In the television show Parenthood, there is a boy, named Max, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Which means he doesn’t always know how to interact with the world. He can have behaviors that seem odd and out of place to the people around him. In a particular episode, Max has just started middle school, and all summer, the only thing Max was excited about was that the middle school had a vending machine. With skittles. As soon as school started, Max would be able to get Skittles anytime he wanted throughout the day. But that first day of school, when Max arrives, the vending machine is missing. It has been removed over the summer. No more vending machine. No more skittles. And right then and there, Max loses it. He gets angry and loud. He starts hitting his backpack against the ground and shouts, “It’s not fair! It’s not fair! For years, all these students have had a vending machine, but I get here and it’s gone? It’s not fair!”
Once at home, Max is still pretty upset. He talks to his dad and keeps saying, “It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair.” Little did Max know, that same day his mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. And his dad knowing more than Max, looks at him with tear in his eye and lump in his throat and all he can say is, “I know, Max. I know. It isn’t fair.”
If you have ever wondered if we, the people of today, share anything in common with the people of the Bible, then today’s gospel text settles it. We both know the pain and questions that can come as we endure the tragedies of life.
For the people of the text, the tragedy was a recent attack on a synagogue in Galilee, where Pontius Pilate killed the worshipers as they were making sacrifices in their temple. But there had been another tragedy too. A tower had fallen over, taking the lives of 18 people.
Tragedy after tragedy after tragedy. The people of the story, Jesus’ people, too must have newspapers that constantly carry tragic news. We know what that’s like. In just the past two weeks, two of my friend’s have faced the news that their father has prostate cancer. And friend preached last week about a young mother in California who died from her brain starting to bleed. We too are no strangers to tragedy and sadness.
Tragedy after tragedy. They are everywhere. They are timeless. It seems that we are all living on borrowed time.
In the ancient world, the common belief was that when bad things happened, they only happened to bad people. To those who deserved it. It was a worldview that meant if you got cancer, then you deserved it. You must have done something bad enough for God to punish you in this way. If a woman give birth to a child with a disability, then she or the father must have been done something to bring such suffering upon themselves. Now this may have been an ancient worldview, but it still lingers around today. We often wonder if what we get is what we deserve. A friend of mine got pregnant while in college and made the decision to terminate the pregnancy. Now, she’s come to learn that she can no longer get pregnant. “I’m being punished,” she says.
This is why Jesus’ followers are so frightened. They, too, are wondering if these Galileans are being punished. If they had done something to deserve being killed by Pilate. They were wondering if these 18 poor innocent people that were crushed by a falling tower had some how, in some way, done something to deserve it.
So, is that how life is? Is that how the world works? Do we get what we deserve? It is a question we all ask and finally…, for once, Jesus gives us a clear answer on this question. No.
Is this how the world works? No.
Do we get what we deserve? No. Which is good news. It means that whatever tragedy strikes next in your life, you don’t have to waste time worrying if you somehow did something to deserve it. You didn’t. That’s not how God works, Jesus says.
But then Jesus goes on. This is where it starts to get a little bumpy. “No,” he says, “but….unless you repent, you will perish like they did.” We were so close to a clear answer. But that’s just not how Jesus works.
Repent. It’s not a word I am typically fond of. It’s a word that just sounds angry, doesn’t it? REPENT! It is a word that is just littered with feelings of guilt and remorse. Whenever someone says we are supposed to repent of our sins, I always think it means I’m supposed to feel really bad about them. And regret what I did. And say I’m sorry. And, you know, I have to really mean it.
