Our gospel passage is a tricky one to negotiate. The first six verses deal with a topic called “theodicy” from the Greek words for God and justice, or how do we understand God as a fair and just God when bad things happen to people who are good and blameless.
The last three verses of the Luke passage are a parable about a landowner, a gardener, and a fig tree. That section illustrates another theological concept, our image of God. In both sections of the passage, Luke digs deeper to illustrate who God is and how we are to live.
First, let’s look at the first six verses. I’ll subtitle this part, “What is the meaning of human suffering?” The conclusion to which many people jump, is that suffering is punishment from God. In today’s gospel Jesus is quick to dismiss this as he asserts that suffering comes to all people, pain is part of the human experience and that we should prepare ourselves spiritually for the trials that will come. When we’re young and healthy, this may seem like a scary prospect, a future event we’d rather put out of our minds; however, as we mature, it may seem less threatening to consider the place of pain and suffering in life.
We can use the metaphor of childbirth to help us understand it. Some births are quick and easy, but many are wrought with what seems like unending, unimaginable pain. Is it any wonder that laboring to be born into everlasting life should be any different?
As I walk with those who are approaching death, so often I’ve observed people in the process of dying and their families who experience a deeper, tender meaning to the pain, and loss and suffering that eventually leads to new life and peace.
If we look at suffering only as the journey from conception to physical death, then suffering makes little sense. Father Bob DeLeon, chaplain at Albany Medical Center, says that “because we believe that we have existed in the mind and heart of God long before birth and because we believe that we continue to live in the arms of God afterward into eternity, suffering can take on a new meaning.” The struggles always involve some suffering. Ours souls which come sheltered in bodies strong and young, soon find themselves too soon constrained by limits. Shedding what we’ve grown beyond is a painful struggle, but it’s far more about birth than death.
Our Luke passage begins with the gruesome detail that Jesus has just been told that Pilate has made a religious sacrifice to the Emperor, who was consider a kind of demigod in those days. As part of that burnt offering Pilate slaughtered a gathering of Galilean Jews and placed their bodies on the sacrificial fire. As if that wasn’t enough bad news, a tower in Siloam has fallen, crushing 18 people.
The crowd asks “Why did these tragedies happen?” And today when we watch or read the news we ask “Why do tragedies happen to innocent people?”
So when Jesus spoke to those who came to tell him of the terrible events, he dealt directly with the human tendency to blame the victim, “Do you think thee Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered thus? I tell you, No.” (Luke 13:2-3). Probably if God punished us immediately for our sins, there wouldn’t be anyone left on the planet. But God is much deeper and complex than that. Jesus is responding to human fallibility and grief.
Perhaps that is why Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the fig tree in verses 6-9. This parable is a reminder that God operates not on conventional conceptions of fairness, but rather on a different standard that values patience and hope.
Jesus told the parable, “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who cared for the vineyard, “for three years I’ve been expecting to find fruit on this tree, but there’s none. Cut it down!”
How does that apply to us? Well, in Galatians 5, the apostle Paul lists the fruit God wants us to bear. The fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And we show these fruits in the way we follow the second commandment, to love others, caring especially for those who are sick, troubled, or lonely.
In Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s book On Death and Dying, she tells the story of a woman who was a cleaner in a hospital. The hospital staff began to notice that each time she finished cleaning a room of a dying patient, that person seemed more at peace. When Kubler-Ross interviewed the woman, she said she had been through a time when her three year old son had pneumonia, and had died in her arms.
She could have become bitter, but instead she decided to help others who were in similar situations. She said, “You see, Dr. Ross, the dying patients are just like old acquaintances to me, and I’m not afraid to touch them, to talk with them, or to offer them hope.” This woman made her life count, she bore fruit.
In another incident the Irish singer Bono of the band U-2 tells of an incident that really affected his feelings about his responsibility to the world. In 1985, Bono and his wife spent a month living in Ethiopia near a feeding station. While there a man walked up to Bono and put his baby in Bono’s arms, saying, “You take my son. He’ll live if you take him.”
Bono thought how deep could the suffering be that a man would give his son to a stranger to save his life? At that point, Bono and his wife had a new consciousness of what life is really about and began to help thousands of people world wide. (“Oprah Talks to Bono,” O, The Oprah Magazine, April 2004, p.250) We may not have Bono’s resources, but we can all help someone.
The fig tree story is about the repentance that leads to awareness. If we think of Jesus as the gardener, we see the way he leads us to repentance and to new life and growth. He leads us not only to giving food, clothing and money, but to acts of kindness, and to initiative to address the sources of corruption, poverty and exploitation. It leads us to believe that God cares for everyone, especially those who are struggling to produce those fruits of the spirit. Can we name them again?
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Notice the kind of God we believe in, the God of second and third, and many chances. This is the Jesus of grace, who is still tending the garden, our world, with patience. Christ is not interested in punishing us or cutting us down like the barren fig tree. Instead he wants us to repent, examine our hearts and lives, and make life changes, and to be a light of love to a dark and broken world, realizing that in Christ’s redemptive love there is indeed hope for all of us in this world and in the next. Let us pray.