God’s Will for Grace and Second Chances
Luke 13:1-9 (NRSV)
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.’”
I found myself wondering this week about “these people” who are talking to Jesus today. Just before what we heard in chapter 13, Jesus is talking back and forth to the disciples, to the crowds, about the Pharisees, to Peter individually, and so on.
And then, here, we’re told there were “some present” – some number; a handful, maybe; a group of friends, perhaps; some strangers passing by who wanted to see what the gathering as all about. Whatever the case, they seem to be separate from “the crowds” mentioned before. They aren’t the disciples. It wasn’t Peter or the Pharisees, it seems. Just some people… wondering some things… asking some questions… thinking out loud, perhaps… challenging Jesus, maybe, to make some sense of some hard stuff they’d been hearing about and dealing with, lately.
It doesn’t really matter so much, except that I like to think they were just some average bears, like you and me, asking some hard questions about what was up with the world these days.
In those days there was more than one occasion where political unrest led to some ugly uprisings between Roman officials and the local Jews, Samaritans, and other people of Galilee living under Rome’s rule. These uprisings often led to the deaths of many people. So, when the locals talked about “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” they were probably talking about the latest news cycle.
And even though we don’t read about it anywhere else in the Bible, there was also, apparently, some recent news about the Tower of Siloam collapsing. We do know there was a Pool of Siloam, where Jesus once gave a blind man his sight back, somewhere on the southside of Jerusalem – maybe near the Slippery Noodle or by Lucas Oil Stadium. Apparently, at some time in the days prior to this Gospel story, a tower in the city wall near those pools collapsed and 18 people died.
So, Jesus asks some rhetorical questions about these events – and answers them for whoever’s listening. And anyone around would have known what he was talking about. “Did the Galileans who suffered in this way bring their fate upon themselves?” “Did they deserve to die because they were trouble-makers?” “Should they have kept to themselves?” “Should they have known better than to get into it with the Romans?” According to Jesus, the answer is “no.”
And what about the 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 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 March 24, 2019. If Jesus were having this conversation with us today, we might say, “What about those 50 people who were gunned down in those mosques in New Zealand – at the crazy hands of that white supremacist terrorist? Did they deserve it? Was it God’s will?”
“Or what about the handful of people – 4, I think – who were killed in the floods in Nebraska and Iowa? Is their suffering a sign that they are somehow worse sinners than any of the rest of us?”
“Or, what about the 23 who were killed because of that tornado in Alabama at the beginning of March? Three of them were children. What could they possibly have done to deserve that?”
“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? Or what about all those who will shiver their way through the cold and rain that’s on the way this afternoon? Is their suffering a sign that they are worse sinners than you or me?”
And what about Joe Richards? What about his parents, Pete and Sally? What about Sam Rigsbee and his family? 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 – if not, even, a little insensitive.
But all of that is just 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 stroke or heart-attack or cancer, God isn’t trying to teach them a lesson or heap vengeance upon them or show them who the boss is. No, when bad things happen to good people – or when bad things happen to bad people – it’s not a test or a sign or a chance to weed out the good, the bad, or the ugly.
Bad stuff happens and Jesus doesn’t try to explain it, or rationalize it, or pretend we can avoid it. He holds it up before our eyes and reminds 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? – it seems like a non-sequitur, this parable, but with it, Jesus 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 grace and 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.
Because repentance means to change and to be changed. To turn and to be turned around. To live differently.
I think repentance might mean we let ourselves be changed by struggle – our own struggles and the struggles of others, too; 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 this and by not taking any of our blessing and good fortune for granted, for one more moment.
And Jesus, the Gardener in the parable, has our back. The love of Jesus means to care for us; to tend to us; to nurture 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 differently, with a meaningful, life-changing, life-giving 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 easy every step of the way. (The cross of Calvary and his crucifixion make that clear.)
What we are promised is that ours is a God of second chances: second chances for turning, for 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.