The Graceful Gardener

Unfortunately for us poor preachers, the authors of the Lectionary have given us Luke 13: 1-9,  a passage with two distinct and according to most scholars, unrelated messages, the last half of this passage is not meant to clarify the first part. I’m not quite convinced. we will take up the first part first.


At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or 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? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Unfortunately for us poor preachers, the authors of the Lectionary have given us Luke 13: 1-9,  a passage with two distinct and according to most scholars, unrelated messages, the last half of this passage is not meant to clarify the first part. I’m not quite convinced. we will take up the first part first.


Luke doesn’t tell us why some of those present told Jesus the horror story about Pilate’s having Galilean Jews slaughtered as they brought their gifts to the Temple.  Perhaps this was the first time the news had reached those in the crowd? Perhaps – knowing that Jesus and his closest followers were Galileans – it was an expression of concern about family and friends? Perhaps they were wondering about how Jesus, as a Galilean, would respond to Pilate’s actions?  As to context, one writer suggests that Pilate, the governor appointed by the Roman Empire for Judea, was in deep trouble with the Jews because he had taken monies from the Temple to fund an aqueduct for Jerusalem.  There was a revolt of sorts which he put down by slaughtering a group of faithful Galileans when they came to the Temple to offer their sacrifices.   The question Jesus asks is:  “Was their untimely and unexpected suffering and death a result of them being worse sinners than their peers?   Jesus answered his own question and said “No, they weren’t worse sinners than other Galileans.”


Something brought to mind the tragic death of eighteen construction workers who were killed when a tower fell on them.   It has been suggested that these men were actually working on Pilate’s aqueduct and who were being paid from the Temple monies.  And it raised the same question: “Were those killed somehow worse offenders than others living in Jerusalem? Again Jesus answer was an unequivocal “No”.  


The position Jesus took was a shock to his audience. Their’s was a wide-spread, taken for granted, deeply held, bed-rock belief was that everything happened for a reason.  It was older than the Job.  Remember Eliphaz position on unexplained suffering and death? He had said to Job (4:7) “Who that was innocent ever perished?”  What a cruel and heartbreaking doctrine.  I want you to see where this kind of reasoning can get us, let’s start with the AIDS epidemic.


As that frightening new disease appeared in the United States in the early 1980’s many so called Christian leaders seemed to take pleasure in God’s supposed retribution. Jerry Falwell, Moral Majority leader, declared AIDS to be divine retribution.  Moral Majority co-founder and former head of the Southern Baptist Convention, Charles Stanley, concluded that “God created the AIDS epidemic….” Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas lead demonstrations at funerals of U.S. service men contending that American soldiers were being killed in Iraq as vengeance from God.


In response to the catastrophic attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001 Pat Robertson appeared on T.V. and attributed the terrorist attack to a God angered by the sin and debauchery of Robertson’s cultural enemies. David Crowe of Restore America wrote: “Katrina was an act of God upon a sin-loving and rebellious nation”.  Repent America director Michael Marcavage said “this act of God destroyed a wicked city,” Other religious groups, including people of the stature of Franklin Graham, joined in deeming Katrina to be God’s retribution. 


More recently, as both religious and secular groups scrambled to provide aid for the earthquake victims in Haiti, evangelist Pat Robertson suggested that Haitians brought disaster on themselves. And just this last month a Virginia politician declared that disabled children are a punishment from God on women who aborted their first pregnancy.  Christian voices have public stated that the financial melt down our Nation has just experienced is God’s retribution for our treatment of Israel.


For this group, it seems like every disaster is all about a God set on retribution. You wonder where this should end.  Well, if I’ve read the Gospel correctly, it should have ended about two thousand years ago.  Jesus denied it out of hand.  Linking one’s well being to righteousness or disaster to unrighteousness is mean, hard hearted, misguided and wrong.  It suggests that if I am blest in this worlds favor and goods, I must be righteous.   Maybe, if I’m good God will let me win the next Power Ball drawing and if I’m not God will visit an earthquake on my community?   Why is it that we want to argue that God’s prime character is justice and if bad things happen to someone, it has to be because – in some way – they deserve it? Or even that in some way something good will come from it and it only seems like a bad thing to us. It is deeply engrained in us all.

