The collect and readings for today, the Third Sunday in Lent, may be found here. The appointed gospel is Luke 13:1-9.
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.”
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.’”
Many years ago a friend of mine had the opportunity to attend a retreat led by Alan Jones, the Dean of Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco. Dean Jones told a story about a young man who died of AIDS. He was not gay, promiscuous, or a drug user. My friend commented on the tragedy of the death especially since the man was “innocent.” Dean Jones asked, “And would it be different if he was guilty?”
“Of course not,” is the correct answer. We know the right answer. Regardless of how or for whatever reason it comes death is always a tragedy. But if we are really honest I wonder if a more truthful answer might just be, “Yes, it would be different.” Yes, it would be different because it would help establish a sense of order, predictability, and ultimately control in a world in which those things are often difficult to find. Yes, it would be different because it would offer some reason, some way to understand this tragedy.
Every tragedy reminds us that we live in a world in which we are not in control. So when tragedy strikes – an AIDS death, an earthquake in Haiti, a hurricane in New Orleans, cancer, an automobile accident, a crime – we look for an explanation, an answer, some way to make sense of the event. If we can just find some reason for another’s suffering – their sins, choices, mistakes – we can feel a bit safer and more in control by knowing that we are not like that. We are different. We reassure ourselves with the knowledge, whether it is true or not, that we have not made the same mistakes. We have made better choices. We have not committed those same sins.
I do not think we necessarily do this because we are mean but because we are scared and know ourselves to be vulnerable to the changes and chances of life. We are not in control. So we blame the victims. We attribute retribution and punishment to God. This is, at least in part, why we hear things like the Haitians made a pact with the devil, Katrina was sent to cleanse New Orleans of its immorality, and AIDS is God’s punishment on homosexuality. That is exactly what those who come to Jesus in today’s gospel are doing.
They tell him about some Galileans who were murdered by Pontius Pilate while they offered their sacrifices to God. Jesus hears their implication. “Those Galileans must have been sinners, they must have done something to deserve this; something we have not done.” Jesus denies their logic. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you…. 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.”
“No, I tell you,” he says, “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
These words sound like the distorted cause and effect that Jesus has just denied. They sound like a threat from a demanding landowner, “Produce fruit or be cut down.” But that is not who God is and that is not how God deals with God’s people. God does not cut down life. God gives, sustains, and grows life. Rather, these words of Jesus are the words of a compassionate and caring gardener who seeks to nourish life, who is willing to get down on his hands and knees, to dig around in the dirt of our life, to water, even spread a little manure, and then trust that fruit will grow. This gardener sees possibilities for life that we often cannot see in our own or each other’s lives.
If the absence of fruit does not cause God’s retribution then neither does the presence of fruit cause God to reward. Even being sinless will not save us from suffering and tragedy. Jesus’ own life and death prove that. Fruit, for this gardener, is not a payment, a transaction, or a ransom for being permitted to live another day. It is instead the result of mutual love, relationship, and presence. It is the evidence of life.
We are right to hear urgency and necessity in Jesus’ call to repentance. This is not because God is vindictive but because life is short, precious, and sacred. It is not because God is retribution but because God is love. Jesus does not seem as concerned about why people die as why people do not live. Everyone dies but not all truly live. Too often and too easily we perish even before we die – through our fear, prejudices, judgments and condemnations, the need for control, the victimization of others, and our impoverishment of God.
Jesus’ call to repentance is the invitation to choose life. Live or perish. We choose which way we will turn. The reality is towers fall, hurricanes strike, disease kills, accident happens, and the Pontius Pilates of this world seek to destroy life. So we must decide where we place our trust – in the mechanics of a distorted cause and effect or in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God who has observed our misery, heard our cry, and come to deliver us.