People say that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” It’s true! Our Gospel reading began with an incident of political and religious violence. Some faithful Jews were killed by King Herod in the temple. The text says that the blood of Galileans was actually mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. Our nation’s focus yesterday on South Carolina caused me to think of the mass shooting there last June in Charleston. A white supremacist was welcomed into a Bible study group at a historic black church and killed nine innocent men and women. He said afterward that he wanted to start a race war. We remember well from November the fatal shooting of three clients and staff at the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado Springs. We’re still not entirely sure of the motivation. Were the killings rooted in political rhetoric or religious conviction or mental illness? Or all of those?
We’ve heard this morning a remarkably specific accounting of violence as well as random misfortune experienced by people in the time of Jesus. It reads like a page from the Jerusalem Herald, but with a few variations it could be the New York Times or the Daily Camera. These things happen today, too. Jesus was aware that people were asking why people had died in a massacre in the temple and others under a collapsing tower. What was the purpose? Were they so bad that their sins deserved such a penalty? Jesus didn’t bother to reply. Instead, he answered the question with another question: Do you think those who suffered were worse than you?” Not exactly comforting words!
It’s not always easy to figure out why some people are at the receiving end of crushing tragedy. It’s the dilemma of Job, and we will probably never find a decent answer. I don’t think Jesus was being flippant or insulting; I imagine he just didn’t want people wasting time on what could never be known. It’s good advice from Jesus to consider one’s own life rather than ponder the lives of others. Maybe the best question for us in the face of tragedy is to ask what our part is in relieving the suffering of others.
Jesus used a word in this passage that doesn’t appear often in the United Church of Christ lexicon of commonly used terms. That is the word “repent.” It’s hard to get away from that word, though, when John the Baptist appears so often in the Gospels and our Lectionary lessons shouting about repentance. And now it’s Jesus, who says that unspeakable suffering will visit those who will not change their ways. For some people, repentance means kneeling down and being really, really sorry and promising God they will never to do bad things again. For others, it means making a decision to see life and the world differently and then acting in ways that support that commitment.
Luke 13 mentions that eighteen people died when the tower of Siloam collapsed. There is no written or archaeological record of such a tower, so we know nothing more about it. Some have speculated that a minor earthquake resulted in the tragedy. Last April, the Himalayas shook and the people of Nepal experienced tremendous devastation. Many homes and whole communities tumbled to the ground. Tens of thousands of people died. There are reasonable explanations for what happened. Tectonic plates beneath the mountains shifted. The people living in that region are poor and their homes are poorly constructed. Beyond that, ongoing political turmoil and violence has resulted in social instability, which made recovery efforts difficult. One factor that seemed to make the situation even worse was the government’s suspicion of outside charitable and religious groups that wanted to help. And yet people did. Those who would have blocked aid in essence repented. They changed their outlook enough that they allowed persons offering health care and physical help and money to enter the devastated region. Repentance is often necessary to prevent further suffering. Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
There are two stories here that at first seem unrelated. The first is about violence and nature disaster. The second is a parable about a fig tree. You might be interested to know that the parable is the only place in the New Testament that makes reference to manure. How do you talk about that in a sermon? People may think a sermon contains it, but they certainly don’t want to hear about it. A gardener in Jesus’ short story desperately piles manure around a dying tree in the hope that the tree will be revived. As odd as it seems, Jesus was trying to shed light on the prior matters of bloody uprisings and falling towers and heartfelt repentance.
Jesus tells a story about a fig tree that was growing – or more accurately, dying – in a vineyard. It’s a truism that grapevines grow in vineyards, not trees. I’m not sure why the tree wasn’t in an orchard, but the important fact is that the fig tree was a disappointment. It wasn’t producing figs, so there was no reason to keep it. The farmer decided to cut it down, but the hired gardener persuaded the farmer to give the tree some slack and see if it might become fruitful again.
My mother was very good at reviving nearly-dead plants. When I was grown and out of the house, she would come to my home and rescue plants and return them to me with instructions for keeping them alive. On my back porch was an area I called the plant cemetery, but even some of the plants I relegated to the graveyard were sometimes resurrected when my mother intervened.
Jesus is generally understood to be the gardener in this story. He’s the one who doesn’t give up, but he also insists that something on our part is necessary in order to start bearing fruit again. Jesus is like my Mom, seeing the potential for life after everyone else has said that hope is gone. Jesus keeps finding tiny green sprouts among the dry brown leaves.
If Jesus is the gardener in the story, I guess that means that the rest of us are represented by the fig tree. Either we’re producing fruit or we aren’t. It might be good for us to ask if our life makes a noticeable difference in the world. Are we bearing fruit? Is something of lasting value resulting from our presence in the vineyard, or are our branches empty? During Thursday night’s Republican debate, Dr. Ben Carson made what was considered by many to be a very odd statement. When discussing what he would look for in a potential Supreme Court nominee, he said that he would look at the “fruit salad” of that person’s life. The twitterverse erupted in ridicule, and the next day Dr. Carson explained that it was a biblical reference to the fruit that is produced in one’s life. I have to admit that I didn’t get it either until he explained it; and I was writing a sermon on the topic at the time. I’m pretty sure we can’t expect people to understand our Christian lingo, but we can strive to do what Jesus said: produce fruit.
Looking again at the parable, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to see ourselves in the role of the gardener instead of Jesus. That’s the great thing about stories like this. We can use our imagination and try to figure out different possibilities. I don’t mean to push Jesus out of the story, but don’t we also play a part in the work of tending and digging and fertilizing? Being fruitful isn’t just about our own produce, it is being connected to the whole and using all of our resources to benefit those around us.
The Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment while meditating beneath a large fig tree, the “ficus religiosa,” which mean “sacred fig”. The Buddha’s tree of enlightenment was eventually destroyed, but a branch was saved and re-rooted in another location. That tree is believed today to be the oldest flowering plant in the world. Imagine if someone hadn’t believed in the potential of life enough to carry that fragile shoot to a safe place for re-rooting.
A few years ago I was preaching on this passage and decided to talk with the children about figs and bearing fruit, so I went to the local supermarket to buy some figs. I hate asking for directions in the store, so I looked on my own through the produce department for fresh figs and then scoured the shelves of all the aisles for dried figs. Finally, I found a produce manager who told me that figs were out of season. I had been researching figs for my sermon and asked him if he knew were figs are grown. He didn’t. I then explained that figs are grown throughout the year in Turkey and Israel and therefore should be available in Buffalo in March. He sent me on my way to another supermarket where I started the whole process over again and then was told to check a certain aisle for dried figs. The cupboard was bare, but then I located a bag of figs in another aisle, which is why I don’t usually ask for directions in the first place. I got home for the supermarket and remembered that someone else was scheduled to give the children’s message the next day. I had no use for the figs at all.
The owner of the fig tree had no use for it. “Cut it down.” Chop up the branches and burn them. It’s just wasting soil. But God disagrees. God says that your place on earth is necessary, and despite the judgments of others, you matter. God’s message is this: “I value you enough to keep trimming and pruning and nourishing. I will never give up on you.” There is always another chance to grow into what God intends for you to be.
May the hands of the gardener hold you close today to revive the driest places within, and may God multiply the good fruit of your life through acts of love and service.