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 they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but 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 this 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.’”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Have you ever wondered, “What did I do to deserve this?” or “If I work harder maybe then I will be loved?” Then Jesus is speaking right to you today. A group of people come to Jesus very concerned about how the Roman state has killed some Galileans (remember Jesus was a Galilean) and then mixed the blood of the slain with their religious services. A truly horrific act. And it seems that the people are wondering if somehow God was orchestrating this event. Did those Galileans sin worse than others? Did we need them to be killed to learn this lesson? Does God micromanage each life and death?
To these questions, Jesus clearly says no. God does not punish you for each and every sin on this earth. God does not manipulate others to teach you a lesson. Hurricanes do no happen because of gay marriage as some pastors might try and say. Jesus clearly wants you to know that sometimes tragedy strikes but that does not make it your fault or the individual’s fault everytime.
However Jesus then goes on to say “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Umm what? Is Jesus saying if we do not repent God will smite us in a horrible accident? Is Jesus saying if we do not repent then we will not have eternal heaven? This seems really harsh after explaining that not all tragedy is because of personal sin. “Repent or die” is what people yell at me from street corners. This picture of a spiteful and vengeful god that is waiting for us to say the magic words or they will destroy us has never sat well with me. But it is an image that is so ingrained in our white American psyche.
So Jesus tells us a parable about a fig tree to try and help us make sense of this situation. Now often this text is preached as “produce the fruits of repentance or die.” I have even used that line of thinking in my sermons of yesteryear. This parable has been translated as God is “the man” and Jesus is the gardener. That interpretation says that Jesus is the only thing between us and the fire. It says that God demands fruits or we will be killed. But I was challenged this week and I hope to challenge you too by saying that Jesus’ words do not say that.
First, the parable begins by a man planting a fig tree in a vineyard. Did you catch that? A fig tree in a vineyard which should grow grapes. A quick google search tells me that no one plants fig trees in vineyards because fig trees take up too much space with their roots and create too much shade for the vines. So coming in and expecting this tree to produce even though it has been put in the worst spot is very interesting and does not resonate with the God that I know.
This immediately made me think of what is commonly called “grind culture.” This culture seems to have first been named in many tech startups that push more and more for a product or a result, for bigger and better every time, that require all you have and then some. But it is endemic in our wider culture that says you have to work for at least 40 hours a week to be worthy of safety and security through a home and food and sometimes not even then. It shows up in our advertising that reminds us that we need the newest phone or car in order to be worthy of respect. It shows up in our television and movies that so often show that the person who works the hardest always gets “what they deserve” even when we know that the hardest working people rarely make the most money.
So Jesus challenges us in this parable by asking if it is only fruit producing trees that are worthy or if a tree that does not produce can still be allowed to live? It challenges us to think about our culture and our lives by questioning how we think about others. When we see someone panhandling do we view them as worthy human beings or as wasting space in our world? When we see corporate billionaires flying to space do we think why are they hogging all the resources or do we applaud their capitalistic ingenuity? Do we say that people in prison for marijuana possession got what they deserved for breaking the law and do we see the creators of opioids with the same lens? Jesus is asking us a question of worth. Who gives it? Who deserves it? For Jesus, the answer is everyone. No one is a waste of space.
Second, the fig tree is given love and attention by this kind gardener. It is not focused on individual repentance but rather being loved by someone unconditionally. And here is where I really want to focus in on, the word repent. Metanoia is the Greek word for repent. It simply means to turn around. You are walking the wrong way so you turn around. You have been using that machine incorrectly and so you start using it differently. You are told that someone prefers different pronouns so you start using their preferred pronouns. Metanoia. Repent. Turn around.
Jesus challenges us to turn around from the life stealing forces in our world of greed and grind culture. Jesus challenges us to turn around from systems of incarceration and hoarding of resources. Because it is those things that are really killing us! The system of the state killed those Galileans in order to maintain control over the masses. The tower collapsed perhaps because regulators were paid off to turn a blind eye. The systems in our world are killing people! So we must repent or we will perish.
So Jesus invites us to turn around from the life stealing ways and follow him into an existence where all are treated as worthy of life and life abundant. Like the fig tree, you are worthy to live and love and take up space before any fruit is produced! You deserve to grow and be tended to. So much in our world says you have to earn your way, you have to produce, you have to look this way, you have to act this way. But Jesus says “you are loved, just as you are” and “I am going to work with you to be the best possible version of yourself.”
So to those of us who are fig trees planted in the wrong places, may you feel your worth and be nourished so that in time you may grow fully into your purpose. To those of us who are “the man” and have power, may we be reminded of the inherent worth of each person and disrupt the systems that steal life so that all may thrive. And may we all be gardeners who provide nurture and care to all so that God’s green world may grow. Let the people say, Amen.