My sermon from this morning, March 24, 2019. Deep thanks for Pastor David Lose’s column on this text from 2016, which formed much of my thoughts on this.
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.”
6Then 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 around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Dear siblings in Christ, grace to you and peace this day from God our Creator, through Jesus our Redeemer. Amen.
OK, out of the gate – this is a strange lesson.
It begins with descriptions of two awful events. And Jesus is anticipating the Jewish understanding that those who suffered had done something to deserve that suffering, and that suffering was actually a punishment from God.
He dispels that understanding immediately.
He then tells a parable that probably drives efficient gardeners crazy: instead of replacing an under-performing plant, the gardener offers to give it another year of his labor, and a little manure, and see what happens. (Personally, I’ve always been impressed with what can happen to an old rose bush with a little bit of steer manure and careful pruning.)
But I believe that this gospel lesson contains some kernels of understanding when it comes to sin and repentance, and suffering and redemption.
And we also begin to see the cross in plain view, as we journey towards Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week.
There is a hefty dose of truth-telling in this lesson, maybe more than we are comfortable hearing. But Lent is a time for us to take on some discomfort, as we take a look at our lives and seek the places where we need transformation.
The news relayed to Jesus involves the man whose name will be forever linked with Jesus: Pontius Pilate. It’s a particularly horrifying episode that sounds not unlike the massacre at the mosques in New Zealand last week.
What I see in Jesus’ reply is a continuation of the paradigm shift that began when he read from the scroll in the synagogue at the beginning of his ministry. When he proclaimed that the scripture of the coming of the anointed one was fulfilled.
In this story today, Jesus shifts the Old Testament image of an angry, vengeful God to God incarnate in Jesus. Instead of God hurling lightning bolts from the sky, God who has come into the world walks beside us in our troubles.
Jesus is reminding us that suffering is not a form of punishment. If there is anything we can take from Jesus’ sharp words to his audience, it’s that suffering and calamity are not God’s punishment for sin. To make his point, Jesus uses his second example of the tower at Siloam. “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” He again answers definitively, “No.”
In each situation, Jesus is adamant that God is not a God of vengeance. God doesn’t visit bad things on people to punish them for something they’ve done.
And of course this is almost incomprehensible for his audience. It’s not much better for us today.
Our sense of equitable justice says well, if this happened to this person then they must have done something to deserve it.
These are some condemnations that have been promulgated by people who claim to be followers of Jesus:
*Those men died of AIDS because they were sinners, and they were sinners because they were gay.
*Those people in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward died in Hurricane Katrina because that city is filled with sin.
If we were to continue to employ that line of reasoning, then we could say:
*Those people of Nebraska lost everything in the floods, and some even died, because they were worse sinners than others.
*The people of Paradise lost their entire town and many of its residents to that awful fire because they were worse sinners than others.
I’m going to go on the record here and now: If this were true, I wouldn’t be standing here, because I could never bring myself to believe in a God whose method was to wait for people to mess up so he could be mean to them.
That is an abusive model. Jesus, Emanuel, God-with-us stands over against that model. Jesus’ summary of the greatest commandment – love God, and love your neighbor as yourself – reminds us that God is love, not hate.
However, just because suffering is not punishment doesn’t mean that it is disconnected entirely from sin. Pilate’s murderous acts of terror have plenty of modern company. There are, sadly, many examples in our world of how shoddy workmanship has resulted in harm to people. Make no mistake – these acts are sinful. Sin has consequences, and there are all kinds of sin that create much of the misery in the world. The more we confront that sin, the less suffering there will be. Jesus’ summary of the greatest commandment also reminds us that loving our neighbor as ourselves means we shouldn’t be doing things that harm others, be they people, creatures, or God’s good creation.
I firmly believe that God neither causes nor delights in suffering and calamity. This is where the parable about the fig tree comes in – but not, perhaps, in the way you might expect.
We tend to read this parable allegorically, assuming that the landowner is God and the gardener Jesus. But nowhere in Luke do we find a picture of an angry, vindictive God that needs to be placated by a friendly Jesus. Luke’s Gospel overflows with the conviction that “there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance.”
I wonder if perhaps the landowner is representative of our own sense of how the world should work. From childhood, we’ve wanted things to be “fair” – and we define “fair” as receiving rewards for doing good and punishment for doing evil. (Of course, for our own mistakes and misdeeds, we want mercy, not punishment!)
So perhaps the gardener is God, the one who consistently raises a different 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. Perhaps you’ve heard the term “the God of second chances.” That means everyone, not just some.
These are difficult things to hear. But we should remember that this whole discussion takes place on the road to Jerusalem. Jesus is making his way to the cross.
We think of the cross as an instrument of punishment – and in the Roman Empire, that’s exactly what it was. But I believe that the resurrection quite literally changes EVERYTHING, including the cross.
In Jesus, God loves us enough to take on our lot and our lives fully, identifying with us completely. In the cross, then, we see just how far God is willing to go to be with us and for us, even to the point of suffering unjustly and dying the death of a criminal. And in the resurrection, we see that God’s solidarity and love is stronger than anything, even death.
So what can we say in the face of suffering and loss? I speak now from my own experience: that God is with us. That God understands what our suffering is like. That God has promised to redeem all things, including even our suffering. That suffering and injustice do not have the last word in our lives and world. And that God will keep waiting for us and keep urging us to turn away from our self-destructive habits, from our sin that causes harm, to be drawn again into the embrace of a loving God.
After everything is said and done, Jesus died because God chose to be incarnate. He could have died in any number of ways. The cross was the political and spiritual consequence of the day. He took on sin not necessarily by paying a debt owed to a vengeful God but by revealing God’s persistent grace even to the point of showing what sin, evil, greed, and power do to humans. And he revealed what God’s love does to humans through his refusal to wield power but instead forgive.
The cross as symbol of an evil empire is transformed by Jesus’ resurrection into a symbol of hope. Death itself is defeated.
And the world is turned upside down.