1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Well, they deserved it, you know. They got what was coming to them. There are consequences to actions. We can speak these words with a bit of haughtiness, with the assumption that we are not them and they are not us. It assumes that, somehow, someone did something wrong, and we have the capacity to avoid it. That’s how our passage from Luke starts out.
It’s always important, with these challenging passages, to see what led up to them. So, if we look to the previous chapter, we see that Jesus had been talking about how his message will be the cause for division—among families, among nations, among people. And he chastises the crowd because they can’t see what is right in front of them. They can read the weather, but when the kingdom of God is standing in their midst, they are clueless. He ends with the fact that if thse accused don’t work out a deal with their accusers for a lesser sentence, they will be sentenced until they pay the final price.
And naturally, the crowds—not to mention us—miss what Jesus is getting at. They miss his underlying message—that we are in trouble and are in need of a Savior. All of us are in trouble. We aren’t paying attention to the reality of the kingdom. We have all sinned and fall short of God’s glory.
But some will think that what they’re doing isn’t all that bad—not compared to others. There’s no need for repentance. It’s justified. It’s justified to speed if you’re late for an appointment. It’s justified to lie on your taxes if you really needed to upgrade your technology—and the taxes aren’t used for anything helpful, anyway. It’s justified to beat your spouse if they were talking back to you. It’s justified to bully and speak hateful words against people who disagree with you.
So we come to today’s passage. “Jesus, you know those people who Pilate sacrificed? They must have really messed up. Now, those are sinners.” We only assume that’s what the crowd is getting at based on Jesus’ response: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” And the presumed answer is, well, yes. Jesus also brings up the eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them. Were they worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? Um…yeah?
No! We could ask the same of the Muslims killed in New Zealand or the Christians murdered in Namibia and Kenya. Or the African Americans lynched in the streets of America. Or the refugees at the border. Or the cops hunted down and assassinated. Or the Jews destroyed in the Holocaust. Or the Palestinians destroyed in Israel. And the list goes on and on. It becomes less and less about individual sins, less and less about political sides, less and less about religious preferences, less and less about nationality and more and more about Sin. The big-S kind of Sin. The Sin that—no matter how well we might think we behave, no matter how moral or pious our choices might be—we are bound to by the very nature of existence.
We’re all in the same boat. And we struggle to make sense of the horrific events that surround our world because if we can’t lay the blame at the feet of decisions made by those who have died, then we are all at risk of the same end. And that’s terrifying. So, we spend money and energy on ways to keep that from happening, but Jesus says it won’t be security systems or armed guards or walls or military that will keep us from meeting the same end. It will be repentance.
Here’s the thing. When Jesus says, “Unless YOU repent,” the ‘you’ is plural. Unless y’all repent. Unless you repent as a community, as a people. Now, repentance isn’t about saying, “I’m sorry.” It’s not even about promising never to do something again. It’s a turning—a change of perspective. A change of value. A change of heart. Unless the people, as a whole, turn from their ways and systems of sin, nothing will change. We will deny the kingdom of God right in front of us and continue trying to initiate our own kingdom in which we are masters and not servants.
One of the commentaries points to a book called “In the Shelter: Finding Welcome in the Here and Now” by Padraig O Tuama. The author says that many of the questions we ask—like, why did this happen to me? Or why do bad things happen to good people? And so on—are too flat. They don’t really get to the heart of the matter. He answers them with one word. “Mu.” It means, “Un-ask the question,” or “Ask a better question.”
What question might we ask instead of “why?” A question that goes deeper than the fear hiding behind this one. A question that invites us to be brave and dig a bit.
Jesus’ answer, of course, isn’t an answer. His ‘better question’ is a story—a parable. And parables always leave one scratching their heads. This parable tells of a landowner who had a fig tree planted in a vineyard. Now, that’s apparently fairly normal. Fig trees were often planted alongside grape vines to use as trellises for the vines. But, if all you wanted was a trellis, you would put a stick in the ground. A fig tree does double-duty—bearing fruit while bearing the fruit of the vine.
And this fig tree isn’t producing. After three years, the landowner is fed up. The tree seems to be wasting the soil. There could be a tree that produces planted there. Why waste valuable resources? Okay, the first thing to note is that the landowner doesn’t represent God. More likely, he represents humanity’s approach to the world. If it doesn’t produce, get rid of it. It’s worthless.
The second thing to note is something that only one person in all the commentaries has stumbled across. A passage in Leviticus 19:23-25 gives God’s guidance in planting trees and harvesting produce. For three years, no one is to harvest the fruit. In the fourth year, all the fruit is to be offered to God. Only in the fifth year is the fruit to be kept for the people. The landowner was getting ahead of himself.
So, the gardener suggests that he will dig around the tree, take extra care to fertilize it and work with it. And if, after the fourth year, it doesn’t produce, they can cut it down. If the tree doesn’t produce for God’s harvest, then it won’t produce period.
The third thing to note is that this isn’t a three strikes—or four strikes—and you’re out kind of parable. In fact, we don’t know what happens after the gardener makes his suggestion. Does the landowner acquiesce? Does he insist on the axe? Does the tree finally produce? What happens is less interesting than what we do with the story.
Because we’re invited to ask something deeper than “Why did this happen?” With the landowner, we are invited to ask, “When have I given up on those around me? When have I denied God’s power to transform even the most hardened of hearts?”
With the gardener we are invited to ask, “How can I better steward what I am in charge of? What can I offer to inspire and coax a new way in those around me? Where do I see life where others see only death and despair?”
With the tree, we’re invited to ask, “How am I un-nourished or un-enlivened? Where am I feeling ignored or dismissed? Am I even open to transformation? What will that take?”
At the end of the day, it won’t be the questions we ask but the answers we offer that change our understanding of what is happening in our world. Yes, we can hunker down. We can hide in panic rooms and secure more weapons. We can invest in security systems and set armed ushers in the Atrium. But Sin doesn’t only exist out there. It exists in here, as well. And in our hearts.
But so does grace. So does mercy. So does forgiveness. And God invites us to take these gifts given to us through the death and resurrection of Christ into the world—to dig around the trees of darkness and barrenness and put down a healthy dose of the manure of grace, mercy, forgiveness and love. God invites us to literally get our hands dirty in the gifts of Christ, coaxing life from death and hope from despair. God invites us into this ministry knowing full well that Jesus has done this very thing for us—digging deep into our Sin and breathing new life in us.
And in the care of the gardener, we may just produce the fruits of the gospel as an offering for God.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church