Luke 13:1-9: 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.'”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight o Lord, our rock and our redeemer…
Well, what a passage we have this week! Talking about blood and sacrifices, pain and suffering. And perhaps this is the perfect passage for us right now, at this time with the world in the state that it is, because while this passage is full of peril, it also holds a promise to address one of the persistent questions we have: why is there so much suffering in the world? Or, perhaps what we really want to ask: is suffering a form of punishment?
Now, this question, usually asking in moments of extreme suffering and loss is as poignant as it is important. And it has a lot to do with our Lenten journey. Of course, we’ve all heard less-than-helpful and sometimes downright awful explanations of suffering, running the gamut from innocent placations after particularly painful deaths to preachers using natural disasters or horrific incidences of human suffering as proof of God’s punishment for sin. So, to assume that one passage, taken on its own, can give us a whole theology is not a good idea, but we can say a lot about suffering and loss from this single passage. And I must admit, this is a message I need, a lot.
It may surprise you to know that I was a very wilful child, and I had a hard time with hearing no. I had a hard time with things that seemed unfair or unjust. And because I have siblings, unjust things happened a lot. And while I am perhaps more discerning in my wilfulness now as an adult, I still have a very hard time with injustice. So, I understand the desire to have the world fall out “right”, to have good people have blessings and bad people have punishments. And I understand this as a sticking point for a lot of people.
Why does God let this happen?
There is this interesting, more than likely apocryphal, story that I’ve had more than a few people tell me, about a young boy who goes to his pastor and asks him if God knows everything, and then pastor says of course. So the young boy asks, does God know that there are people starving in Africa, and the pastor says yes, I know you don’t understand but God knows about this. Finally, the young boy says well, if God knows there are people starving in Africa I don’t want to worship him and walks out of the church forever. And that young boy was Steve Jobs.
Now, I don’t know if that really happened, likely it didn’t exactly that way, but I know that so many people like to use that story to show the unjust nature of a God who knows about suffering but does nothing. And I think that’s kind of what Jesus is dealing with here.
He has people approaching him about the Galileans that harmed by Pilate, and I can just imagine that people were wanting answers. Did they deserve punishment? Why would God do this?
And to answer them, he tells them a story about a fig tree. Now, most people want to read this allegorically, and say that God is the landowner who is frustrated with the fig tree not growing the way he wants, and Jesus is the kindly gardener, who placates the angry God and puts off the cutting of the tree. Now, that might work fine with the Steve Jobs version of God, but I don’t think that’s ever the image of God that Jesus paints.
I don’t think that’s what we’re supposed to see here. Instead, I see myself as the landowner. Getting angry when my work and personal life aren’t giving me the fruits I want, getting frustrated with the long walk on desert path I’ve been given, getting upset at the punishment of growth and transformation. Because the landowner thinks he knows how the world should work, the fig tree should grow fruit on his timeline. The fig tree should produce because he wants it, because he demands it, and here’s the kicker, he doesn’t even take care of the tree!
The landowner just decided he wanted figs, and he comes by every once in a while, to get mad that there are none, but he hasn’t done a thing to help the fig tree bear fruit. He’s left it entirely up to the gardener, who knows that things will grow with love and care in their own time. Who knows that figs come only with the right set of circumstances to those who work hard for them.
And think about this, Jesus is having this whole conversation on the road to Jerusalem, as he is steadfastly making his way to the cross. Not as a punishment, but in solidarity and love.
He walks towards certain death, with courage and vulnerability, and with the knowledge that we, like the landowner, don’t understand the delicate hand that is needed to grow fruit, that we don’t always understand that bare branches and rot are sometimes the beginnings of new life, that time is not punishment, and justice is not reached by negligence and apathy.
In Jesus God loves us enough to take on our finite and vulnerable selves and live our lives fully, identifying with us completely. In the cross, 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, my brothers and sisters in Christ, what can we say in the face of suffering and loss? That God is with us. That God understands what our suffering is like. That God chooses to come close, to be with us, even in the wilderness. That God has promised to redeem all things, including our pain. And that suffering and injustice do not have to have the last word in our lives and the world.
Because yes, God sees all things, and yes God understands suffering, but so do we. And the love and care and kindness that God sends to grow and transform this world is us. It’s in all of us. This is the promise that God sends to the world: that in the most broken and battered of places, hope will rise, for we, the body of Christ, are here.