1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2[Jesus] asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?…
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.’ ”
Our Lenten journey arrives at the halfway point today… and along with Jesus we have been wandering the wilderness. From the desert wilderness of temptation to the center of human chaos in Jerusalem. Jesus lamented over God’s people bustling and scurrying about. But now the questions begin coming, the obliviousness of the crowds is fading, the un-veneered truth is breaking through the humdrum of human busy-ness. Today, the questions are big and the answers are vague… yet amidst all that, Jesus reveals again something about ourselves and about God.
Now, before going any further, there is something about biblical wilderness that you ought to know. Normally, we see wilderness as the place of danger and peril, the place of exile and isolation. Wilderness found in the bible is something else, something holy and sacramental almost. In the familiar stories of faith, wilderness is the place of prophets and messiahs. Abraham is sent away from his homeland into the wilderness with only Sarah and God at his side. Moses escapes the dangers of Egypt only to be found by the burning bush in the wilderness. Elijah escapes occupied Jerusalem to be provided for by God in the wilderness. The Israelites leave slavery to return to the God of their ancestors in the wilderness.
In the bible, to enter into true wilderness is to leave the chaos of human life behind for a time, to be brought closer to God’s presence. And so our Lenten wilderness is exactly that, not a time of danger or worry, but a moment to come closer to God.
But along side our Lenten wilderness journey is something different. There is also the reality and harshness of creation. The crowds comes today to Jesus with their questions about the world, questions about cruelty and suffering, about sin and death. And their questions are our questions. They ask Jesus about the worshippers, Galilean pilgrims, that Pilate had murdered while they worshipped in the temple. They want to know who is to blame, if the pilgrims had somehow brought the violence on themselves.
This of course is a familiar notion these days as the entire world continues to reel from the murder of 50 worshippers into two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. There are some out there that have asked if they two somehow brought this violence on themselves. But most, like those who came to Jesus are simply wondering why?
So Jesus brings up another tragedy in the recent memory of the people of Jerusalem, a construction project gone wrong, a tower collapsing and falling on 18 workers. Jesus asks rhetorically if these are also to blame for the calamity that befell them.
And again, we are reminded of the Ethiopian Airlines crash and the 157 people who died in that disaster. Were the pilots to blame or the aircraft builders. Again the question is why? Followed by, can this arbitrary violence and suffering come to us?
In both cases Jesus condemns the idea that somehow the victims are to blame. And today, he would do the same.
And then he tells a somewhat curious parable. One about a fig tree that had not born any fruit, for 3 years… And the landowner was ready to give up on it. Yet the gardener asks for one more year. Curious indeed.
These are complicated questions for this 3rd Sunday in Lent. Complicated questions that have something to say about our world in the midst of our questions and grieving. Questions about the things that we have no answers ourselves for. Why do we suffer? Why is violence so arbitrary? Why is hatred so seemingly common place?
On some level we know that we contribute to the problem. We know that, indeed, our sinful and selfish tendencies as human beings bear some of the blame. Whether it is someone falling into a rabbit hole of twisted ideology and othering that results in a heinous act of terrorism, or the obvious corruption and self interest of so many in power who simply wring their hands and offer thoughts and prayers as the solution to the problems of terror and violence. And then we also know that even in small ways we daily put ourselves ahead of others… we know that we are found somewhere in this mess.
But Jesus isn’t just rejecting the idea that the victim is to blame… Jesus is redirecting the focus of the crowds who have come with their questions. Jesus is pointing to the big picture.
The parable of the fig tree is a reminder that the big picture matters.
The landowner comes to his unproductive fig tree with all our questions, all our assumptions. Why hasn’t the tree produced? What is wrong with the tree? What has the tree done or failed to do?
The gardener sees the big picture… the gardener knows its about so much more than the tree.
The soil, the water, the shade, the root system, the weather, the pruning, the fertilizer and so on and on.
“Give it another year” He says
And all of sudden suffering and violence and sin and death are pushed aside. And there is grace and mercy and reprieve.
“Give it another year.”
And a global community gathers around families and communities torn by tragedy. Investigations begin up provide answers, and questions about plane safety are asked.
And high school students in New Zealand stand together and perform the Maori Hakas to honour the dead and to show resolve and strength. Biker gangs stand watch outside mosques so that prayers can be offered up in safety. And laws are introduced so future violent acts can be limited before they ever begin.
“Give it another year.”
You see, there is always more to the story, more to know and understand. And the big picture, the big picture is where grace and mercy come. The big picture is God’s surrounding our mess and chaos with love and compassion.
The big picture is the reminder that the gardener knows how to to turn suffering and violence and sin and death away. The gardener knows how to grow new and unexpected life. The gardener is knows that new life will always surprise and always come when we don’t expect it to.
The gardener knows what we do not… that repentance and transformation always begin from God’s end, from God working our soil, watering us in baptism, shading us in the word, feeding us to produce good fruit with bread and wine.
“Give it another year.” Jesus says about us.
The gardener is the Christ who sees what comes after failure and axes and death.
The Gardener is the Christ who knows that there will be new life and an empty tomb.
That tragedy and violence might shake us, that sin and death are always around in the messiness of human existence is certain.
But that God in Christ is also with us, walking along side us.
Despite all the things that push us to death and threaten to destroy, God in Christ has the final say. Christ is the one who defines us, who names and claims us, who declares that sin and death will not be our end.
It is the Christ who hears the questions about murdered worshippers and those who have died in tragic accidents who also is the one who goes to Good Friday and Golgatha — to cross and grave.
And it is this Christ who will not let us be ended by the harshness of our existence, who instead will walk with us from wilderness into our messy existence.
It is the Christ who shows up at falling towers and crashing planes,
The Christ who stands vigil and watch with grieving families in Galilee and Christchurch.
It is the Christ who walks out of the tomb and who declares,
“You have been given another year.”