A Waste of Soil?
Homily: Yr C Lent 3, Feb 28 2016, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 55.1-9, Ps 63.1-8; 1 Cor 1.18-25; Luke 13.1-9
I think that Jesus is angry in today’s Gospel reading. If not angry, then certainly blunt and to the point. Let’s set the context. Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem. He and his group of Galilean followers are on the move, and they are aware of a growing tension with the authorities as they make their way towards the capital city. And so it’s almost inevitable that someone, sooner or later, is going to talk about the recent tragedy, the group of Galileans who went to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple but who upon arrival were murdered by Pilate, the ruthless Roman governor of Jerusalem and Judea. Tragedies, mass murders like that have a way of getting our attention, especially when they strike so close to home.
And in the face of calamity and suffering we often ask questions. Why do we suffer? Why did this happen? Why did this happen to them? And, I suppose the flip side to that question: could it happen to me?
These are the sort of questions we ask, in the wake of the shootings in La Loche, or the Paris attack, or a cancer diagnosis.
These are the sort of questions that were being asked in our gospel reading this morning. And sooner or later, somebody voiced one of the common responses, an ancient theological response that was frequently heard in Jesus’ day, and is still around in our own time. A response that tries to put some sort of structure around our chaotic world, that tries to restore to us a measure of control when faced with the fragility of life.
“Maybe they suffered in this way because God was punishing them for their sins.”
And that’s when Jesus gets angry.
“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.”
And just in case his listeners didn’t get the point the first time, Jesus brings up another tragedy, the collapse of a tower in Jerusalem which killed eighteen people.
“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.”
So let’s be crystal clear about this: Suffering does not happen because God is punishing us for our sins. Yes there is suffering in our world. We know that. Yes, human sin can cause suffering. We know that too. Pilate’s sin so far as we know was the direct cause of the death of those Galileans. But God does not cause human suffering nor does God delight in human suffering. People do not die because God wants another angel in heaven. Tragedies are not ‘all part of God’s plan.’ Falling towers that crush people are not part of any divine plan nor do they have anything to do with divine justice. Jesus says so, clearly. Twice. Here and in other places such as the encounter with the man born blind that is recorded in the Gospel of John.
“No I tell you.”
And then he says, “But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
So maybe we should talk a bit about repentance. Repentance is one of our themes during the season of Lent, something we are called to do, just as Jesus is calling us to repent in today’s gospel.
But what do we mean by repentance. Too often when we use the word ‘repent’, we think of it in narrow ethical terms, such as being sorry for what we’ve done, or doing penance for our misdoings, or changing our sinful ways. And while repentance may well and often does have ethical implications, it is not primarily an ethical concept.
Repentance, the greek word metanoia, is much more about a change in perspective, a reorientation, a new way of thinking, a changed way of seeing. Repentance is about discovery.
The classic example in Greek philosophy of repentance, metanoia, is Plato’s story of the cave. Plato imagines a group of prisoners shackled in a cave from birth with their heads bound so that they can only look at the wall opposite the cave opening. The light from outside enters the cave from behind them and as people and objects pass in front of the cave opening, the prisoners can only see their shadows moving on the wall in front of them. These shadows are all that the prisoners can see of the world. The shadows are their world. But then one day, the prisoners are released and made to turn around. And in turning away from the wall of shadows and towards the opening, their eyes are dazzled by the light, and they see for the first time the real, living, people and the colourful three dimensional objects that were creating the shadows on the wall. They discovered for the first time that there was much more to life and to reality than the shadow world of the cave which they had grown up in.
That’s metanoia. That’s repentance. It’s the discovery that there’s more to life than the world of the shadows. When Jesus talks about repentance he’s talking about discovering and coming to know who God is. And when you discover who God is, it will blow your mind. It will be so dazzling and so disruptive that you may well wish to return to the comfortable confines of your shadow world. That is in fact what happened in Plato’s story of the caves. When confronted with their dazzling new reality, many of the prisoners retreated back into the familiar shadows.
Jesus is issuing a call for repentance. He is urging us to a discovery of who God is. And so he tells a story, a story which functions in two ways. The story of the fig tree can help us discover who God is but at the same time it illustrates how easy it is for us to retreat back into our cave.
“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? The gardener 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.”
I have often heard this parable interpreted as an allegory and the interpretation goes like this: the man who wants the fig tree cut down is taken to be God the Father, the gardener who pleads on behalf of the tree is taken to be Jesus, and the unfruitful tree is taken to be one of us, someone who is in the wrong because of the failure to produce fruit. Using this framework the parable is taken as an example of how Jesus saves sinners from the judgement of God.
Can I be blunt? That is an absolutely terrible interpretation of this parable. Jesus has just emphatically told his disciples twice that God does not cause suffering as a way of punishing us for our sins. The God who creates us and loves us would never say to any one of us that you are a waste of soil. Jesus would never portray God that way, would never have God belittle our worth as his beloved children. That is not the God that is presented in the Gospel of Luke, it is not the God revealed to us in Jesus. The Son and the Father are not in opposition, there is no identity disorder in the heart of the Triune God.
No, if we want to insist on treating this parable as an allegory, we need to change the characters. The man who wants to cut down the tree? That becomes us, our world, our society, our culture. We are the ones who make judgments on the worth of others. We’re the ones who operate systems of reward and punishment. We are the ones who can go so far as to consider certain of our fellows to be a waste of soil, or, as I’ve heard said, a waste of oxygen.
But then who is God? God is the gardener. God is the one, who in opposition to the voice that says this tree is a waste of soil insists that, no, this tree is deserving of the very best soil, and offers Godself in service to the tree to work to improve its soil and situation.
Who is God? God is like the gardener who in opposition to those who say that this tree is a waste of time says, no, this tree is worth my time, give me another full year to tend to it.
Jesus’ story is an invitation to discover God. A God who is gracious and loving, full of compassion and mercy, a God, who in the words of Isaiah in our first reading, is a God of sure and steadfast love and abundant pardon. To repent is to discover this God, to discover who God is.
And to live without ever knowing this God and his grace and his love for you is to perish, to return to the world of shadows.
And so Jesus calls us to repentance. To a reorientation. To discover that life is more than the shadows. To discover who God is. And to do it now, because it’s urgent.
It’s urgent because without repentance, we do damage to ourselves and to each other. When we think and judge and behave like the man who wants to cut down the tree, or worse, when we think that that is what God is like, we can cause great harm. To think, to tell another person, or to act towards another as if they are a waste of soil or a waste of oxygen, is absolutely brutal, for us and for them. And yet, it happens all the time, in our lives, in our theologies, in our churches, in our world. Likely, there are times when you have been on the receiving end. And, likely, there are times when you have dished it out, or stood by silently while it happened.
Over these next few weeks, in his stories, and in his actions, with lost sheep and prodigal sons, with costly perfume and washed feet and finally with the cross, Jesus will call us over and over again to discover who God is, and God’s grace. It is a call for repentance.
Lord have mercy.
Image of Fig Tree by Lex McKee