Scripture Luke 13: 1-9
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 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."
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. 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?'
He 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.’"
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
Thoughts about an Imperfect Life and Faith
Ok, I’ll be honest - this is kind of a bummer of a scripture passage. At first glance it seems like the only good news here is that the tree has one more year to produce anything remotely resembling good fruit before the owner looks to cut it down. I mean - Jesus here gets news that Pilate had killed a whole bunch of Jewish Galileeans while they were worshiping God and had their blood mixed with their sacrificial lambs. And not to mention the people crushed to their deaths when the Tower of Siloam fell on them.
These are horrible, tragic situations that the crowds bring to Jesus’s attention - presumably to get him “to do” something about it. Condemn Pilate or start an angry revolution. Blame Roman structures for killing innocent people.
Instead, Jesus invites repentance and tells a story about a fig tree where the owner demands the gardener remove it because it isn’t producing anything worthy and instead the gardener intercedes on its behalf and manages to convince the owner to give it one more year to bear fruit. It feels like a strange response for Jesus to give to a crowd primed and ready for action.
I wonder though if that was, in fact, the point.
The political scene in Judea was tense. The people longed for sovereignty and the glory days of King David. The religious elite were trying to accommodate the Roman Empire so that the Jewish people would survive - or you had figures like Herod, who enjoyed a fair amount of power provided he could pay his tribute - taxes - to the Empire.
Galilee throughout Jewish history had been a place of political unrest - sometimes violent unrest. In Jesus’ day it wasn’t unusual for militant groups in Palestine to wage guerilla-style warfare on the Roman army - and the people had strong expectations that the Messiah was going to be a great military leader who would unite the people and show the Romans the door with a great army behind him. Jesus would not have been the first person that people would have looked to in this way - in the documentary from Jesus to Christ, Prof. Allen Callahan references the Jewish historian Josephus, who tells a number of stories about people who, as Prof. Callahan tells it, “some guy wakes up in the morning and he thinks he's the Messiah or something. Or he's a prophet and he gets a group of people to follow him. He says we're going to go out in the desert and we're going to an empty place. We're going to go out there and we're going to wait for God to do something for us. So a whole bunch of people may go with him, maybe thousands, go with him out to this deserted, unsecured place, and they wait for what Josephus calls "the tokens of their deliverance." And the Romans send a vicious police action out there and kill everybody.”
So when Jesus gets news of this most recent violent act on the part of the Romans, and he’s already accumulated this following around his teachings about God’s kingdom, there’s definitely an expectation on the part of the crowd that “now is the time! Jesus, you need to do something to respond and show these Romans that we can’t be bullied anymore! Let’s swing into action, or condemn their actions - bring that kingdom you’ve been talking about into reality right now” - that’s the energy that would have been in the air.
Jesus, however, doesn’t respond that way - he doesn’t use the news of these killings to instigate more violence. He doesn’t rally the troops or encourage the crowds to an uprising. He doesn’t cave in to the pressure of the crowds to *do something* - he instead urges the crowd to consider their own actions and motivations (perhaps -- repent or perish meaning turn away from violent ideations lest you find yourself in that same boat, or perhaps repent or perish meaning turning toward the way of peace and justice and God’s kingdom). Take a step back, he cautions. Pause and consider the state of your hearts. You’re reacting out of fear, false expectations, anger, hatred. Repent -- turn away from these things having a hold on you, acknowledge them and name them -- or perish if you engage without fully reflecting on what’s going on inside.
A reading like this gives some insight as to the story Jesus tells them next - about the owner and the fig tree and the gardener. The owner is angry that this fig tree is barren. It’s been barren for three years. Every year, he looks for fruit and there is none to be found (nevermind that it takes 3-5 years for fig trees to produce fruit and some immature fig trees produce fruit that never ripens). Clearly, the owner’s expectations aren’t in line with reality - and he demands that the gardener *do something* about that tree -- to cut it down.
