God is the gardener
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Gospel: Luke 13:1-9
Repentance: My friend Ann comes from North Carolina. She's married to an Aussie who has family in the Barossa Valley. She said one day that growing up in North Carolina it was a sin to drink, but that smoking was ok. In the Barossa, she had discovered that smoking and tobacco were serious sins! But wine was all good. When Jesus says repent, he is not talking about stopping some convenient local list of sins. He is talking about changing the entire way we live— the entire direction we are going— in order to try to live more like Jesus would live in our time.
At 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.” ’
Let's translate the reading into 'Austrayan.'
In Luke Chapter 12 Jesus is preaching a long sermon. And near the end of it, things are a bit uncomfortable, because people are beginning to realise that being a Christian might not be as simple as they imagined. It might involve serious arguments within families: two against three, and three against two.
Somebody in the crowd is feeling a bit uncomfortable about all this and they cry out to Jesus, "Yeah, but God will still punish the sinners, won't he? You know: Like that time Pilate murdered those Galileans in the temple. I mean, if they had been real, faithful followers of God, then God would have protected them, right?"
And Jesus says, "No. Not at all. That's not how God works. Those Galileans in the temple were no bigger sinners than any other Galileans. Just like the people that had the tower of Siloam fall on top of them. They were no more sinners, and no less sinners than anybody else."
This is sometimes profoundly challenging to us, because we like to think— somewhere in the back of our mind— that really, if you get cancer, then probably you were doing something wrong and God is punishing you...
Well, usually we don't quite come out and say it like that— although I have heard it. What we tend to do is say things like, "They didn't have enough faith," when someone doesn't get healed after prayer. And, while I don't think I ever thought God was punishing someone because they got sick, I always had the feeling that I wouldn't get cancer, and I wouldn't get sick because, after all, I was a good Christian, and God would look after me. But if you think about it, it all amounts to the same thing: God will protect those who are on God's side. And those who are not on God's side... the ones that God ... maybe... doesn't love as much? ... ... ... Well, anything could happen to them.
But Jesus says, "No. That's not how God is. Life is not like that."
What Jesus does then, is tell the crowd, and the person who asked the question, a little parable about God and about life.
It's sneaky parable, because it sets up a trap for us. It tests how much we have let the Spirit touch our soul.
That's because, at the beginning of the story, it makes it sound like Jesus is talking about God. It says a man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard. So everyone thought: he means God... because Israel is God's vineyard; that's one of the traditions of the religion. And it was common, also, to think about Israel as a fig tree planted by God.
But it was also just a very common thing for any farmer to have fig trees growing in any vineyard, because you could use fig trees as a trellis for your grapes. Trellising is really expensive, especially if you are a poor farmer who doesn't have high tensile wire. So if you had fig trees that your grapes could grow up into you'd get very good grapes. So... maybe... Jesus was just talking about an ordinary farmer in an ordinary vineyard. But I think he is having a little joke and misleading us to make a point.
We know what happens with farmers don't we: If there's a fig tree that you plant, and it's been there for years, and it doesn't do anything, then you rip it out. You give up on it. There's no room for sentimentality. You don't waste the ground. You put something else there instead of that unfruitful tree.
And now Luke adds a little extra trick to catch his Christian sisters and brothers: the tree has been there for three years. It's just inviting Christians to think, "Yeah... look at that: Jesus was here for three years, trying to get Israel to repent, teaching Israel about the love of God, and Israel remained utterly without fruit. In fact, Israel was so bad, that they killed Jesus." In fact, there's another parable in Luke 20 where the vineyard tenants gang up and kill the son of the owner of the vineyard. So you can see everybody thinks, "Yeah—! That's exactly what's going on here. God is going to rip out the sinners. About time, too!"
What actually happened? Well, what happens is that the gardener says to the owner, "Hang about a bit, let me water it, let me dig around the roots and put in fertilizer and manure. Let me give it another year, and we'll see how it goes then.
And here is the test: what I've often heard Christians say is, "Well of course God wants to punish the wicked fruitless people, but Jesus is the kind gardener who intercedes for us sinners."
