3rd Sunday in Lent
7 March 2010
We all know the story and the images well by now. On the afternoon of January 12, a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Port au Prince, Haiti, the capital, was absolutely leveled. Nearly a quarter of a million people were killed. 300,000 more were injured. Roughly a million were rendered homeless. It is a devastation we can scarcely imagine.
The next day, a well-known televangelist went on the air and gave an explanation as to why this terrible thing had happened. He said, “Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French … and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French.’ True story,” the televangelist said, “And the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal. Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another.”[i]
And so one of history’s only successful slave rebellions got twisted by this man into a pact with the devil, resulting in a curse, resulting in a natural disaster, resulting in unimaginable pain and suffering, including the pain and suffering of thousands and thousands of children. They must have deserved it, right?
It is human nature to look for explanations for why bad things happen. The easiest explanation has always been to blame the victim. There is some psychological comfort that comes from telling oneself that terrible things only happen to terrible people, people who deserve them. The implication is that if we live the right kind of life, we can protect ourselves from calamity. And, conversely, if certain awful things haven’t happened to us, we must be living right.
This impulse seems to be as old as time. It certainly was the case in Jesus’ day. The popular assumption was that misfortune was punishment for sin. This was the way they, like our famous televangelist, made sense of otherwise senseless tragedy. This was the way they preserved God’s character, too – if God is a good God, and a just God, and an all-powerful God, then disaster must be the result of human sin.
One day, some people approached Jesus with some shocking bad news. Pontius Pilate had massacred some Galileans who were in the temple praying. The Galileans had brought their animal sacrifices for their offering, and now their own blood mingled on the temple floor with the blood of the sacrificed animals. They must have done something to deserve it, right?
Jesus responds in no uncertain terms. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No!” And he goes one further. He moves from news of deliberate evil to news of accidental disaster. “What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them?” he asks. “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No!”
He says it elsewhere, too. The disciples once asked him about a man born blind – who sinned, this man or his parents? Jesus said neither one, it was nobody’s fault. And elsewhere he says this: the sun shines on the evil and the good; rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Whatever meaning you might make from evil, or accident, or natural disaster, Jesus is clear. It is not about what’s fair. It is not about what’s deserved. It is not about God’s judgment.
Jesus never goes along with simplistic answers to difficult questions. Horrible things happen, and there are no easy or satisfactory explanations. He erases our neat, old equations between catastrophe and condemnation, between tragedy and punishment, between ruin and retribution. He is unequivocal – this is not how God works.
What this means, of course, is that all of us are vulnerable. We are fragile. Life is precarious. At any moment, everything we know could be shattered. It happens every day, to people just like you and me. And all the right living in the world won’t change that.
In light of that, Jesus’ next words are a warning. The Galileans who were murdered and the people who were crushed by the tower – they were no worse than anybody else, and their deaths were not a judgment on their lives. Still, Jesus reminds us, their sudden deaths should cause us to look at our own lives. The clock is ticking on all of us, and we never know when our time will run out. “Unless you repent,” Jesus warns, “you will all likewise perish.” He does not mean we will be killed for our sins. All of us are going to die regardless. The question is how we are spending our lives in the meantime. Jesus is using death as a metaphor for judgment. When the last second ticks for us, how will our lives be judged? The time to repent is now. The time to turn, to take hold of a new way of living is now.
Then Jesus tells 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 his 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?”
Told in the context of talk of repentance, this is the picture Jesus paints of our sin. This is what our failure looks like. Sin is about something so much more than morality. The tree isn’t doing anything bad, per se. But it is standing there taking up precious space, soaking up sunshine, drinking from the soil, and never yielding any fruit. It gets everything good it needs and does not bear anything good or beautiful in return. It does not give back.
This is too often our story, too. We hear the word sin and we think of a series of moral laws about private virtues. But Jesus consistently shows us that sin is more fundamentally about a failure to do what good we can. We soak up the sun of God’s goodness, we’ve been given so much sweetness and nourishment and light. Do our lives bear generous fruit that reflects the richness of what we’ve been given? Are we giving back joy, are we giving back kindness, are we giving back love? Are we growing into the fullness of our good purposes?
In Jesus’ story, what happens to a fruitless tree is that the owner decides to cut it down. John the Baptist had warned of this, saying “Even now the ax is lying at the roots, poised to strike.” Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t have been surprised. They would have known the popular folktale about a palm tree which did not bear fruit. The owner came to chop it down. The tree itself spoke: “Don’t cut me down! Transplant me to a better place, and I’ll be fruitful.” And the owner said, “Nope. If you haven’t done it by now, you never will.” And he toppled it.
There were other versions of this story of the talking palm tree – in some of them, the tree doesn’t bear any dates; in other versions, the tree does bear fruit but drops it all into a river. But the endings are all the same. The owner gets his ax.
But not in Jesus’ story. The gardener intervenes. He protests: “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.”
After three years of fruitlessness, there is no reason to think that the tree will begin producing now. But the advocate-gardener takes a risk; he makes an extravagant pledge to pour his care on it anyway. In a region where fig trees produced lavish harvests with little care, this gardener vows to go to great lengths for one failed tree. Will his risk pay off? The answer to that is up to you and me.
In so many ways we have not tended the good lives we’ve been given; we have not produced fruit. We stand under the sun of God’s love, rooted in the soil of God’s provision, and yet our lives are too often barren of the sweetness, the goodness, the fullness that they should yield. Even so, the gardener advocates for us. He pleads for us, he lays down his life for us, he feeds us with himself, he drenches us in the outpouring of his love and of his life. What response can we make, but to take hold of what he gives and give back our own lives?
The conversation with Jesus started with the question: is tragedy God’s punishment for sin? Jesus’ answer is a definitive No. He reminds us instead that tragedy can happen to anyone at any time, and with a life as fragile as that why would we waste what little time we’ve got? He invites us to see what life we’ve got as gift, all of it an act of God’s mercy. In light of such grace, he gives us a choice: Repent or perish. Do or die. We can wither where we are, let our lives dry up no matter how much goodness we’ve been given to share. Or we can repent, turn, let the life Christ laid down nourish our roots. We can take hold of our promise. We can let our lives bloom.