It is a familiar behavior to ask who was at fault for a terrible event. It is important for the social order that we have legal and fair processes to ensure responsibility as best as possible. It is also a familiar behavior to ask whose fault it was when stuff just happens, or when one tries to avoid personal accountability. And often people even try to blame God.Today we hear the disciples ask Jesus who was at fault for Pilate’s murderous desecration of a worship event and who was at fault for getting killed by a fallen tower. Jesus basically answers, “look, y’all, as usual, you’re asking the wrong question. You presume that the Gentile’s sinned and deserved Pilate’s murder and mixing of their blood with holy ritual, or possibly that the observant worshippers somehow deserved that. You presume that those who got killed by the fallen defense tower at the edge of the city were at fault.” Jesus twice literally says, “Think about it!” As if they were not using their heads. “You’re asking the wrong question. You think it was somebody else’s fault, maybe even God’s fault. But what about you? When will you own up and change your lives? God has been patient with y’all for all of God’s life, and will even wait several seasons more. You’ve had plenty of time and have time yet. When will you repent and make the most of this precious gift of time?”
That’s Luke’s message for today. Shall we adjourn and go home now?
Well, if you want to walk out, just be sure it is to something new, not just to rejection of Jesus’ message. The prospect reminds me of a famed pastor in San Francisco on whom, during his first sermon in a congregation near death, several people walked out. So the next week he preached from the back of the church at the exit door. That pastor knew his duty. The whole place needed repentance, which is to turn from self to God’s Spirit and with God’s Spirit to turn to the neighbor. Practiced spirituality and active compassion are the goal of repentance. Well, that place got it and grew from the 35 that were members when he started to 13,500 three decades later. That particular fig tree turned from near death to bear massive quantities of good fruit. In other words, that people quit looking for excuses for what had been, took ownership, recommitted to disciplined spiritual practices and cared in brand new ways for the people all around.
The image of walking out also reminds me of the time in my previous role that I hosted a fundraising luncheon for a group of my institution’s alumni at a nice restaurant. It was a lovely meal. Then it was time for me to stand and make the required fundraising pitch. As soon as I stood up, several evidently poorer pastors immediately got up and walked right past me to and through the room’s exit. I surmised that they came for the free meal.
Are we here today for the free meal?
Are we here also today to make the best use of the time God so graciously has given us to repent and bear fruit?
It is an odd thing in the parable that the owner of the vineyard comes and complains to the gardener about the useless fig tree. Why the owner put a fig tree in the middle of grapevines is a real question. Maybe he thought he’d sell Fig Newtons along with wine. Personally, I prefer mine with milk. I could really binge on that combo. Whatever the reason, the owner had lost patience, but the gardener (like Abraham to God, or Jesus to the Father) answered that the tree just needed some time and turning and manure to do better.
Yeah. That’s what every sinner needs, right? Time, turned soil, and manure.
Technically, Luke’s Greek word for “more time” that the gardener uses “forgive.” Literally, the gardener says, “Lord, forgive the dumb fig tree.” The owner wants to tear the tree out. The gardener pleads for time. The owner comes with judgment. The gardener pleads forgiveness.
So, time is God’s for-giving to us. We’re still among the grape vines and encouraged to repent. Again, what does that mean? It’s not just about mere moralism. Repentance is not about being caught in a wrong act and, perhaps with tears real or pretended, just saying we’re sorry. Repentance surely is not offering some lame apology that begins with “If I offended you I’m sorry.” That still defers responsibility and even puts the onus wrongly on another. Further, Jesus doesn’t want his followers to parrot the scheme given by the religious authorities, carrying forward the dumb logic that bad actions actually always yield punishment and good people never suffer. Jesus actually asks his disciples today to “think” and own their own answers.
Before you blame others, he says, think. Think, deeper and better, about the “whys” of things. It’s as if Jesus is reminding us that the repentant turn back to God is always about the first law, “to love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind.” Think especially about the overwhelming consistency of bad history constructed by blaming somebody else for what has gone wrong. Think about all the “what about” deflections and all the scapegoating; about how people routinely project the worst of our motives onto others, some of whom, yes, are rather easier to scapegoat than others who display more evident virtuosity. But our complicity is to be thought about, acknowledged, and corrected with whole scale change of heart and mind. That means, too, that simply because you have a cherished way of thinking is not a good excuse to refuse the thoughtful offering of another. As Paul says, God’s ways are not our ways. Repentance means to look deeply and clearly at our collective and personal habits and preferences, to think about them, to acknowledge them, and then to do whatever it takes to change both thought and action. And whatever it takes includes prayer and active compassion.
For the addict, this means to confess the need for help and actually to depend on another for counsel, hour by hour and day by day. For the scapegoater it means to go perhaps even deeper than must the addict, to look clearly at social and personal history—again with the help of another—so to see one’s self truly and come to acknowledge that the sin we see in others is actually so readily recognized because we have harbored it so long and comfortably in ourselves. We in the church call this confession. In the terms of the gardener—who clearly is Jesus—this is what we call turning the soil and mixing in the enfleshed and bloodied matter of a holy body to make the trees—you and me—grow.
Jesus wants forgiveness from the owner so that the fledgling trees might flourish. Jesus will forgive ultimately so to nurture us fig trees with the holy and ironic compost of his own raised body. You and I are given more time yet to mix it up with this divine action.
What’s the difference then, per Jesus, between his followers and those who were crushed under history’s wheel? His answer: if we don’t turn with heart and mind away from all our destructive ways, we will just live and die like they did, without meaning. When we do so change, life has meaning beyond death. Jesus the Christ gives us the forgiving time to do just this. And yes, the meal and the time are free.
Duane Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church Houston, TX March 24, 2019