By the Reverend Nancy Emmel Gunn
If you are like me, you read and heard today’s Gospel and responded, Huh? What is the message here? That we should all repent or else we die? That fig trees should be given three years max to flourish and then away with them? This passage is rich with visual imagery and meaning but you’ve got to dig: God loves us all, good and bad. God will tend to us, and we will flourish under his care.
The opening sentences have people telling Jesus that Pilate killed a group of Galileans. The text recites that their blood was mingled with their sacrifices. We can glean from this that Jews were murdered in the temple while they were offering sacrifices.
Let’s just stop there. The Roman ruler Pilate - you know the one who ordered Jesus’ execution - was the governor of the Roman province of Judea serving under the then Roman Emperor Tiberius. While the text does not offer much information about these murders Pilate committed, but we can assume these Jews did not deserve it. If they were lawless wrongdoers, then the crowd around Jesus would not have posed the question and Jesus would not have responded, No, they were no worse than any other Galileans. They were innocents.
Then we look at Pilate. To murder people while they were worshipping, well that is a blood-thirsty bully.
Does this sound like anyone we can point to in these times? Blowing up residential neighborhoods and hospitals, refusing a safe route for the people out of the destruction and bloodshed? When we look at what we see going on today around the globe, we get a glimpse of Pilate, the tyrant.
But the people talking to Jesus do not mention Pilate’s evil. To outwardly criticize the Roman authority could bring dire consequences. The emperor was a god, and Jesus, who was the Son of God, was a living, breathing, counter to Roman power and domination.
So who do the people blame when harm comes to their neighbors? Remember, in the ancient tradition, it was believed that bad results fell upon those who did wrong. It was believed that the blind man was blind because his parents sinned. The bleeding woman was afflicted because she sinned.
But Jesus sought to set the people straight. No, the Galileans suffered but they were no worse than anybody else. Jesus recalls the eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them. They were no worse offenders than everybody else in Siloam. These people too were innocent of any wrongdoing.
The first point Jesus is making in these references is that God is not keeping score. The rain falls on the good and the evil. Bad things happen to good people. This is a hard concept for all of us to grasp.
We believe in the concept of logical consequences. You study your math flashcards, and you will pass your multiplication test. You drive the speed limit, and you will not have an accident. You watch your diet, and you will not get cancer. But we experience some adverse events despite our care and good living.
The point is not that we will be spared bad grades or car accidents or an ominous diagnosis. But rather by following Christ, by accepting the boundless love of God, we can manage living with those events that occur in our lives, the good and the bad. We can thrive under all circumstances.
Then Jesus adds, unless you repent, you will perish. If God is loving, then why do we all have to repent?
Remember a few weeks ago, when I told you about the concept of sin I learned from my friends when I was a teenager in Chicago. I learned about the reform Jewish belief that sin is a falling from the mark. When we fall from the mark, regardless of how serious the transgression, we are accountable for our actions. We need to apologize for our short tempers, our smart retorts, our impatience, our judgment. We seek to be cleansed of our limited and selfish ways to be available to live by God’s ways. Repentance becomes our way of turning ourselves over to God. Repentance is our ticket to transformation.
Perhaps the tree represents the people. The gardener will care for and tend to the people. And after this patient loving care, we may eventually bear fruit. That fruit will be manifested in our following Jesus, loving our neighbors and living joyful, abundant lives.
So this peculiar parable ties the passage together. In the words of one commentary: “This parable is a reminder that God operates, not on our conventional conceptions of fairness and causes and effects; but rather, God operates on contrarian wisdom- patience, faithful tending and hopeful expectation.”
Life is fragile. God does not provide certainty in the face of trouble and distress. God may not rescue our friends with cancer, nor intervene in global unrest on our timeline. But God continues to love us with abandon. And importantly in these troubling times, God offers hope. You see, God is still tending our garden. Amen.
The Reverend Nancy Emmel Gunn is priest-in-charge at St. John's.
Various members of the St. John's congregation contribute to this blog. For editorial suggestions, contact Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at firstname.lastname@example.org
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