"Hard Questions and Second Chances" – 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. 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.’”
Today’s Gospel always makes me feel like we’ve walked into the middle of someone else’s conversation. Never mind that weird parable about the fig tree and the gardener, this stuff about the “blood of the Galileans,” and about those people “killed by the Tower of Siloam” are events not mentioned anywhere else in Scripture. So most of us need a little history and some context in order to make some sense of it all.
And what smarter people than me teach, is that there was more than one occasion where political unrest under Pontius Pilate led to ugly confrontations and uprisings between Roman officials and the local Jews, Samaritans, and other people of Galilee living under Roman rule. As you might imagine, these uprisings often led to the deaths of many people. So, when Jesus talked about “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” he was probably talking about something like that.
By the same token, nowhere else in the Bible is there any account of the Tower of Siloam collapsing. What we do know is that the Pool of Siloam – where Jesus once gave a blind man his sight back – was a ritual bathing pool, somewhere on the southside of Jerusalem. Apparently, at some time in the days prior to this Gospel story, a tower in the city wall near those pools collapsed and killed 18 people.
So, Jesus is asking rhetorical questions about these events – and answering them for whoever will listen. They were events anyone hearing him would have known all about. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” In other words, “Did the Galileans bring their fate upon themselves?” “Did they deserve to die because they were trouble-makers and rabble-rousers?” “Should they have known better than to get into it with the Romans?” “Should they have turned the other cheek?” According to Jesus, the answer is “no.”
And what about those people who were crushed by that falling tower? “Do you think they had it coming to them?” “Was their number up because they deserved something the rest of the city didn’t?” “Was God waiting for those 18 people to be in the right place at the wrong time so that they could be smited for their sins?” Again, according to Jesus, the answer is “no.”
If you’re still having trouble making sense of this – if you can’t quite get yourself back into first century Palestine – fast forward to February 28, 2016. If Jesus were having this conversation with us today, he might say, “What about those 6 people who lost their lives in Kalamazoo last week – at the crazy hands of that Uber driver? Did they deserve it?”
“Or what about the 42 people who were killed thanks to the cyclone that hit Fiji last week? Is their suffering a sign that they are somehow worse sinners than any of the rest of us?”
“Or, what about all those still homeless and hungry and hanging on by a thread in Haiti? Or how about the many who go hungry in our own country – something like 49 million people on any given day – is their suffering a sign that they are worse sinners than you or me?”
What about the 22-day old baby I helped to memorialize a week ago? Did she…? Did her parents…? Did her 4 year old big brother… do something to earn the emptiness, the sadness, the questions they must still be feeling as they grieve?
And what about Christ Barrett, or the long list of prayer concerns in our bulletin? What about all of that cancer? How about all of those surgeries? What about all of the sickness and struggle that’s sitting right here beside us today? At some point – and in instances so close to home – the rhetorical questions Jesus asks are hard to swallow – and maybe even a little offensive.
But that’s how Jesus means to get our attention and to assure us of something powerful. No, God has not arbitrarily chosen to punish some and not others. No, when people die by the sword or by accident or by natural disaster or by way of non-hodgkins lyphoma, God isn’t trying to teach them a lesson or heap vengeance upon them or show them who’s the boss. No, when bad things happen to good people it’s not a test or a sign or a chance to weed out the good, the bad, or the ugly.
In his own way, Jesus acknowledges that bad stuff happens and, even though he’s Jesus, he doesn’t try to explain it, or rationalize it, or pretend we can avoid it. What Jesus does is hold it up before our eyes and remind us that, more often than we’d like to admit, the gift of our lives is fragile and, more often than we’d like to admit, our lives come to their end – or at least encounter all kinds of struggle and sadness and disappointment along the way – without warning, without notice, without preparation, and without a whole lot of apparent mercy, too much of the time.
And then because of all of that… and because he’s Jesus... – when he tells that strange story of the fig tree and the gardener and the owner of the vineyard? – he gives us something faithful and loving and gracious to do about it all in the meantime.
See, too many in the world would chop down the tree that wasn’t producing and too many expect God to do the same. Which is why, I think, we are so inclined to blame collapsing towers and unexpected disasters and deadly diseases on “fate” or “doom” or “the will of God.”
But Jesus reminds us that “God’s will” is really all about second chances. God is like the owner of the vineyard, who gives us another year, or another day, or another minute to try again. To repent. To turn over new leaves. To plant different seeds. To try new ways of being in the world. To live new lives, in spite of ourselves.
See, I wonder if, when Jesus talks about "perishing," he's not so much suggesting we'll be smited or doomed or that we'll die as some sort of punishment for our sins. Instead, I wonder if Jesus means to point out nothing more and nothing less than the reality that we are already, always perishing, when we don't live up to God's greatest desires for our lives.
Because repentance means to change our ways. To be turned around. To live differently. In many ways, I think repentance might mean we let ourselves be changed by the struggles of others; that we open ourselves to the hardships that surround us; that we change our lives in order to make a difference in the lives of others. We can repent by being more generous. We can repent by doing with less. We can repent by living more humbly… by confessing our sins and meaning it… by receiving forgiveness and offering it up in ways that matter.
We can repent by acknowledging that our lives – however long or short they may turn out to be – are blessed, generous, grace-filled gifts from God. And we can repent by not pretending we’re owed any of it and by not taking any of this for granted, for one more second.
And Jesus shows up to inspire all of that. Jesus, the Gardener, has our back. The love of Jesus means to care for us; to tend to us; to nurture us and to nourish us, like a Gardener tending to a less-than-fruitful fig tree, until we begin to turn things around, until we begin to live with that kind of repentance.
As we continue our journey to the cross… as we continue to repent and to receive the forgiveness that’s promised to us there, we continue to draw close to this Jesus who doesn’t deny that evil exists, who doesn’t deny that death will come, who doesn’t pretend that this life of faith is an easy one every step of the way. (Calvary and his crucifixion make that clear.)
What we are promised is that ours is a God of second chances: second chances for turning and repentance and for change; second chances for love; second chances for forgiveness. And second chances – in spite of ourselves and the world where we live – for new life, for hope, and for joy in the love of Jesus Christ, who keeps tilling the soil of our hearts; who keeps working the land of our lives; who keeps patiently planting seeds and pulling weeds and choosing to give us another chance, until we get it right…until we rest assured in the hope of God’s life everlasting, in this world and the next.