Third Sunday of Lent, March 24, 2019 audio
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is confronting an age-old problem that had troubled people for millennia before his time, troubles us still, and will trouble our descendants for millennia to come: why do innocent people suffer? In the time before Christ people grappled with this question in the book of Job: “Let God weigh me on the scales of justice,” Job cries when he loses his land, his crops, his livestock, his house, his children, his wealth, and even his bodily health. “Let God weigh me on the scales of justice, for he knows my integrity.” I am innocent is Job’s cry. And I imagine him standing on his ash heap with his fist raised in cosmic defiance against his suffering and his God. In our time, we grapple with this problem constantly when we hear stories like the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, the flooding in Nebraska, and cyclone Idai (`ĭ-die) in Mozambique. We stand with our own fists raised in cosmic protest against lives lost, hatred spewed, and life and property washed away for no good reason that we can see or understand. “These people were innocent!” we cry to God. “Why have they been allowed to suffer?”
In Jesus’ time there were two events that raised the same question among the people he taught: one was the killing of Galilean worshippers as they were offering sacrifices to God. The other was the collapse of a tower near the Pool of Siloam, just outside the city wall. This pool is the one where Jesus tells a blind man to bathe to complete his healing. Presumably the question that the people raised in relation to these events was predicated upon the assumption that they must have been extraordinarily sinful to deserve such suffering while engaged in acts of worship. Like the friends of Job before them, the crowds were convinced that some hidden sin somehow justified their suffering.
What I love about this story is that Jesus does not countenance their assumptions. Instead, he tells the crowds to look to their own repentance and their own state of heart before God:
He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 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, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
His response to questions about suffering as divine retribution in this story is very similar to the question his disciples raise in a story from John’s Gospel:
As [Jesus] went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus. . . . This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. [John 9:1-3]
In both of these stories Jesus interrupts the old narrative of suffering as the result of sin with stories and demonstrations of God’s mercy and forgiveness: In the story of the man born blind, Jesus directs his disciples’ attention away from retribution and toward the creative, generative, healing purposes of God. And in today’s lesson, Jesus directs the crowd’s attention away from curiosity about the sins of others and toward an examination of their own need for repentance. It is an appropriate story for the season of Lent.
“Lent” comes from an old English word for springtime, perhaps connected with the lengthening of days in this time of the year. . . . The season of Lent is a time for growth in faith—through prayer, spiritual discipline, and self-examination in preparation for the commemoration of the dying and rising of the Lord Jesus Christ. . . . [During Lent we turn our attention toward] reconciliation with God and with one another through the grace of Jesus Christ.
Last Sunday, Chris and I spent the afternoon walking around Durham in search some of the many murals painted on city buildings. For the second year now, I’ve taken on the Lenten discipline of almsgiving. I carry around a bank envelope full of twenty-dollar bills and I give one to every beggar I encounter. I first did this last year while my sister and I were working through a book called Holy Solitude by episcopal priest Heidi Haverkamp. Last year I started by trading in two of my supply preaching checks for sixteen $20 bills. I loved doing it so much that by the end of Lent I had cashed and given out one additional check.
Normally when I encounter a beggar, I am full of suspicion and judgment. Normally I hand out McDonalds cards to beggars because, I tell myself, I do not want to enable any bad habits on the part of the beggars. But the more generous practice of Lenten almsgiving makes me feel spacious and generous and open-hearted.
So Chris and I were on our way to Durham, when we saw a beggar at the bottom of the Roxboro Street exit off the Durham Freeway. We stopped there and handed her a $20 bill. “Are you serious?” she asked in response, then looked up at the sky and said “Thank you, Jesus!” As soon as we parked the car and started walking down the sidewalk, we encountered another, who was similarly surprised, and then a third. By the time I peeled off that third $20 from the stack in my purse, I was the one looking up at the sky and saying “Thank you, Jesus!” When we handed that third $20 to that man on Main Street in Durham, I turned to Chris and said, “I love Lent! I love being able to peel off $20s and hand them out indiscriminately!” That more spacious, generous, open-hearted place is the place Jesus invites us into in the parable of the fig tree:
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 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?’ [The gardener] replied, ‘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.
It’s always a bit puzzling to figure out how parables and the characters in them line up with our own lives. Some people think that the vineyard owner is God. Scripture often does portray God as vineyard owner: Isaiah 5, Psalm 80, Matthew 21. But in this context—in the context of Jesus redirecting the crowd’s attention from judgment to self-examination—I see God at work in the words and actions of the gardener. The vineyard owner is so much more like us. The vineyard owner is an impatient and angry and judgmental man who wonders why this barren, unproductive fig tree should continue to take up space in the garden. It’s the vineyard owner in us who makes us cross the street when we see a beggar approaching or cast a suspicious eye when we see a woman in a hijab or look with contempt on those who do fit neatly into our binary notions of gender norms or bristle with fear when we encounter anyone who looks to us like they do not belong in our space.
But the gardener is the one who shows mercy. The gardener is the one who refuses to give up on the fig tree. The gardener is the one who offers to dig around the roots and feed it soil with extra manure to see if it will bear fruit the next season. It’s the gardener who exhibits the character of God as we see it in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and in Isaiah 55:
No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
God is ever the faithful gardener, tending the soil, feeding the plants, watering them and watching them grow. God is always hopeful that they will bear fruit next season. While we become judgmental and unforgiving with the “others” in our lives, and while our impulse with those whom we do not recognize as belonging is to cut them off or cut them out or wonder why they are taking up space to begin with, God says “No, let me dig around the tree and feed it one more year. Who knows? Perhaps it will bear fruit next year.”
It is interesting and telling that Jesus ends the parable here. He never comes back and revisits the fig tree. Instead, he leaves us with the image of the gardener digging around the tree, loosening and aerating the soil, giving the roots space to spread out so that they can take up more nourishment. Spreading manure around the tree to feed it. God remains the faithful gardener. And in Jesus’ telling of the story, I get the impression that if he ever did revisit the fig tree, he would find the gardener there on his knees still, pleading with the landowner, “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.”
One of the things that I love about preaching through the lectionary is that we get to come back over and over again to these stories. Every three years we get to revisit this gardener and this fig tree. And every three years the gardener says, “Let it alone. I’ll dig around it. I’ll feed it. Perhaps it will bear fruit.” Perhaps eventually when we come back to revisit the gardener and the fig tree one more time, we will figure out that it is our own hearts that God is digging around in, loosening the soil of our own hearts to make room for the ones we’d rather cut off or cut down or cut out, feeding the soil of our own hearts so that others might better take root there.
The Lenten practices of prayer, spiritual discipline, and self-examination invite us to interrupt our normal narratives of judgment, condemnation, and suspicion with life-restoring, soul-enriching, and heart-expanding practices that lead us into deeper and more authentic relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God. I am glad this season comes back every year. I am glad that every year we get to try on for a while what it feels like to give as God gives without judgment or suspicion or expectation. Maybe one day—if we stick with it—God’s mercy and generosity will take root in the soil of our hearts and bear fruit in the kind of love that won’t give up on anyone.
 Book of Common Worship, p. 233.