Do you remember, when we were kids, when someone whom we sometimes barely knew approached us in class, on the playground, or maybe even at church, and said “<So and So> just said something terrible about you!” or maybe “Did you hear that <So and So> just said or did some unimaginably awful thing?!”
Admit it, we’ve all not only experienced this, but have done these same things ourselves. (Hopefully less often now than we did as kids!) We’ve all heard and then unthinkingly repeated things that we’ve heard someone else said or did, something that confirms what we knew about them all along, something that we feel validates why we cannot support them, or why they cannot be our friend, that proves they really do believe or represent something that is completely against the obviously right and true things that we believe.
Let us pray…
Lord, let it be your voice that speaks through my mouth, and let our hearts and minds be open and receptive to hearing the Word & Mission you have for us here today. Amen.
Our scripture reading from Luke 13 relates two episodes that are mentioned only here. In fact, they are not found anywhere else in the New Testament; they aren’t mentioned by Josephus or any other ancient authors, many of whom were eager to paint the Romans as nasty people; and are they are not witnessed-to by any ancient monument, inscription or archeological evidence at all. The only tenuous thread of evidence we have for either story is the observation some have made that the wall of Jerusalem runs near the Pool of Siloam, and would have been a good location for a defensive tower. So, maybe the Romans built one there, and maybe it collapsed. But then again, no evidence of such a tower exists.
In the first line of our reading, the words in the NRSV translation say “there were some present who told him.” But, the word for “present” here also means “to come”, and is in fact translated in exactly that way elsewhere in the New Testament. So, it is just as correct to read the text like this: “At that very time, there were some who came and told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” …Sounds just like a playground rumor to me!
So, is this the ancient equivalent of posting a meme or forwarding an email without first verifying it via Snopes or Politifact? …Maybe, but it doesn’t matter, because the issue is not about what was true or not, but something else.
You see, in neither story does Jesus place blame. He could have blamed Pilate for those deaths in the story about the murdered Galileans, which is what those telling the tale wanted him to do; but he didn’t. In fact, doing as they hoped would have been dangerous, given that those in power didn’t take kindly to criticism, as Jesus learned from what happened to his cousin, John the Baptist, and to others who dared to criticize the Pilate or Herod.
Jesus deflects the question by bringing up another common belief, which is that when such things happen it is the fault of the victims, not the perpetrators; the idea of “divine retribution”: that people deserve what they get. He asks if this could be what happened here, then answers his own question by saying: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Jesus then relates the story about the collapsed tower, which he assumes they knew about. At the end of that story, he refutes the same conclusion, the same belief we still see all too often in the modern world, which is that God punishes us for our sins; or, to put it another way, that bad things happening to people is a sign of God’s anger against them. And he again ends this second refutation with the statement: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Gossip is part of human nature, like I said at the beginning of this message. We all do it. We all see it, especially now in the heat of this political campaign season, as those on the right and the left battle each other: bombarding us with endless accusations of how so and so did this, or said that. They present these tidbits from the news of the moment, and from musty records of long ago events, as validation of their belief that their target is an evil person, even the Anti-Christ, just like they’ve been telling us all along.
Uh huh, yep.
But Jesus says, “No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish…” He accuses no one of being or causing evil – of being responsible for the murders or the collapsed tower. Neither does he judge those who died. His focus is not on what others have done or what others have said, but on what we are doing and on what we are saying. He is teaching us, and showing us through his own example, that it is not up to us to judge another’s actions and words; that is God’s work. Rather, we are called to repent of our own.
Let’s ask ourselves why this parable, about the unproductive fig tree, is placed here in Luke. Jesus tells the story for a reason, and Luke connects that reason with the murders of the Galileans and the collapse of the tower at Siloam.
But, that reason isn’t because there is something wrong or evil with the murderers or tower builders, as we already know; and we also know that the reason is not because those who died had somehow offended God. It must be something else. That “something else” is why Jesus said “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Now, in Jesus’ parable we have an unproductive fig tree that was planted in a vineyard several years ago, a frustrated absentee landowner, and the gardener.
