Third Sunday in the Midst of Lent
TEXTS: Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke 13:1-9
Journeying further along the pilgrim path of Lent, we stumble upon today’s story from the gospel of Luke, and we find it … Well, it’s a bit disconcerting, isn’t it?
“Unless you repent, you will all perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). Isn’t that a hopeful message for today? But there it is, a statement, an admonition, an exhortation straight from the lips of Jesus.
“Unless you repent, you will all perish.” So Jesus exhorts us all—not just once, but twice in this relatively short passage. “Repent!” The word hits us right between the eyes! Whatever happened to “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”? Whatever happened to “Come unto me, all you that are weary … and I will give you rest”? What about “Take my yoke upon you … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”? (Matt. 11:28-30)
But no. “Repent or perish.” That’s how our gospel passage starts out. Then Luke shifts gears, and has Jesus tell a story about a fig tree and judgment and manure. I would wager that this parable of the fig tree (or is it a parable about manure?) is less familiar to us than most of Jesus’ other teaching stories.
Sure, there are lots of parables scattered through the gospels that are about seeds and plants and trees and other things that grow and die. However, there are things that appear to set this story apart. The parable’s meaning does not seem obvious. It does not jump out at us in a clear way that makes us nod our heads in understanding. And, unfortunately, there’s no convenient part where the disciples ask Jesus to explain what it all means.
In the opening lines of our passage, somebody tells Jesus about a group of unfortunate Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.1 Most people in Jesus’ day believed that this sort of death—where life is cut short, where death is painful and shocking—was a sign of God’s judgment.
That wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion to draw from a study of the scriptures. Let’s face it: much of what we call the “Old Testament” promotes the idea that people with happy lives must be especially blessed by God. Consider Job, for example. Job was a faithful servant of God. Prior to his emergence as a cosmic bargaining chip, Job was blessed with family, land, home, livestock, and possessions of all sorts. These were supposed to be signs demonstrating his favour with God.
Perhaps we view God and God’s blessings somewhat differently today. Perhaps.
But perhaps not. When we are struggling financially, we wonder why God doesn’t bail us out. When a loved one dies tragically, we ask why God has forsaken us. And when things are going well for us, we thank God (if we remember). We see our good fortune as a sign of God’s blessings, and wonder what we’ve done wrong when things aren’t going our way.
Jesus steps up to challenge this presumption.
“Do you think,” he asks, “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.”
Jesus continues with another example from a well-known engineering disaster,2 but his point is the same: The tragic death these Galileans suffered was not due to their supposed sinfulness or faithlessness. It was neither about God’s curse nor God’s blessing. Ultimately, what is called for, Jesus says, is our repentance. Unless we turn our lives around—unless we direct ourselves to God and God’s purposes for us—we are certain to perish, not in death, which finds us all, but in separation from God who loves us.
The second half of our passage seems to jump onto an entirely different track—as if we’re missing the middle chunk of the conversation. Jesus tells a parable about a man who planted a fig tree. The fig tree is a dud. It is not growing the fruit it is supposed to bear. This is annoying, because figs grow easily, under most conditions. For a fig tree to not bear fruit is a bad sign indeed. So the man is not being unreasonable when he orders his gardener to cut it down. The gardener, however, pleads for one more year. During this year, the gardener says he will pay special attention to the errant tree. After a year, if the plant still will not grow fruit, then, he will cut it down.
These passages ooze fear and dread, don’t they? In the first part, we get the idea that chaos and catastrophe can visit us at any moment, no matter what kind of lives we lead. We’re told to repent or perish. As simple as that.
As for the parable section … Well, if you’re familiar with Jesus’ parables, you’ve likely noticed that our human lives are often represented by the plants and trees in the stories he tells. In this case, we are the fig trees.
