimise even ourselves to keep our imagining of God safe.
Whatever else is happening in the reading this week, Jesus says, “It’s not their fault.” Did Luke simply repeat a tradition, or carefully choose his examples? One concerns evil done by people. The other, is an impersonal tragedy; people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Were these people worse than any other people? The answer is No!
But then Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will all perish, just as they did.” Unpacking this, we see firstly how emphatic he is: No, I tell you; but.... Emphatic that victims of evil are no worse than any other person; they do not deserve it. But also emphatic that our whole being, in some way, is at risk if we do not repent, if we do not turn and go another way in life.
As part of this emphasis, Chapter 13 begins with the words At that very time... We could imagine this by remembering one of those times when the guest speaker asks if there are any questions. A hand goes up, and we hear one of those inept, embarrassing questions, where we wonder what on earth the listener was thinking. How could they so misunderstand what the speaker was on about?!
Chapter 12 is a list of warnings; exhortations to be wise to the real issues of the world. Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more... (12:4). Then comes the question.
You mean like when Pilate mingled their blood with the sacrifices?
No! It’s much more profound than that. I'm not talking about the injustices of everyday life. I’m talking about something transcending that. I’m talking about the worth and purpose of our whole being.
Some interpret the parable of the fig tree in terms of plain reward and punishment: Those who yielded fruit will be rewarded. Those who don’t are simply wasting the soil and will be cut down. We often add burning, for good measure. This often accompanies defensive and exclusive theologies, tied to quite narrow expressions of belief and faith.
I can understand where some of it comes from. Things can seem so bad that all our hopes get pushed into the future, and some kind of afterlife reward. For now, all we can do is persist until that final reward.
I’m aware that I speak from a position of enormous comfort and privilege, but this theology can be deeply disempowering and destructive- even for those in terrible situations.
We dehumanise ourselves if we think things are so bad we can do no more than exist. Even in the worst situation we are able to act fruitfully. The words of Viktor Frankl quoted in his Wikipedia entry express this, and Corrie Ten Boom lived the same generous love and compassion in the camps.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth -- that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory...."
Another important conclusion for Frankl was:
If a prisoner felt that he could no longer endure the realities of camp life, he found a way out in his mental life– an invaluable opportunity to dwell in the spiritual domain, the one that the SS were unable to destroy. Spiritual life strengthened the prisoner, helped him adapt, and thereby improved his chances of survival.
Little better than a dogged persistence to the end, which forgets to love, is where someone attempts to live life; that is, to repent (using Luke’s word) out of fear of punishment. Basically, they do good to avoid being cut down, or rejected, at the end.
(In the grace of God, such a base beginning often, even usually, has a transformative effect to a more wholesome and less fearful reason for action!)
Jack Spong’s catch phrase is Live life fully, love wastefully, be all you can be. The best advertisements I have seen for the truth of the gospel are people who live like that. Living life out of fear of punishment contradicts that saying. In fear, I will not live wastefully. I will be frugal, and strategic. I will contradict, and be a contradiction of, the richness of grace.
For these reasons, I want drag the parable of the fig tree back from future reward (or punishment) into the present life. People who know me, will also know I am strongly of the opinion that the “next life,” whatever that may be, will look after itself. The gospel of Jesus Christ is for now! Which means, the parable is for now in our lives.
By definition, a parable does not have a meaning. My witness to the parable includes these observations.
First, as I have dug around my life, and fertilised it by living more wastefully and compassionately, I have been startled by the richness of the fruits. Living what Dave Andrews calls the Be Attitudes bears an unwarranted and underserved harvest relative to our efforts that is truly a blessing.
Second, I live with a brain chemistry set at the "Intense and Brooding" end of the scale. "Happy go lucky," I am not, and never will be. I wouldn’t be any other way, but a couple of times this has got seriously “out of whack,” and I’ve ended up with debilitating clinical depression. One effect of this can be a deeply self focussed paralysis. It empties life of hope and worth and purpose. It is, using the real meaning of the word, a horrible experience. To say it is deeply unfruitful, seems an understatement.
I have often thought I do not want to be at the end of life, and realise I am the fig tree, and have wasted everything. But recently, I’ve also thought more about my depressive episodes. They seem to bear an uncomfortable resemblance to some lives I observe around me. Lives we don't usually call depressed, but which are unfruitful, and perhaps even “cut down.” Empty lives focussed on possessions, or safety, or too much time in the mirror. Lives which are perishing now, even while still alive. Please understand that I am not describing this for condemnation. I feel deep sorrow for someone in such a place; I have been somewhere similar.
Life and grace are incredibly, undeservedly, fecund. The smallest amount of self gardening yields an enormous harvest of fresh shoots on seemingly dead branches, followed by much fruit. Why would I not choose that over the horror of emptiness?
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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