The landowner has checked on his fig tree every so often, maybe once a year, for three years in a row. In the Bible, the fig tree, which was common throughout Ancient Israel, is often used as a metaphor for the blessings of the land: its presence is a blessing, its absence is a curse, and yet the landowner wants to dig it up. Why? Similarly, a vineyard and grape vines are also used metaphors throughout the Scriptures in a nearly identical way. The two are often used together, as they are here.
It takes time for a newly planted fig tree, or any fruit tree, to produce good fruit. Waiting for that first fruit for three or more years is reasonable. So, the landowner is impatient. The gardener pleads for the tree, asks that he be allowed to care for it and feed it: that it be given more time to mature. We are not told what the landowner decides, nor what happened a year later: did the landowner remember to come back and check again? If he did, was the tree now fruitful, or did the gardener try to convince the owner to give the tree yet more time? We don’t know. These questions are deliberately left unanswered, as they are in all parables, so that they will simmer within us. They rise up within our minds and we imagine what the answers could be, and we wonder what each possible answer means for our own faith and for our own salvation.
But what does it mean to repent, and how does that tie into this story? Can one achieve a “repented” state? Hmmm. That sounds odd: We don’t talk about being repented. “To Repent” is a verb, not a noun. So, instead we talk about repenting – a process or a journey, not a state – a distinction we’ve talked about before with regards to so much of what our faith teaches.
One cannot repent and be done with it. It is an ongoing practice, a recognition that the flaws in this world – and within us – are here to stay. They cannot be eradicated, nor forgotten. Our sins will always be with us. Jesus’ point is that we must recognize this, and calls us to constantly tend to the vineyard of our spirits, since a gardener’s job is never done. And if we don’t, we will eventually perish, like that tree might.
Repentance, therefore, is the ongoing practice of being aware that we are flawed, of being on the lookout for the effects that arise out of those flaws, then working to correct the harm we inflict upon ourselves and others because of them. Repentance is a statement that yes, we are flawed creatures, but that we know God sees value in us, and so we are determined to water those things in our internal vineyard that we hope will eventually bear fruit. We must feed the good within ourselves, living in expectation that we will grow and produce good fruit.
The purpose of the parable of the fig is to make the process of repentance a working reality within us. As I said earlier, parables make us wonder about the meanings and outcomes of the story; we question where we are within the story; and we wonder how the many possible endings and questions being raised relate to us. This continual wondering and questioning, this ongoing self-examination, is what repentance is.
It is a process based upon our hope for the future, a hope based upon the assurance of God’s unconditional love for us, that God forgets our sins. Our reading from Isaiah presents this same assurance, saying that we can all come and drink the waters, that we can all buy and eat of God’s goodness, even if we have no money. God’s love and grace are a gift given without prerequisites or limitation. Repentance is not an admission or declaration that we are fatally flawed, because we aren’t. If we were, then why would Jesus bother calling us to repent at all?
So what does all this tell us about playground gossip? — Or, perhaps the news media, which is, after all, merely a much larger grownup sort of playground!
It isn’t about them. It isn’t about the Bernies or the Trumps or the Obamas or the Supreme Court or the NRA or ISIS or Black Lives Matter or any other person or cause or movement or organization you can name, no matter how admirable or despicable any of them may actually be. It is about us. Jesus is teaching us that to change the world, to make the Kingdom of God here on earth a reality, does not require that we change others; but rather requires that we change ourselves. This is part of the great journey of Lent after all, a time when we remove distractions. We look inward, taking a realistic look at our flaws and our failures. We repent, and ask God to help us.
The story of the fig tree implies that God will always give us yet another chance to change, but doesn’t assure us of this. We don’t know if or when judgment will come. And so, we are encouraged by its indefinite ending to walk in repentance every day, knowing and accepting that we do have faults, but that having them is OK, being “Bad” is OK, because the Gospels tell us that we have a loving God who walks with us no matter what, loves us no matter what. It is the process of repentance itself that assures us that we will survive, and that we will be redeemed, no matter how bad things may seem.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, February 28, 2016.
Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)