Ummm.... if we know that God is like Jesus— you know: if you have seen me you have seen the Father... that stuff. Well... if Jesus would come in and say to the landowner, "Don't rip out the fig tree, then isn't that what God would do? Isn't that what God is like?
This is where the little trap snaps shut on us in this parable. Because, actually, the gardener in this world is God. It's us... who rip out the fig trees. It's us... who say to people, "You're not good enough; you haven't done well enough; you haven't borne fruit; you're not like us; you're Muslim, so we're ripping you out. We're going to shove you in jail; we're going to cut off your benefits; we are rejecting you."
But God is the gardener, and God says, "No, let me look after this person. Let me nurture this person. Let me love this person, and lavish even more attention and love upon them. And then we'll see what happens."
And of course, if we have been paying any attention to our faith... if we have been letting God touch us at all, we realise that God gives us much, much more than a single year. God doesn't give us just one more year: we are a long-lived species, three score years and ten. It's common for people to live well into their 90's, and beyond. And all the time, the gardener is lavishing love upon us, if we would only look and listen.
And of course, if we've been paying any attention to our faith, and letting the spirit move in our hearts, we've begun to realise something else: "Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus." Not even death. So, even after death, even if we've remained a fruitless fig tree, God does not give up on us.
This is challenging thinking. First of all, we might recognise something that's illustrated in a little parable which people sometimes tell:
Jesus and 11 blokes are sitting around on lounges and comfortable chairs. Peter the Apostle is lying on the floor with his head on a cushion, and they're all waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Lunch is sitting on the table, but they wait. It's the year 2587. The Apostle John is writing the 15th version of his gospel on his iPad! And there's a tentative little knock at the door. A bloke nervously sticks his head around the corner, and Jesus springs to his feet and rushes over and says, "Judas! What kept you? Thank goodness you've arrived. We can get on with lunch! "And, of course, lunch is the Eucharist. God will wait for all time, even for the worst sinner.
Now the sting in the tail of this little story, is that if Jesus waits for Judas, then Jesus will wait for Hitler, and for Pol Pot, and for Stalin. In fact Jesus will even wait for a certain person in New Zealand. And that really upsets us because we would like to blame the bad people. And if Jesus lets Hitler and Pol Pot and Stalin, and that Australian terrorist in New Zealand, into the kingdom of heaven it's sort of saying that they're just the same as us, and we are no better than them. And that's true. Because no one, in the eyes of God, is a worse sinner than anyone else. This reading from Luke 13:1-9 is a parable of God's overwhelming and undiscriminating grace.
At this point, someone's likely to say, "Hang on a bit it's not that simple. You've missed something. It says in Verse 5 that unless you repent you will all perish just they did. How does that work with the love of God who would never let anyone go, and who waits for everybody? Isn't God threatening to punish people here?"
Here is the subtlety. God does not punish the sinners in the way we would like to think.
God doesn't think, "Well, you can walk out there and cross South Road, and because you're a good Christian person with lots of faith in me, I will make sure you get across safely. But since Fred is one of the sinners of the congregation, I am going to arrange for a semi-trailer to come hurtling through the red lights, and run him over."
Life and reality do not work like that. But... but we all know... that if you walk out there and cross South Road without looking, you'll get run over. It will have nothing to do with God, and everything to do with your own stupidity. That's what Jesus is talking about when he says "unless you repent you will all perish just as they did." Luke is writing in an era when Israel has learnt that to take on the Romans and try and set themselves up as a powerful military state in opposition to the Romans, meant to be destroyed, to perish. That was something people could see was on the cards in Jesus' time.
And Jesus was saying, "If you live like that then you will perish just like they did; that's like crossing South Road with your eyes shut. Repent! You need to take on a completely different approach to life. Love one another in the way I have loved you, and in the way that God loves you. Don't live the way of the world. If you live the way of the world, God will not desert you, but the way of the world will destroy you."
But even then— here is the grace of God: even then, even if you are that foolish, nothing in all creation, not even death, will separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. For God is the gardener who lavishes love and attention on even the most fruitless fig tree until the end of time, and beyond, for as long as it takes. God will not let you go. Amen
Andrew Prior (2019 - Lent 3)