Jesus rejects this belief. In these two illustrations, those men and their families were not more deserving of suffering and death than those who lived – they were not worse sinners. What happened was a bad thing and something similar could well happen to any one of us whether we deserve it or not.  I will be the first to say that our God is a God of redemption and is able to redeem situations for which we can’t imagine to be redeemable, like Good Friday – but that is a long way from saying that God as the author of pain and suffering.  Could it be that we ignore Jesus’ clear statement in order to justify our having wealth or health or happiness in the face of the poverty, illness and sadness of others?  Does it come near the truth that we are righteous because we are blest?  If you hold with that notion I’d suggest you need a mirror.

Now, for the parable part of our reading for today. I did quite a bit of research, looking to see where another person, any other person, preparing a message on this text had reflected something of how it had struck me.  I came away from my search empty handed, but I really feel in love with this story. 

6Then 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. 7So 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?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

One practical interpretation of this parable suggests: uselessness invites disaster.  Is that the question you imagine St. Peter may ask you on your arrival at the Pearly Gates: “What on earth were you good for?” We are tempted to ask of others  ‘Of what earthly use are you?’.  That was Scrooge’s belief in the Christmas Carol.  Does evolution teach that only that which has a useful purpose survives?  Evidently the land owner’s expectations were not met – the purpose for which the fig tree had been planted – was not achieved.  Can you wrap your mind around where such an attitude toward God’s creation might lead?  Does it mean that people with developmental difficulties, congenital abnormalities have no worth, that people who have aged out of the productive years have no worth? Is that really the way we should treat people?    


Another utilitarian view is that this parable teaches that ‘nothing which only takes can survive.’ This fig tree, intentionally planted to produce fruit and thus income for the owner of the land, is absorbing rays from the sun,  extracting nutrients and moisture from the soil but not producing any fruit.  In the judgment of the owner of the vineyard it should be cut down.  There is a pretty good argument for that approach in the strong creation care message of the Old Testament.  When God brought the Children of Israel into the promised land that were told that the land was not theirs, it was lent to them and that as good stewards they were to make the most of it. The standard was that when the value of the fruit produced was not greater than the value of the wood the orchard was to be cleared and replanted.  It’s pretty hard to argue with that. Produce or be discarded.  Fig trees may be one thing, when it comes to human beings it is a different matter altogether.


So is this a license for us to judge others by their productivity, their purposefulness?  But it’s a real temptation for us, isn’t it, especially when we are hard at work on a project and others seem to be sitting on their hands.  The story of Mary and Martha comes to mind doesn’t it? 


Others have suggested that this parable teaches a gospel of the second chance.  The Old and New Testament are full of examples of people who fell and stood back up again. How long should you give a fig tree to bear fruit? Two, three years.   The problem with that is sooner or later, after repeated attempts at being fruitful it becomes a gospel of the last chance.   That suggests that we limit God’s grace by our reluctance or inability to be fruitful.


There is a curve in this little story that you couldn’t see coming.  Leviticus 19:23 ff reads: When you come into the land and plant all kinds of trees for food, then you shall regard their fruit as forbidden; three years it shall be forbidden to you, it must not be eaten. In the fourth year all their fruit shall be set apart for rejoicing in the Lord. But in the fifth year you may eat of their fruit, that their yield may be increased for you: I am the Lord your God.


Here is something Jesus’ hearers would know that is foreign to us. The landowner is making demands on the fig tree that violates Gods commandment.  This is an unrighteous man.  It is wrong for him to expect to have fruit to sell or eat from this fig tree for two more years.   


Let me tell you what I saw in this text. The owner of the vineyard unjustly suggests that the unproductive fig tree should be cut down.   His interest is maximizing profits.  The gardener, the one who has planted the fig tree and has nurtured it for its whole life has quite a different take on things.  The gardener pleads with the owner to let him continue nurturing the plant.  And then, if at the end of another year – not he —  but the owner himself may cut it down.  I fell in love with this graceful gardener who loves that which he has planted and nourished – not this year and not in the next will he take the ax to that which he loves.


God’s not like the landowner.  God is like the graceful gardener. He won’t give up on you or me.  It is a story of extravagant grace standing against the values of the world.   


Harold Loukes wrote: “The Quaker view is that this forgiveness is part of God’s intention, and that the business of the Church is not to judge but to inspire and sustain….”  Jesus came to show us who God was, a loving God. In the Gospel of John we are told that God loves the world.  We can’t ascribe to God political or natural disasters much less cleft palates, disease and developmental disabilities.  That doesn’t mean there are not consequences to the choices we make – but God is not the author of pain and suffering, he is a God of extravagant grace.  



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