“Let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it…” Luke 13:8
This is the time of year when you hear me talk a lot about basketball. I apologize to those of you who don’t care a bit about the NCAA tournament. I’ll admit I’m a little obsessed. This year I find myself feeling more superstitious than I usually do. For the first round game on Friday, I wore my favorite Virginia t-shirt. I put on the lucky earrings, which I’m also wearing today in preparation for tonight’s game. When we were losing at halftime, I poured a little bourbon and tried to face the fact that all of my loyalty, all of my cheering, all of my superstitions might not be enough to help Virginia win the game. Thankfully they emerged victorious. But it wasn’t anything I did…probably.
We can laugh about superstitions, but they are a version of something we know deep within ourselves. We want to be able to control what is beyond our control. At the very least we want to be able to draw a clear line of cause and effect between what people deserve and what happens to them: “She is a kind and loving person, and she works so hard…I hope she gets that job she wants.” Or the reverse: “He has been awful to his family…I hope all his toenails fall off.”
When bad things happen in the world, it’s not helpful to try to make sense of them in terms of divine punishment. It’s tempting, but it’s not helpful. We may want to blame someone, we may sometimes want tragedy to be a form of cosmic justice, but that’s not where Jesus points us.
Jesus knows that we sometimes want to look at terrible events this way. He sees it in the situation that people bring to him in this gospel.[i] The first tragedy is at the hands of the Roman government – Pilate has had some people killed, their blood mixed in with the sacrifices that people have made in observance of their faith. Jesus guesses the question people are wondering about this tragedy: Did the people deserve it? Were they somehow worse than the rest of us? The answer is, emphatically, no.
To highlight this point, Jesus refers to a different tragedy – the collapse of a tower that has killed eighteen people. Did those people deserve to have a pile of bricks come falling down on their heads? Were they somehow worse than the rest of us? The answer is again, emphatically, no.
In our own time it would be like asking if the people in the latest mass shooting deserved to die. Or if the people overwhelmed by floodwaters in Nebraska and Iowa deserved to lose their homes, their land, their livestock. The answer is clear: no and no.
That part of us that wants it to be about deserving, the part that longs for a clear cause and effect – it’s usually connected to the part of us that doesn’t want to look at our own behavior. If we spend our time looking at those other people and judging their actions as worthy of reward or punishment, then we can avoid facing our own choices and the harm we often do.
But Jesus asks us to be honest with ourselves. The verb he uses here – repent – from the Greek metanoeo – means to face what we have done and to be turned in a new direction. The gospel of Luke is especially interested in repentance. A form of this word appears 14 times in this gospel, twice as often as in Matthew’s gospel and far more often than in Mark or John.[ii]
Jesus is also talking to a plural “you.” All of you, he says, must repent. Stop obsessing about other people’s sin. Face up to what you have done. And then do better.
Jesus then serves up this strange story about a fig tree that hasn’t yet produced any figs. It sounds like a cautionary tale –Be careful so you won’t get chopped down!– and maybe it is. But let’s not miss the mercy in this story. The fig tree gets another chance. And that second chance will come with some extra nourishment, some tender care from the gardener and the manure to help it grow.
We don’t really know what happens to that fig tree. The gospel doesn’t tell us. But it lives to see another day. It has another chance to bear fruit.
A call to repentance is one of the hallmarks of the season of Lent. It asks us to spend some time in self-examination – to look at our lives and ask how we can – with God’s help – do some things differently.
What happens when we repent? Consider what our first reading from Isaiah has to say about that (55:6-8): “Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that God may have mercy on them…for [God] will abundantly pardon.”
God will abundantly pardon. There are second chances and still more chances after that. Repentance is ongoing, a fundamental practice in a life of faith. It’s why we begin worship with confession – so that we might together, in community with one another – own up to what we’ve done and left undone – and hear, in community and with one another, the promise of forgiveness that only God can give. God wants that forgiveness to set us free, free to bear fruit in the world. To give what we can offer, to grow in the ways we were meant to grow.
My friend Jeni lives in Jerusalem where there are many fig trees.[iii] They grow well there; the climate suits them, and they often produce more fruit than anyone can manage. Jeni’s neighbor had to cut down part of his fig tree because it threatened to overwhelm the entrance to his home.
Jeni has been watching for the leaves of the fig trees to emerge this year. And now they have. She reminded me this week that those leaves are shaped like a hand in blessing. I thought of that at the beginning of today’s service as I raised my hand in blessing and said those words of forgiveness: “I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the ☩Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Given how easily fig trees grow where she lives, Jeni admits it’s hard for her to imagine a fig tree not bearing fruit. She writes:
I’m curious about the fig tree that hasn’t blossomed in three years. I almost can’t believe it is real. It was really dead, maybe just like Jesus, in the tomb those three days.
But maybe it is like us, sometimes. Seemingly gone, ruined, done. A little digging and dunging, a little outside love and nourishment, yields a lot of transformation.
The reign of God is always about transformation more than condemnation. New life awaits. New beginnings. New chances to blossom. God brings life out of death, fruit out of barren branches.
Do we believe that’s possible? Are we ready to grow?
God has given us more time. Let’s use it well.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]I am very grateful to my friend and colleague, The Rev. Meta Carlson, whose commentary on this Sunday’s texts proved exceedingly helpful: http://currentsjournal.org/index.php/currents/article/view/168