At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] 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)
There are many perks to being a parent, but one of the most powerful one is the ability to say “no.” And not just “no,” but the dreaded “No…because I said so!” It is the frustration of teens everywhere:
“Mom, can I go to this party Friday night with my friends?”
“Because I said so.”
It’s infuriating! When we hear someone tell us “no,” we want them to give us an explanation, or a reason, or some sort of insight into their logic. It’s hard to accept a simple “no” as sufficient, especially when we’ve asked a hard question.
This is where we begin in today’s gospel. Jesus is answering lingering questions about whether tragedy is God’s punishment for sins, and if worse sinners are punished more severely.
Jesus answers, quite simply, “no.”
No, God doesn’t punish sin with tragedy. No, suffering isn’t a matter of unrighteousness. No, Haiti and Chile weren’t hit with terrible earthquakes because of anything they did. No, people near to us and far from us don’t have their lives stripped from them because God was trying to punish them or punish us.
And when we try to ask “why,” we don’t get an answer. Jesus doesn’t give us any explanations or insight into God’s mind. He wants us to be satisfied with the simple “no,” the plain knowledge that suffering is not a part of God’s plan. Jesus, in his own way, is saying “no, because I said so.” In the gospel reading, he turns the questions around so that they are focused not on the mysteries of God’s will, but rather on the inner workings of our own minds and hearts.
For Jesus, why tragedies happen is far less important than what those tragedies teach us. Jesus wants us to see tragedies and catastrophes as a wake-up call; an awareness of the frailty of life and an awareness of our own sinfulness. Those who have suffered and died by tragedy are no worse sinners than you or me. And those of us who live comfortable, secure lives are no better people than anyone else.
We know this, but when is the last time you found yourself quietly blaming yourself or someone else for grief that has befallen them? “If only he had been wearing his seat belt…” “If only you had better values…” “If only I had gone to the doctor sooner…”
But Jesus cuts off our blame and our rationalizations with a sobering word: We are all sinners. And as sinners, we should all deserve death. Not tragic death or catastrophic death, but death nonetheless. We are all sinners, and we are all mortal. And in this season of Lent, we ponder our sinfulness, which needs redeeming, and our mortality, which needs saving. We hear clearly Jesus words: “repent or perish.”
The good news in Jesus’ words, as strange as it may sound, is that we are all sinners and we are all called to repent; that is, to reorient and re-incline our lives toward God, knowing the fragile nature of our lives. And how is this good news, you may ask? It is good news because, though we are all sinners, God is yet gracious! It is good news because we who are sinners have been given a second chance. It is good news because, though we are all mortal, God’s grace in Christ gives us new hope and purpose in this life, and an eternal feast with all the saints in the next. God says in Isaiah,
“Everyone who thirsts,It’s hard to hear this text from Isaiah without glancing away from the pulpit over to the font. We celebrated a baptism here last night, and celebrated all of the promises that God made to little Ava – and to us. Promises of grace and love, promises of life. Baptisms are a stunning picture of God’s grace. Little Ava, eleven months old, can do nothing and has done nothing to earn God’s grace and love. And yet, God is gracious, promising her and promising us good things, not because we deserve it, but because God is love.
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.”
God promises food and drink to all thirsty people. God has promised redemption to you and to me, sinners that we are. We come to the waters of baptism and we come to the table of our Lord as people thirsty for redemption. We come to the font and table as people hungry for grace. And God tells us that in those waters and at this feast, we will be washed and clothed and well-fed.
But when we take Jesus seriously when he says “repent or perish,” and when we reorient our lives toward God’s values and God’s will, we are urged one step further – to live redeemed lives that bear fruit in the world.
The parable of the fig tree tells us that we have all been given the grace to “live another year,” fertilized and watered so that we might bear fruit. The fig tree reminds us that we live only by the grace of God, and that by the cross, we have been given a new chance to bear fruit in the world.
Movies like “The Bucket List” and books like 1000 Places to See Before You Die tap into the collective urgency to make something of this life while we still have it. This is the urgency in Jesus’ message today. Tragedy reminds us that life is temporary and fragile. The parable of the fig tree reminds us that life is a gift from God, and that God gives us a second chance to bear fruit. This is now our challenge, as people redeemed, to bear fruit in the world.
In the words of the poet Mary Oliver,
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.What is God calling you to do with your one wild and precious life? When tragedy hits, are you called to bring relief and comfort? When poverty and despair threaten your neighbors, are you called to seek justice on their behalf? When children need love, are you called to embrace them? When hopelessness weighs heavy on the hearts of your brothers and sisters, are you called to bring God’s love and peace to them? When life too quickly fills with cares and worries, are you called to become idle and blessed, seeking God’s peace in creation?
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
(from “The Summer Day”)
God does not give up on us. God cleanses us and feeds us, tending to us as a master gardener tends to his vineyard, never giving up on us or on this world, but giving us the strength to bear fruit in the world. God has given us a wild and precious life, a life redeemed, even in suffering, by the suffering of the cross. By water, word, and feast, we taste and see the wild extravagance of God’s grace, and we are spurred on by this grace toward love and good deeds. So tell me, what will you do, this day and every day, to bear fruit in your wild, precious, redeemed life?