“Fruitless or Fruity?”
By Rev. Jennifer Christenson
For Christus Lutheran Church, Greenville, Wis.
March 3, 2013
3rd Sunday of Lent - Luke 13:1-9 http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2013:1-9&version=NIV
It never seems to fail. When bad stuff happens, we crave answers. An earthquake levels Haiti, a tsunami washes over Japan, a Superstorm causes all kinds of suffering...we want to know what that’s all about. The most observable and obvious answer, that we live in a world where bad things happen, never seems to be satisfactory enough.
It’s not that we want to cast blame, or say that it’s some form of divine retribution. It’s just that doing so, finding an “answer” to suffering makes the rest of us feel just a little safer. If I can believe that a tree fell on my neighbor’s house because once in the wildness of youth he or she stole a pack of Hubba Bubba bubble gum from the grocery store…then I, who haven’t done such an evil deed, am presumably safe.
On the other hand, if it’s all just fate, happenstance, then I’m vulnerable, and that’s scary.
This phenomenon of wanting answers, trying to link calamity with sin and bad, immoral and/or distasteful behavior isn’t new. We see the crowds wondering about that very thing in our gospel reading for today when they ask Jesus to interpret, to explain what was going on with the deaths of a group of Galilean worshipers at the hand of Pilate.
That phrase “the Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices” is particularly ominous. It implied that a terrible, terrible thing had happened. It meant that Pilate’s soldiers would have had to have slain these pilgrims right in their place of worship, in the sanctuary, as they were offering up their sacrifices to God. It’s twisted, dark, cruel – and has far too many parallels in our own day and age.
So the people want to know – what did these Galileans do to deserve this? Were their sacrifices that inferior? Had they picked out a blemished lamb instead of an unblemished lamb? Were their hearts not pure? Were they bad people…were they asking for it in some way?
The people want to know because to know is to contain the evil. If those Galileans came to a bad end because of something of their own doing, and the people talking to Jesus can figure out what that doing was, then they can avoid the same fate by not doing that bad thing. They would have contained the evil; now it couldn’t get them. On the other hand, if it was just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time…well, who can avoid that? So, give us an answer, Jesus, and take away our fear of this seemingly random world.
But Jesus won’t play that game. Instead, he turns the tables on his askers, twice. He asks, did this happen because they were the scourge of Galilee and need to be snuffed out? And, did that tower of Siloam, whether due to high winds, shoddy construction or just plain bad timing…did that tower strategically smoosh the 18 crummiest citizens of Jerusalem?
No and no, Jesus says. No and no. Plain and simple. Jesus doesn’t speculate, explain away, justify what happened or anything. His answer to the “what did they do to deserve THAT?” question is just plan No, it doesn’t work like that. No, try again.
And then, he goes on to add, if you need a lesson to learn from things like this, let it be this:
Life is fragile. It can stop at a moment’s notice for a myriad of reasons: heart attack, meteor falling from the sky, car accident, terrorist attack, you name it. Life is fragile, so the question is not, what bad thing did they do, but what are you doing with the time you have been given, the time you’re living right now. Here’s a suggestion, Jesus says: Repent! Repent, and then neither you nor your surviving loved ones will need to fret over your fate.
Life is fragile. So repent, and live the good news of forgiveness.
And it’s a good answer Jesus gives – and no, I’m not just saying that because Jesus said it. It’s a good answer, but not necessarily all that comforting.
It’s good because it turns our focus onto the one person we have the ability to change…that being ourselves. Did those Galileans deserve what happened to them? So what if they did…what does that have to do with your daily living as a faithful disciple? Repent, return to the Lord, who is gracious and merciful. Be forgiven. Be made new.
It’s a good answer because it completely shuts down speculation about a necessary and inevitable causal link between sin and bad stuff happening to people. Which is not to say that such a link never exists. It does. Sometimes the link is very obvious, but when it’s not and we start reading into situations, that’s when we get into trouble.
So this answer, again, is “good” because it stops hurtful assumptions about the inner lives of people we’ve never met before they even start: Haiti wasn’t devastated due to a pact with the devil; New Orleans wasn’t swamped by Katrina because of the debauchery that usually tourists engage in in that city. And so on.
So, yes, it’s a good answer, but it’s not necessarily all that comforting. And it’s not necessarily all that comforting because it seems to leave us all vulnerable to the whims of this created order. If not sinning doesn’t protect us from bad things happening, is there anything we CAN do to safeguard ourselves?
Thankfully, Jesus follows up that good but not very comforting answer with a story that IS comforting. Kind of. Sort of. A little bit.
Jesus says, when massacres happen and buildings fall over, don’t start a sin investigation into the lives of the victims. Ask yourself, if my number is next, what then? What am I doing to live a God-pleasing life in the time I have been given, however long or short that may be?
And then he tells a story about a tree. A fig tree, planted in the lush fertile soil of a vineyard. A fig tree, with all of the advantages a fig tree could hope for, who, in return for of all of this goodness produced…bupkis. Nada. Zilch. No fruit. For three years no less.
And, in producing no fruit, said fig tree annoyed its owner, who said, you know, enough is enough. This tree has squandered enough resources as it is, so cut it down and plant something that might actually produce fruit. Cue scary music here…
But the gardener, who is apparently quite fond of the tree, for reasons that are not explained, says, well, now hold on just a minute, give me one more year, let me do some work, dig around the roots, loosen things up a bit, put some manure on there and let’s just see what this little tree can do. If in a year’s time there’s still no fruit, then yeah, cut ‘er down. Just, before you do that, give me a little more time.
And that’s where it ends…the closing scene of the story would have the owner stalking off and the gardener bustling around the tree, leaving the question open: would the tree produce any fruit, or would it get cut down?
And that open-ended ending is what makes it a good story, and a sort of comforting story too, because Jesus is telling them and us that there IS still time for you and for me to get it right. A little, anyway. And more than that, there’s help for us. Jesus says, “Stop fussing over the sins of your neighbor and you yourself repent!” But it doesn’t end there. Then Jesus starts digging around our roots, loosening up the soil of sin and doubt and fear and prejudice and hate, giving us nutrients and fertilizer in the form of his Word, and in fellowship, and in worship and song, and the bread and wine and those weird aha moments where for a fleeting moment all becomes certain and clear.
Repent, Jesus says, and then does everything in his power to make it happen for us, even going so far as to give up his own life for our sake, to give up his own life so that death could be conquered once and for always.
Life IS fragile and uncertain. One wrong step, one wrong turn can change a life forever, for good or for ill. And bad stuff can happen to the saints among us and the worst sinners alike. Jesus seems to acknowledge this in that one-word answer, “No.” But then he also bids us to make the most of this fragile, beautiful, sacred life we have been given. Don’t waste a bunch of time casting stones at others, or looking for sinful reasons to blame people or nations for the sad fates that befall them.
Instead, repent from that passive, fruitless behavior and do what YOU have been gifted to do to alleviate the suffering you see, and to feed the hungry who come to you, and to clothe the naked, and comfort the lonely and more.
Soak up the goodness of God’s love and mercy that have been poured out so freely and graciously on your thirsty roots and then go and be fruity people…share that love with others. Be the fruit-full tree God made and planted and fertilized you to be.
Life is fragile, Jesus reminds us, but for now, for this moment, by the grace of God, there’s still some time to bear good fruit. So repent, be forgiven, be fruity.