Most of the time I am very happy that we are a lectionary-based church. This means that the scripture we read on Sundays comes from a three-year schedule of assigned readings. I don’t pick the readings for a given Sunday. They are picked for us by the people who created the lectionary.
The benefit of this is that the Scriptures assigned fit the season and a large portion of the Bible is read over the course of three years. Also, it means that I, the preacher, can’t just choose my favorite passages or use my choices to manipulate what you, the congregation, gets to hear. The structure of the lectionary brings us into contact with all sorts of scripture passages we might otherwise avoid. The downside is that we have to hear, and I have to preach on passages we might rather skip over, like our Gospel reading for this morning.
I have to confess. I can’t remember ever preaching on this passage before. I think that I always wimped out and preached on the story of the call of Moses in our reading from Exodus. But I just couldn’t let the Gospel passage go this year. I felt compelled to preach on it. So, for better or for worse, here I go.
I want to begin with the second paragraph, the parable about the fig tree. Parables aren’t stories about things that have actually happened, but instead they are stories that flip the world, as we are accustomed to thinking of it, on its head. Parables create a crack in the worldview of those who are listening. They give us a glimpse of the kingdom of God, if we have ears to hear. And once we catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God, of God’s dream for the world, our vision is forever changed.
Traditionally, most commentators have said that the fig tree in this parable is us, the landowner is God, and the gardener is Jesus. As the fig tree, we better start producing fruit or God will cut us off. God will give us a little more time, but not much, so get to producing fruit right now you sinners or else. But when this passage is read in the light of the rest of the Gospel of Luke, this interpretation makes no sense.
Nowhere in Luke do we see an angry God that needs to be placated by a loving Jesus. Rather, in Luke, Jesus portrays God as a father scanning the horizon day after day looking for his wayward son to come home. Or as a woman desperately sweeping her house looking for the one coin she has lost. Or as the shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep to find the one who has wandered away. Over and over again the Jesus of Luke’s Gospel portrays God as the loving parent who loves us, wants only good for us, and will stick with us no matter what.
And this interpretation makes no sense in light of the paragraph that comes just before it. Jesus is speaking to crowds of people, and someone brings up a calamity that has happened to their community—the massacre of Galileans by Pilate and the mingling of their blood with Roman ritual sacrifice. Jesus understands the assumptions that underlie this conversation. He knows that the speakers believe that the Galileans must have been great sinners to die in this way, for they assume that when a bad thing happens to someone it must be because they are a bad person. And Jesus responds with a resounding “no.”
Calamities and catastrophes are not divine punishment and retribution. Sometimes human sin does cause very bad things to happen (think climate change, racism and the like), but God does not send bad things down on people as a punishment for sin. Bad things happen to good people and bad people alike. Don’t attribute that suffering to God. God seeks life, wholeness, peace and health for everyone. Wake up and change your view of the world. Let go of your self-righteous belief that you have God’s blessing and those who are victims of calamity do not. For calamity will strike you too, and what will you say about yourself then? And, by the way, all people sin, all people make bad choices from time to time, even you.
So, if God is not a vengeful God, but a loving God seeking life for each and every one of us, then God is not the landowner. God must be the gardener. For it is the gardener who holds out hope and seeks life for the unfruitful tree. The landowner is ready to cut the tree down with no mercy or love. That is not the God that Jesus reveals to us. And what about that tree? A tree can’t change. A tree has no control over whether or not it bears fruit. Who is it that is really being called to change in this story?
Well, the landowner is the one who is being called to change. The landowner is the one who is self-righteous and judgmental. The landowner is the one who is expecting the impossible from the unfruitful tree. The landowner is us. We are the ones that unfairly judge others. We are the ones who want to cut people out and throw them away for things that are often beyond their control, or even when they aren’t beyond their control don’t make them unworthy of love and hope. The gardener who pleads for the tree, sees life in the tree, and has a plan to bring the tree back to its fruitfulness is God. This is the same God who is pleading with us to open our eyes and see the people around us that we would throw away with new eyes and a new heart too.
Over the years, it has become increasingly clear to me that ours is a very hard, judgmental, and vengeful culture. I remember the first time I went to see Les Misérables on Broadway. What struck me the most was how similar the storyline is to modern day America. If you remember, Jean Valjean is a man who goes to prison for stealing bread to feed his starving family. When he is released, he can find work nowhere because he is forever branded as an ex-con. In order to survive, he flees his parole and takes on a new identity, but Inspector Javert relentlessly pursues him throughout his life. To Inspector Javert, once a criminal always a criminal.
How different is this from our world? If you are convicted of a crime, you go to prison. While in prison, very little will be offered to you in the way of rehabilitation and restoration. When you are finished with your sentence, you will leave with nothing but the clothes you went in with. You likely will come out with no new skills and with trauma from your experience behind bars. Actually, you will probably come out with less than you went in with, as most prisoners leave jail in debt as states often make ex-cons pay back their court costs and fees associated with their imprisonment.
So, you leave prison with less than you went in with. You have developed no marketable skills, or if you have you can’t use them because no one will hire you because you are an ex-convict. And you end up committing a new crime and back in prison. But hey, you deserve it. Right? You messed up. You are a worthless tree that doesn’t bear fruit and should be cut down.
Or what about drug addicts? Why don’t they just stop doing drugs? We can’t waste our tax dollars on supplying them with clean needles, safe places to live, or treatment programs. They deserve to die, or at least be thrown into prison. They made their bed they should lie in it. They don’t bear fruit, cut them down.
Or how about when the CDC recommended that obese people receive the COVID vaccine before non-obese people? Why don’t they just stop stuffing their faces? They chose to get fat. They shouldn’t get the vaccine before me. They don’t bear fruit, cut them down.
I’m sure you could come up with even more scenarios than I have. I think you get my point. We are the landowner. We are the ones without mercy. We are the ones who blame people who are often where they are simply because of the way the systems of our world work. The majority of incarcerated people in our country are poor and black. They come out of centuries of systems formed by white supremacy. The gardener, God, is pleading with us to help them bear fruit by changing these systems. Will we have love and mercy?
Addiction is a disease. Certainly, people choose to take drugs, but for an addict is it really a choice? Plenty of people try a drug once and never get addicted, but for some, mental illness, genetics, trauma, and/or environment cause them to have a different response to those drugs. The gardener, God, is pleading with us to help them bear fruit. Will we have love and mercy?
Obesity is also a disease. It is caused by all sorts of genetic, environmental, and systematic causes. It is very complicated. Those who study it scientifically can tell you that it is not about will-power and self-control and that we have not found a successful treatment for it. The gardener, God, is pleading with us to help them bear fruit. Will we have love and mercy?
And we are also, each and every one of us, the tree, but not in the way the traditional commentators thought. We are not a tree in need of reform lest we be chopped down and thrown away. We are the tree in need of love and mercy, that we too might bear fruit and grow. We are all landowners, and we are all trees. Just imagine a world in which we sought life in each other and not punishment and revenge. Imagine a world in which we truly understood that everybody and nobody deserves to be cut down, because we are all sinners loved by a good and gracious God who is always seeking to bring us back to Him. Imagine a world in which we pursued the best for our neighbor, all our neighbors, as relentlessly as God pursues the best for us. A world such as that just might be the Kingdom of God. Amen.