We are the fig trees? EEK! Does the Lord of the garden want to chop us down, because we’re not bearing fruit? I can hear the clock ticking, can’t you? Maybe some compassionate gardener will throw some manure on us, and buy us some extra time, but … we’ve still got to hurry and get to work bearing fruit. Or else.
Our reading from Isaiah, on the other hand, brings welcome relief from the impending doom of our gospel lesson. We read:
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. (Isaiah 55:1-2)
These beautiful words conjure images of oasis in the midst of desert, refreshment in the midst of toil. And it’s all free! Now, this is a message we can get behind! What the prophet offers here is without cost to us. So, given the choice, we’d probably rather stick with this passage from Isaiah than ponder those unsettling words from Luke. But, as always, things aren’t so easy or straightforward as they seem.
We humans seem to rally behind either/or things in life. Know what I mean? We want it to be simple. We want things to be either right or wrong, true or false, good or bad, black or white. We want our choices clear and uncluttered. We want to know that if we do this or that, we are going to heaven or to hell. It’s a sin or else it’s not a sin.
Unfortunately, ours is not an either/or reality. We’re a complicated species, in a world full of all the shades of colour you can imagine—a world full of half-truths, lesser and greater evils, both/ands. The good news, though, is that living in a both/and world doesn’t have to be as bad or as confusing and uncomfortable as we might fear.
Somewhere along the path of Christian discipleship, we got it stuck in our heads that God is an either/or God. Either (1) we must keep our noses to the grindstone and earn our spot in heaven; or (2) our path is easy and God hands over grace and we don’t have to lift a finger. This second attitude is what the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to as “cheap grace”:
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. 3
God calls us to something more incredible: the joy of both/and. God’s grace is both totally free, and something that demands of us the hard and life-changing work of discipleship.
Turning back to the lesson from Luke, we hear Jesus calling us to repent, and reminding us that we are planted to bear fruit. But by God’s grace, Christ also bargains for us to have one more year. He promises to fertilize our lives with tender care, encouragement, and even some pruning. By God’s grace, we are called to come to the waters that Isaiah describes, and to drink deeply and freely. For, as Isaiah reminds us, God abundantly pardons us.
Here’s something to consider, though: free and easy are not the same things. Someone once said that the Christian life is like falling in love. And there’s a lot of truth in that statement. Love is something we know to be free. True love cannot be bought or sold. It is given and received as a gift. It is, indeed, free.
But easy? No one ever said love was easy, or that love did not require hard work, or care, or discipline. Love demands all these things. So it is with God’s grace. Grace is totally free. We cannot possibly earn it; if we tried, we would fail miserably. God gives grace freely. But easily? Not really.
A pastor I know—who had been present as a prayer counselor at an evangelistic rally—told me about one man who, after coming forward to receive Christ, said: “So, I’m good now, right? There’s nothing else I have to do?”
Taken aback for a moment, my friend replied, “No. You don’t have to do anything else. But you will want to!”
“You will want to.” As the Holy Spirit begins to work in your heart, you will want to do something else, something more. This is the truth about Christianity as presented in the New Testament.
We are called to repent, to be disciples, to choose the satisfying life of living water. Come to the waters, you who thirst. And drink deep of God’s free, challenging, difficult, and loving grace. Amen.
1 “Some who were present” reported to Jesus that the cruel governor Pontius Pilate had caused some Galileans to be murdered in the Temple. Their example was particularly gruesome, since at the moment the Galileans were killed, they were worshiping God by offering sacrifices according to their Jewish religious law. Those making the report were likely hoping Jesus would offer some explanation of why bad things happen to ordinary people—in this case, even in God’s house. The “sin and calamity” issue involves a presumption that an extraordinary tragedy in some way must signify extraordinary guilt. It assumes that a victim must have done something terrible for God to allow such tragedy to befall them.
2 The Tower of Siloam was a structure which fell upon 18 people, killing them. Siloam is a neighbourhood south of Jerusalem’s Old City.
3 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Touchstone, 1995 (pp. 44-45).