Let us pray. Holy God, open our eyes to your presence. Open our ears to your call. Open our hearts to your love. Amen.
It doesn’t take much effort in our time to learn about tragedies and disasters. In our information age, we are more aware of such events in the world than ever before. Since February 24th, we have had a constant lens into the Russian invasion into Ukraine, the suffering and humanitarian crisis, refugees seeking safety. The devastating attacks on non-combatants, especially the elderly and children, leaving them injured or dead. And the resolve of the Ukrainian people to defend their land and their way of life. In recent days in our nation, we have learned of the impact of tornadoes and wildfires ripping through communities and threatening the safety of homes. And these are only the public tragedies brought to our attention. They speak nothing of the personal tragedies we all experience, that weigh us down and keep us awake at night. It is easy when we turn on the news to ask ourselves, why? Why, God? Why does everything in this world sometimes feel so God-forsaken? In a sense, these are the same questions the people in our gospel had in their minds because every generation struggles with them.
At the beginning of today’s gospel reading, there is a mention of two shocking and horrific tragedies. One brought about by the abuse of power. Pilate’s troops had killed Galilean worshipers while they were offering sacrifice in the temple. Jesus evokes the unnerving picture of these murdered worshipers, lying in their own blood, amid the blood of their sacrifices. And Jesus shocks them further when he says, “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.” Jesus then refers to a second unfortunate accident. Again, a tragedy from the local news, known to his hearers, about a tower in Siloam that had fallen on innocent bystanders, killing 18 of them. He asks, “Do you think they were worse offenders than all others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Now, for context, we should remember that in the first century, most people believed that when tragedy struck it was a punishment, the judgment of God. They believed that good things happened to good people. And when bad things happened, someone was to blame. From Jesus’s words, we can surmise that those around him were smugly thinking that anyone who suffered such tragedies were deserving of God’s judgment. And those who had been spared such tragedies meant that they were pleasing to God. Jesus doesn’t address the cause of these events, except to say that the cause was not bad behavior of the people who suffered. He’s more interested in how we respond.
Here Jesus calls into question the popular belief that all misfortune is punishment for sin. Now we may believe that we have a more sophisticated, logical thought about this. Or claim that we are removed from such thinking. But at some primitive level, such a belief protects us from life’s harsh truths. And when misfortune does happen to us or to those we love, we search for some understanding of such events, in the words of Harold Kushner’s popular book of years ago, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Jesus warns his audience against thinking that those who lost their lives in these tragedies were somehow greater sinners than others. He dismisses any simplistic connection between suffering and sin, and offers an image of who God really is, a parable about a vineyard owner, a fig tree, and a gardener.
For three years, a man came looking for fruit on a fig tree he had planted in his vineyard. Seeing no fruit, he instructs the gardener to cut it down. For it’s wasting soil, it’s wasting time, and it’s wasting resource. But the gardener intercedes and asks for another year. To dig around it and put manure on it, with the agreement that if it bears fruit, all good, but if not, it will be cut down. The fig tree has not done much. It hasn’t done what it is supposed to do. It has failed to bear fruit for three successive years and seems as good as dead. The reaction of the owner of the vineyard seems quite reasonable. Have the fig tree cut down because it is only taking up space that could be used otherwise. However, the gardener had a different perspective. He looked at the apparently useless fig tree and he saw the possibility that it could still bear fruit. He had a more generous vision of the fig tree, a more hopeful vision. He felt all was not lost. There was still time for this tree to produce. Through the parable, we may understand that this is the way the Lord looks upon us.
When the Lord looks upon us, he sees not just what we have failed to do in the past, but what we are capable of doing in our future. He looks on us with generous and hopeful eyes. That is the way we are to look at each other, and indeed, at every situation in life. Like the fig tree, there are members of our society who may be looked upon as dispensable, who have been written off, dismissed, or rendered invisible and not worthy of another opportunity. Yet the message to them and to us is that Jesus says, “Wait a minute. Let me do some fertilizing here. Let me dig into the hardened earth and loosen it up a bit so that the roots can breathe. Let’s not give up quite yet. There’s hope that this life can become fruitful.” Through the gospel we come to know a God who cares enough to get dirty, to get into the muck and mire, yes, the manure. In the foul and smelly places, in the messiness of our lives and in the places where there is suffering. And we are assured that when we feel most lifeless and hopeless and worthless, God will meet us where we are with love and compassion.
By coupling the disasters with that of the last chance victory, Jesus also gives a new twist on repentance. The fig tree has a fruit problem because of an underlying root problem. That is what the call to repentance is about: to turn to the source of nourishment and life in our hearts. This call to repentance seems strange because we normally think of repentance as something we do when we’ve done something wrong. But Jesus is talking about repentance much more broadly. Jesus wants his listeners to shake off complacency about their lives and realize they face a crisis. They can turn to God or they can go on living for themselves. Perhaps it is time to reframe our idea of repentance. In the book, Listen to Him, J.D. Walt writes, “As we near Jerusalem, we must think of repentance in terms of who we are running to, more than what we are running from.”
Repentance is not just a temporary fix to relieve guilt, a halfhearted expression of regret, but a turning away from anything that is not right in our world and turning to the one who can make all things right. Jesus calls us to repent of our image that sees God as a vineyard owner, who would toss us aside immediately, if we were not bearing fruit. And not as the gardener who is hopeful and patient. Repentance is then a change of orientation and a change of heart. Today, we are given a wonderful image of God, our gardener, who will fertilize us, nurture us and pull the weeds that are growing within and around us. And yes, we have them. But there is more. We are God’s ongoing story and we are called to follow him and to be gardeners ourselves. God wants us to do exactly what Jesus did with us, and our responsibility as followers of Jesus is to tend to others with the same compassion and intent. The Lord keeps investing in us, especially at those moments when we are tempted to give up on ourselves and others are tempted to do the same. The Lord never gives up on us. And all he needs is a little opening in our hearts for this investment to bear fruit.
The Lord who calls out to us through all of life’s happenings, including the tragic ones, sees us with eyes of hope. His reluctance to give up on us, encourages us to keep making the most of the present, to keep opening our lives more fully to his call and his desire for us. Sometimes really horrible things happen. But it does not mean that God does not exist. And it does not mean that God is not loving and powerful and good. The existence of darkness does not disprove the existence of light. So, the existence of bad does not disprove the existence of good. In the midst of tragedy, If we want to find God, look for where there is suffering. And God is there alongside us. This is a message of the incarnation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. A message we need so much now, with so much uncertainty around us. May God grant us the Holy Spirit to see in every trial, tragedy or triumph in this life, an opportunity to turn faithfully to our Lord and Savior who will never give up on us. Amen.