But repent is one of those words again. Just like believe, from last week. It’s a word that has become distorted. To repent isn’t to feel bad. It isn’t to say, “I’m sorry.” It isn’t to feel guilty. To repent means to change. To turn around. To stop doing what you are currently doing that is destructive in your life. It’s not about feeling bad. Feeling bad doesn’t do anyone any good. It’s about changing. It is a complete reconfiguration on how you behave and how you think. Jesus says, change your understanding of how God works. That God doesn’t punish bad people and reward good people. Jesus declares that there is innocent suffering in the world. So, change, he says. Change your understanding, and accept that there can be innocent suffering. But if you don’t change, you too will perish, Jesus says. Why? Because you’ll just continue to worry only about yourself. All the time. You’ll only want to make sure you never do something that might bring punishment on you. And then when something painful does come along in your life, you’ll spend the whole time worrying about what you’ve done to deserve it. Jesus came to cast out fear, and today he wants to cast out the fear that we always get what we deserve. No, he says. Sometimes, this world brings things – awful things – into our life that we do not deserve. Life isn’t fair.
And then, as if that weren’t enough, Jesus gives them a parable. Remember, a parable is like a riddle – it is a story whose meaning is not immediately obvious. You have to think and think and think about it, before you might make any sense of it. So Jesus tells them a parable – a story. There was a gardener who planted a fig tree, tended to it, cared for it, watered it for three years. But after three years there is still no fruit, as would have been expected of any fig tree. Then along comes the landowner who tells the gardener to cut it down. It’s the fair thing to do. The tree has had three years. But the gardener replies to the vineyard owners and says, “Please, one more year. Let me tend it one more year. Let me dig a mote around it to make sure it has enough to drink. Let me put manure around it to make sure it has enough to eat. And then if it hasn’t given any fruit, you can cut it down.” That is the story but let’s be honest, that is no ending. What happens to the tree? we are left to wonder. I guess it is up to us to decide the ending.
Now, there is a traditional way to understand this parable: we are the tree and we are not producing enough fruit. It’s a very American way of reading the text. We aren’t producing enough; we aren’t accomplishing enough. We aren’t doing what we were meant to do. And God, the owner of the land and, therefore, the owner of us, is angry. And what does God want to do? God wants to grab an axe and chop us down because we are good for nothing. But Jesus, the gardener steps in and asks for one more year. One more year to nurture us and care for us. It is the nice soft, sweet Jesus, taking care of us and protecting us from the mean, angry God.
But I don’t know about that interpretation. It sounds too much like that old way of thinking that Jesus just argued against: where God wants to give you what you deserve. The tree didn’t produce any fruit, therefore God wants to chop it down. But remember Jesus has just said no to that thinking. That’s not how it is. That that’s not how God works. And in fact, Jesus has just told the people to repent. Which means to change.
So maybe we should ask, who, in the parable is asked to change? It isn’t the tree – I mean the tree doesn’t seem to have much control over whether it produces good fruit or not. It needs to be cared for by the gardener more before it can change. And the gardener isn’t asked to change either. Who needs to change? The landowner! The landowner needs change. How? By putting down his axe. The gardener has asked for another year with the tree. To make sure it gets enough to drink. To feed the soil around it with fertilizer. The gardener asks the landowner to turn around and put the axe back in the shed. For one more year, at least.
Friends, what if the landowner – the one with the axe in hand – isn’t God. What if the landowner is us. Maybe we’ve come across people and places in this world that just seem like they are good for nothing. They are a waste of space, sucking up all the resources of the earth, and not producing a dang thing. Who knows, maybe that’s even how we view ourselves sometimes.
The painful truth is this life is not fair and we are all living on borrowed time. And so the question becomes what will we do with that time? Will we continue to reach for the axe wanting to cut down and away all the things and people in this world that we have deemed no longer useful. Or will we put the axe down and trust that God the gardener will go to work on those fruitless places. Will we stop looking upon those who are hurting as people who somehow deserve it and instead look upon them as beloved trees in God’s garden who still need time and care. Put down the axe, Jesus says. Put down the blade that you are about to swing at the trunk of your own life or the life of another. And instead, maybe, with those now empty hands, grab a pair of gloves and a bag of manure and get to work. God the gardener and that fruitless tree could use a hand. Amen.