At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] 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 round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”’ (Luke 13:1-9, NRSV)
We are now midway through the Lenten season, and nearing the end of the third month of 2019. In this month of March, the human family has been shaken by a series of tragic and spectacularly shocking events.
- On the first weekend, a series of devastating tornadoes swept through the southern United States, taking dozens of lives and causing property damage totaling many millions of dollars.
- On Sunday, March 10, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302—en route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi—crashed shortly after take-off, killing 149 passengers and eight crew members.
- On Friday, March 15, a lone gunman attacked worshippers at prayer in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, murdering 50 people—including women and children—and injuring at least 50 more.
- Most recently, Cyclone Idai—regarded as one of the worst tropical cyclones on record—has killed close to a thousand people and affected more than 2.6 million others in Madagascar, Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe.
How do we make sense of suffering on such a massive scale? Were all these people simply in the wrong place at the wrong time? Do we blame poor construction standards? Inadequate emergency measures? Lax gun laws? How do we understand God in the middle of all this?
While I cannot pretend to know the mind of the Almighty, I am certain of one thing: God does not “have it in” for people who suffer and die in these kinds of circumstances. I am sure of this because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. God is for us, not against us. But at the same time, I cannot ignore the fact that bad things do happen—and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. When we try to make sense of our world, we discover that senseless and random evil does exist—and that it breaks into our lives way too often.
Of course, this begs the question: “If God is all-powerful—and all-good—then why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?” People have argued about this for centuries. And any serious-minded person who claims to believe in a benevolent, omnipotent Deity will—sooner or later—be drawn into this deep philosophical debate.
Many religions teach that God will punish the wicked people and reward the good ones. The natural extension of this reasoning is that, when someone suffers, they must deserve it. That’s what was in the minds of the people who told Jesus “about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” They were referring to an incident where several men had been slain by the governor’s order while worshipping in the Jerusalem temple. And their unspoken question was: “Did they deserve it?”
Since God did not protect them from Pilate’s soldiers, these must have been wicked men … right?
Our experience tells us that—very often—people whom we consider to be good suffer for no apparent reason. Likewise—very often—people whom we consider to be wicked seem to stroll through life being rewarded for their wickedness.
What’s up with that?
What is the relationship between our behaviour, the things that happen to us, and God? How does all this fit together? I wish I had good, clear answers to these questions … but I don’t. And these are questions which come up in our gospel passage for today; not just once—but three times—as Jesus refers to two contemporary examples, and then caps his teaching moment with a parable.
To those who bring him news of the men who were killed in the temple, Jesus responds with a question of his own: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”
Then Jesus brings up a tragic accident that claimed the lives of 18 people when an ancient tower in south Jerusalem came crashing down. He asks, “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”
In each case, Jesus answers his own question with a resounding “No!”
But then he muddies the waters. At first, it sounds like Jesus is saying there is no connection whatsoever between sin and calamity. However, he goes on to urge repentance upon the members of his audience, lest they suffer the same fate: “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Perhaps sin and suffering are not linked, but repentance and avoiding suffering appear to be!
Once again, our experience tells us otherwise. If we take what Jesus is saying literally … Well, we know that events do not always unfold in that way. Many people in Jesus’ time repented and were baptized by John—and yet, they were swept away in the Jewish rebellion against Rome that was going on at the time. Others in Jesus’ day seemed not at all concerned about their broken relationship with God—and they were able to keep right on going, without suffering any kind of penalty.
So, we’re left scratching our heads—and we are no closer to an answer.
Or are we? Let’s take a look at Jesus’ parable of the gardener. This story is unique to Luke’s gospel. But the theme should be familiar to us, because it is as old as the prophets. The garden, vineyard—or, in this case—fig tree, is not producing any fruit. It is not serving the purpose for which it was planted. The care given to it seems wasted, and so the landowner decides to put the soil to better use. But then the gardener intervenes, pleading for one more season to nurture the plant before it will either yield fruit—or be cut down.
At first, perhaps, the meaning of this parable seems obvious. The time is short. Bear fruit now! Be productive as God’s chosen people, or endure the wrath of the One who owns the garden.
I’m sure we’ve all heard that kind of message preached before. Trouble is, it’s just plain wrong!
Such an interpretation fundamentally misunderstands the nature of trees. Trees that do not bear fruit cannot simply start to produce on their own. It takes the proper soil, the right fertilizer, and plenty of water and sunshine for this to happen. The gardener understands that, and so he not only pleads for more time, but also formulates a plan to do just what is needed to make the tree bear fruit.
Now, if—as I suspect—Jesus is referring to himself as the gardener, then this is not the end of the story of the gardener and the tree. This story of Jesus is not told in isolation. It has everything to do with the destination that Jesus intends in Jerusalem.
Taken in the context of Jesus’ own death, the story of the Galileans killed by Pilate becomes more meaningful—and more poignant. Jesus does not need to repent—yet he suffers the same fate of cruel death at the order of the same person. When he speaks of perishing as they did, he is referring to something that he, himself, is going to do.
This gardener takes on the fate of all humanity. He meets our suffering and our death—head on! He not only tends to the tree … he dies on a tree. He suggests that being cut off from God is a terrible condition, and then he endures that same condition—along with us, and for us. By joining us in our suffering, Jesus does not answer our questions about why we suffer. No. Instead, he embraces the suffering.
Jesus demonstrates that suffering and death do not have the last word. Beyond our hope—and beyond our comprehension—is something greater still; something of which, in his death, we catch a glimpse. For this purpose, he tends the unproductive tree—and, he dies with it. He dies with us.
You know, most of the time, we are so preoccupied with our own pain and suffering that we fail to notice what God has done. God has joined us in life and in death—and he has opened up for us a new path into the future.
The love of God overrules the power of death upon humanity. Our suffering is strong and enduring, but God’s love is even stronger. We cannot avoid the pains and evils of this world, but we do not have to be resigned to them. Neither do we have to fall in line with them. Instead, we can follow Jesus.
Jesus had no need of repentance, because he remained completely faithful to his heavenly Father. I think that—when he urges us to repent—he is encouraging us to imitate him. Jesus calls us to turn away from the woes that consume us. He calls us to put away the things we use to numb our minds, and dull our pain, and distract ourselves from the reality of evil.
Jesus calls us to return to the God who loves us: the God whose love is, in fact, the only hope we have of changing the course of our lives—of changing the way our stories will end.
For it is in turning to our gardener for help and for hope that we may indeed become productive—just as plants become productive when they turn toward the light. This gardener has joined his future with our future, so that his destination might be ours, as well. Which is the whole point of our Lenten journey; it’s all about us preparing to face the tree of the cross, so that—along with Jesus—we may rise on Easter morning.
Jesus carries his cross for us—and Jesus carries his cross before us. God’s response to our suffering is not indifference. God chooses to join us in our suffering.
God joins us in our suffering in order that we might have the courage to plunge into the suffering world ourselves—the world where Jesus calls us to love and care for the wounded people all around us. This is God’s unexpected way in Christ—and it becomes our unexpected way, as well.
Being followers of Jesus means—at least, some of the time—that we do not run away from danger. Being followers of Jesus means—all of the time—that we do not turn our backs upon the suffering of this world.
We are called to enter into these things willingly, as we become apprentices to our Lord and Saviour. In this life, we may never understand God’s way completely, but we know this much: unexplained suffering and pain are part of our journey—but they are not part of our destination.
So, my friends, throughout our Lenten journey—and throughout our earthly pilgrimage—let us cling to our beloved gardener, as if our very lives depended on him. Because—in every sense—they do! Amen.