The gardener knows the owner isn’t acting out of a right place within himself - that he’s placing unreasonable expectations on the tree, that the tree isn’t ready yet to bear fruit, that the tree needs more time. The owner only looks at the tree for what it can do and what it can give him -- figs -- and he doesn’t have the perspective the gardener has as to what is going on with the tree. He’s angry, he’s been worn down by seeing this tree do nothing for three years, he wonders if there’s a viable future for this tree - and so he acts out of that place in his request for the gardener to get rid of it. The gardener, instead of complying with the owner’s demands, offers a different path forward - offering the owner his own opportunity to repent and act out of a different place - which allows the gardner the time to do his job, tending to and nurturing the tree so it can be ready to one day bear fruit.
How often are we prompted, pressured, or cajoled into action when the wisest course is to sometimes take a step back and respond in a different way?
The gardener fertilizes the tree - enhances the soil and gives it nutrients to strengthen the plant instead of cutting it down like he was asked.
Jesus, when faced with news devastating to his people, tells the people to take a breath and not respond in haste.
There’s something meaningful to the ability to step back and engage from a critical distance rather than one of reactive franticness. There’s wisdom to be found in going slowly and deliberately when the world feels overwhelming, when everything feels urgent and important, when problem after situation keeps mounting or popping up and it all seems like just too much. There’s strength to be found in tending to and nurturing our roots with practices of rest, prayer, joy, and gratitude - so that when fruit is produced -- when there is action that needs taking -- it comes out of a sense of groundedness in who we are and who God has created us to be and there’s an alignment of our giftedness and the moment a response is called for.
This is true of us as people - and it is true of organizations as well.
I think of a story I read in Margaret Wheatley’s book Who Do We Choose To Be?, a book that talks about how one honestly engages reality with integrity. She recounts a story from a few years ago about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which is the organization of sisters and nuns who lead various orders and chapters of women religious and how the Vatican tried to bring them out of autonomy under obedience to Vatican rule. As she tells it in the book, in 2012 the Vatican issued a doctrinal assessment and “Mandate for Implementation” - to which there was a huge response from Catholics both within this country and around the world. 800,000 emails and letters were sent to the LCWR and others to the Church hierarchy in support. She writes, “People treasured the nuns and their lives of dedicated service - some wrote of the gifts they had received from nuns in schools, hospitals, and service to the poor. The Vatican demands for orthodoxy dishonored all their contributions: their dedication to living a vowed life, doing Christ’s work, serving the poor and suffering. Instead, the measure of their good work was to be their compliance with orthodoxy.”
The way the nuns decided to respond was not reactionary, or fear based, or to rally the groundswell of support around them. Instead, they took a step back and took a values-based approach:
It took three years, but in the end - with a change of popes to help foster a more inclusive and trusting atmosphere, the LCWR was able to retain autonomy and continue in its work and mission empowering women in the Catholic church.
I admire their commitment to their values, to their practices that sustained them and gave them strength in the face of a powerful institution, to trusting the leading of the spirit rather than acting in haste (one way or another) to this call to conformity.
What, in your life, feels like a crisis to respond to now, that perhaps is an invitation to step back and ground yourself in prayer and spiritual practice? Or where can you nurture and fertilize your roots more fully, growing in strength so that when there is a moment in your life that calls for your response, you can do so from a source of groundedness in God’s love and courage?
Find the space in your life this week to be less reactionary - and more intentional. Even if you find yourself just doing business as usual, going on autopilot, stop for a minute -- and hop off the treadmill. Stop and observe what’s going on - and see if you can sense what God is doing for you and around you. Dig those roots deep - so that we may bear fruit for a hurting and broken world….and so that we may participate in God’s healing for ourselves and for others. Amen.
I wonder, too, if the crowds were demanding that Jesus *do something* against the Empire in response to these horrifically violent acts - and instead Jesus responds with this fig tree story (the owner demanding the gardener *do something* and the gardener choosing to show mercy to the tree - to tend and fertilize it - instead of something drastic).
How often are we prompted, pressured, cajoled into action when the wisest course is sometimes to take a step back and respond in a different way?
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.