At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices He asked them, 'Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way the were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or 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? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.'
Then he told his parable: 'A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So 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?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the Triune God. Amen.
I struggled a lot with this Gospel text this week, and I know I am not the only one. We have two seemingly disparate stories tacked together, and a message from Jesus, “repent or perish” that doesn’t seem to sit so well. I think we struggle with this because we have two distinct understandings of what it means to repent, and neither one of them is particularly helpful. We sometimes like to think that by repenting and turning to God, our lives will automatically get better and nothing bad will happen to us, or by repenting, we are doing exactly what God wants from us and we will be blessed richly. The temptation with this text is to interpret it as what WE are capable of doing. That if we repent, we can somehow avoid death. If we do everything we are supposed to do, we can escape suffering. This is not true and there is something powerful about naming this reality. I think my own discomfort from this text stems from the idea of what it means to repent. We are told by the world that to repent means to “change your ways,” feel badly about what you have done, and never make the same mistakes again. This idea of what it means to repent seems more like avoiding a threat than living into a promise.
Jesus is in conversation with a group of fellow Jews. Those talking to him tell a story about how some Galileans were killed while offering sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. Pilate, the Roman leader who would later order the execution of Jesus, entered into the temple along with his guards and murdered a group of Jews so brutally, “their blood mingled with their sacrifices.” Those telling Jesus the story were no doubt faithful Jews who carried with them the most implicit understanding of the Jewish faith: do good things, follow the laws you have been given, and you will be rewarded. And its accompanying conclusion, if bad things happen to you, it must be because of something you did, or there was something you didn’t do and should have. I do not think that those in conversation with Jesus are trying to prove that they are better than those who were killed, but they are legitimately baffled that despite all their best efforts, suffering still exists. If people were killed while worshipping God in the temple, it truly could happen anywhere. Above all, they are asking out of fear,
”What if this happens to me?” “And how can I avoid it?”
Jesus tells them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Jesus answers his own question with an emphatic “no!” and the command, “repent or perish.” He states that doing good things has nothing whatsoever to do with avoiding suffering in this world. Jesus offers another example. What of the group of people killed while building a tower at Siloam? They were guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Were they deserving of suffering and death? No! Jesus responds again, “Repent or Perish.”
I do not believe that to “repent” means to turn towards God one time in some sort of decision to “choose” Jesus from behind door number two, and then proceed to never do anything sinful again. Because we are just not capable of doing that. We confess our sins and receive absolution for them, and five minutes later we are back into the same thought patterns and behavior that got us there in the first place. I do think that repenting means to turn patiently again and again towards a God who is relentlessly waiting and wants to love us back into wholeness, to the God who tends and nurtures us in spite of us. To repent means to seek to draw closer to God and to our neighbor. Repentance does not come from shame, but rather, is a response to God’s love, not a prerequisite for receiving it. To repent means to turn in faith, despite all evidence to the contrary, towards the sort of God that we hear about in the parable of the fig tree that follows.
Jesus says: “there was a fig tree in a vineyard. The owner of this vineyard came looking for fruit on this tree and found none. He tells the gardener, I have been looking for fruit from this fig tree for three years, it hasn’t produced any. So cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil? The merciful gardener says, “leave it alone for one more year. Give it a second chance, let me take care of it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good, if not, then it can be cut down.”
The vineyard owner is operating out of a common understanding of the way the world works. If the tree is fulfilling its purpose and bearing fruit like it is supposed to be, great, but if not, cut it down and make room for something more productive. We are this fig tree. That despite all our best efforts, we will never produce enough, we will never BE enough, we are always at risk of being cut off at the roots of who we are by the relentless demands of the world to DO more, BE more, HAVE more.
The way of Jesus is the gardener who shows the tree mercy in spite of the fact that it has yet to produce anything useful. Just as the gardener takes special care of a tree that for all intents and purposes does not deserve to be saved, so too will Jesus nurture us and refuse to allow the ways of the world to define us. Our God is willing to dig around the base of our withered lives and spread manure around that we might grow. God gets God’s hands dirty, both in tending the fig tree and in fully entering into our world in the person of Jesus Christ.
But this parable is unfinished. We do not know with certainty if the fig tree is spared destruction. We only know that it is spared destruction FOR NOW. But what we do know is that in the midst of all this teaching, Jesus is journeying towards Jerusalem, where all of these parables will be finished through his death on a cross. This parable is not about what we are capable of doing, but rather, what is done to and for us. This is radically countercultural in a world that demands that we produce good things, pull our own weight, and live up to the ideals of others. But the cross tells us that we might live only by dying and gain something only by doing nothing. There is literally nothing that we can do on our own to be saved, because the action is God’s. And we can know that with all certainty.
Repentance is not about doing one thing to avoid having something worse happen to you. Repentance begins with the felt knowledge that we are loved deeply and profoundly by God, the sort of God who bears with us through all suffering. A God who is a gardener who loves us not for what we produce, but for who we are. Repentance is about the ongoing recovery of our identity as beloved children of God. Amen.