Deborah Beach Giordano
© February 29, 2016
Luke 13:1–9 ~ as told by Deborah
The people there told Jesus about the Galileans murdered by Pilate while they were at worship.
“Let me ask you,” he said, “Do you think that this happened to them because they were more sinful than anyone else in Galilee? No, certainly not; but unless you change, you will all die the same way. Or those who were killed when that tower collapsed in Siloam — do you think that they were the worst sinners in town? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all die just as they did.”
Then Jesus told them a parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his orchard; at harvest time he found no fruit on it. So he told the gardener, ‘Look at this! For three long years I have waited for this fig tree to produce fruit, and there’s still nothing. Cut it down! It’s just taking up space.’
“The gardener answered, ‘Sir, give it another year; I’ll turn the soil and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, great; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”
The Fig and I
“This fig tree hasn’t produced a thing and I’m tired of waiting. Just cut it down.”
~ the landowner of the parable
Once again we are confronted by a parable that initially seems quite straightforward. Produce, or die. The grim reaper is standing by, ready to slice and dice us if we fail.
That’s how it sounds. Scary. Like a (not so veiled) threat. It makes me worry: have I accomplished enough? What kind of fig tree am I?
But maybe that’s not the point at all. Maybe what we need to do is step back and look at the story through Jesus’ eyes.
First of all, Jesus understood God as our “heavenly Father,” not a celestial terrorist. God is the giver of life, not its destroyer.
And this parable follows the Lord’s clear teaching that disasters and death are not punishments sent from above. Bad things can happen to good people. Pilate’s malice was responsible for the deaths of the Galileans, weaken masonry killed the victims in Siloam; those who died did not bring it on themselves by sin, nor could they have prevented it by living lives of perfect sanctity.
Jesus tells us that suffering and death has nothing to do with “the wrath of God.” The God revealed by Christ’s gospel is merciful, compassionate, and abounding in steadfast love. We don’t get zapped for our sins.
This is quite different from most human thinking. We are believers in the reward-punishment system, equating goodness with success, and wickedness with pain and failure (“He got what he deserved”).
If goodness is not rewarded, we’re indignant, and if evil befalls a person, we immediately seek a cause: “She should have known better than to go there,” “They were stupid to do that; it’s dangerous,” “He was driving too fast,” “She smoked for years,” — explanations and excuses to justify the harm that occurred. (And, as an added benefit, to convince ourselves that It Can’t Happen To Me.)
That kind of thinking is the dark side of the “prosperity gospel”: the distorted notion that when we do well, it is proof that God loves us.
While we should be grateful for the good things we enjoy — and good stewards of what we have — our successes should never make us smug or self-righteous. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. And sometimes good things happen to bad people.
God’s love for us is not affluence-based, except insofar as we are richly loved and abundantly cared-for. Our response to this love should be in kind: living as loving, compassionate people. We love because we are loved — not because we’re afraid of “getting the axe.”
The Owner of the Orchard
There’s another point I think Jesus is making by telling the parable when he does. It is “a man” who is impatient to cut down the unproductive tree. It is we human beings who demand instant gratification and “proof” of success. Unlike the human owner of the orchard, God isn’t interested in destroying those who don’t live up to their potential. How blessed we are that the Beloved isn’t like us: insisting on evidence of our fruitful status — or else.
“My thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord.
~ Isaiah 55:8
The Meaning of the Parable
Jesus ends the parable with the owner, the tree, and the gardener standing together: an image in timeless time. What happens next? Does the owner agree to a stay of execution? Does the gardener tend to the tree as promised? Does the tree improve, does it survive the winter, does it grow and flourish and produce much fruit in the years ahead? Or does it become firewood? We are not told how the situation turns out. Instead we are left to think about it and wonder what it means, and how it might apply to us.
Perhaps, as with dreams, we are every character in the story: the impatient owner, the unfruitful tree, and the capable gardener who is willing to work to improve the situation. Perhaps we need to consider ourselves from each of those aspects: the demands we make upon ourselves; the ways in which we fail to grow due to stubbornness, fear, or laziness; and the need to be patient, care-full, and nurturing to ourselves.
Yet we must not forget that Jesus issued a warning to his listeners that unless they — we — repent, we shall die, just like those who were murdered while at worship and the others who were killed in a building collapse. But if these deaths occurred regardless of the victims’ sins or sanctity, why should we worry about the state of our souls — it won’t stop the inevitable.
I think what is significant about these situations is their suddenness. These were unexpected deaths; no one was prepared for what happened. When Jesus speaks about dying “just like they did,” it is not a threat (because punishment had nothing to do with their deaths), but a call to everyday faithfulness. Be prepared, O my soul.
Life can end in an instant — in any instant; for the good and the bad alike. All at once, without warning, shots may ring out, a car may crash, a bridge collapse, a loved one may die. Suddenly all will be over. We will not have time to make amends, to forgive and ask forgiveness, to say “I love you,” to be grateful, to be kinder, gentler, more patient.
We put off for tomorrow the genuinely important things we intend to do, behaving as if we have all of the time in the world; as if we think we’ll live forever. Caught up in the details of everyday life, we forget what ultimately matters. We are unkind, ungrateful, uncharitable, unChristian.
And then one day, in an instant, it is over. No more time, no more opportunities to do what we meant to do; no more chances to live our lives as we intended to do.
We should always be “ready to die”: our hearts content, our spirits peaceful, our consciences clear; prepared to make the Great Transition with no regrets. Our death may happen suddenly, but we will not be taken “by surprise.”
Death is not the tragedy; the tragedy is to die before we have learned how to live.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
This Week’s Suggested Spiritual Exercise
What would you do if you knew you were going to die today?
A Gift of Music
Pilgrim, lyrics by Nicky Ryan, Roma Ryan, and Enya; © 2000; all rights reserved