You can listen to this sermon here.
1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 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? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” 6 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. 7 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?’ 8 He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ “
Invite people to open their bibles and follow along.
Our Gospel reading begins this morning with some newspaper headlines.
“Galileans murdered during sacrifice ceremony; Pontius Pilate has claimed responsibility.”
“Siloam Tower falls, crushing 18 people. Cause unknown.”
And I don’t know about you, but there was a naïve time in my life when those kind of Biblical stories would have shocked me – such horror and tragedy. But now they don’t. Because it is all over our newspapers as well.
“Manhattan Crane Collapses, injuring 3 and killing 1.”
“Employee opens fire at Kansas lawn care equipment facility, killing 3 and injuring 14”
“Kalamazoo Uber Driver Opens Fire, killing six and injuring two.”
One article called the Kalamazoo shooting the worst mass shooting since San Bernardino. Which broke my heart to read, since San Bernardino was on December 2nd. Any time I hear “worst such-and-such since…” I expect there to be years or decades in-between. But not any more, I guess. Now we’re surprised when it’s only been 3 months since a mass shooting.
So the gospel opens with tragedy upon tragedy. And they, like us, almost immediately begin to ask the question – why? My God, my God, why has this happened?
But there was common religious knowledge that told them why – those who experienced suffering are being punished for something they did.
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.
So, that’s what the people in this story are presuming. Bad things happen to bad people. Well, the Galileans must have done something to be slaughtered by Pilate. Those crushed by the tower falling must have deserved it.
And Jesus jumps at the opportunity to respond. And for once, we get a clear and concise answer from Jesus. Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No.
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.
In that one word, Jesus dislocates tragedy from divine punishment. The two are not to be equated.
So, if you take nothing else away from this sermon, take this – tragedy is not divine punishment. Tragedy is not divine punishment. I urge you to memorize this story.
Seriously. Memorize like you have Psalm 23 or John 3:16. So that the next time tragedy arrives you can proclaim Jesus’ hopeful, “NO! That is not how God works.”
Now. Jesus does add something on to that “no.” It is still a “no”, but he does say, “But unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Now, that word repent has a negative connotation in most of our minds. Repent! Or else! But New Testament Scholar Matt Skinner says that repentance isn’t so much about feeling bad or righting your wrongs. But it is about discovery. Discovering who God is. Who you are. How you have fallen short in your life, either oppressing others or actively sinning. And repentance can even be about discovering how you have been sinned against. To realize your own suffering and pain.
So, Jesus says no, these tragedies are not God’s punishment. But unless you repent, unless you discover a new way of seeing God, of seeing yourself, of seeing the world, you will perish under that kind of thinking. 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. We have to repent, or discover, a new way of thinking because sometimes this world brings things – awful things – into our life that we do not deserve.
To illustrate this, Jesus gives them a parable.
There once was a man who owned a vineyard. And in that vineyard was a fig tree. And for three years, this tree has never produced any fruit. Tired of waiting, tired of wasting time, he tells the gardener to cut down the tree. But the gardener says, “Let’s wait one more year. I’ll dig a mote around it for water; I’ll give it some manure to fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year – great. If not, then we will cut it down.”
Now, this is a parable, which means it is sort of like riddle. The answer isn’t meant to be obvious but it has to sit with you until you have that “ah-ha” moment. Or as one preacher once put it, a parable is “not a once-and for-all story. It’s a story you can walk around in, a story that wants a response from you—hopes for a response from you—one that changes as you change, so that it is different the tenth time you hear it than it was at the first.”
If repentance is about discovery, then the question becomes “What do we discover from this parable?”
Well, all I can tell you is what I discovered after walking around in this parable for awhile.
Between the vineyard owner, the gardener, and the fig tree, my first thought was to be angry at this arrogant, rich, power-filled vineyard owner. This rage-filled man with an axe in his hand ready to cut down this poor fig tree. A man who lacks compassion and who doesn’t believe in second chances. Doesn’t he know that it takes at least three years for a fig tree to produce fruit? Who does he think he is?
But the more I walked around in this parable, the more questions started cropping up:
Let’s take the gardener. What if the gardener hasn’t been doing his job? What if the gardener hasn’t been digging a mote around the tree and fertilizing it and now he is desperate to save his job? And suddenly my heart breaks for this neglected fig tree that does not deserve to be cut down.
Or what if the gardener has been doing his job. Caring for the fig tree and it has produced fruit for 10 years straight and now, suddenly, it’s stopped. It’s grown old and tired, and even though a good gardener or good business owner would replace it, the gardener is just devastated at the idea of cutting down this tree it has cared for so many years. And suddenly my heart breaks for this gardener who does not deserve to have his beloved tree cut down.
And then something happened. In the midst of all these questions, my heart was broken open. Not for the fig tree. Not for the gardener. But for the vineyard owner.
In fact, Luke doesn’t even call him a vineyard owner. Luke just calls him “a man.” Throughout the gospel, Luke almost always gives a qualifier about the people he is talking about. A rich man. A poor man. A man with authority. Even the chapter before, he talks about “the land of a rich man.”
But in this story…it is just a man. And I couldn’t help but wonder – what if this man doesn’t deserve this either? Maybe his vineyard didn’t do so well this year either and his livelihood, the food for his family, depended on this tree. And for three years, for three years, this fig tree has not born fruit. We can relate to that.
For three years my business hasn’t made a profit.
For three years, I’ve asked my spouse to go to counseling and they’ve never agreed.
For three years, we’ve tried to have a child and it hasn’t happened.
Maybe he, like a man of his time, is wondering why God has punished him with a fruitless tree. Maybe the man feels just like the fig tree – like a waste of space who can’t provide for his family. Who wouldn’t want to just throw in the towel. To cut it all down.
In the end, I found myself no longer wanting to figure out whom to blame in the parable, but just felt for each one of them. Because they’re all desperate and in need of care. In the end, all three are dependent upon each other. And the gardener’s act of mercy of waiting for one more year isn’t grace just for the fig tree. It’s grace for all three of them.
And maybe that’s the repentance to which Jesus calls us. Maybe that’s the discovery. That this parable is what life is like. And all of us are all three characters of the story. At first glance, we’re tempted to find fault. To point blame. And then to cut down and discard that which seems useless. But when you enter into the story, you find that no one person is at fault and no one person is hurting. But rather you find that we all belong to each other. And together we belong to God.
This morning, little baby Leo gets baptized. And he isn’t baptized into a safe and secure Christian life. He is baptized into a world filled with risk and tragedy. But he is also baptized into this community. A community of fig trees, and gardeners, and vineyard owners, who depend on each other. He’ll need us. And we will need him.
In the midst of tragedy and fear, we will perish if simply seek for who is blessed and who is damned. We will perish if we seek to point fingers and blame. But Jesus has called us to repent and discover a new way – where we don’t get what we deserve. Instead, what we get is the God revealed to us in Jesus – who will be cut down. But not destroyed. A God who is a patient and waiting God. Who waits, and who waits, with us. Constantly giving us one more year. May we discover and embrace that way of life for one another as well. Amen.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, http://www.chapel.duke.edu/documents/sermons/2008/081012.pdf