Today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke is a difficult passage to read. It seems a little confusing. When the people who were gathered told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate killed in the Temple in Jerusalem, he asked them a question. Do you think that those Galileans suffered their fate because they were worse sinners than other Galileans? Jesus also answered the question No, I tell you.
He asked them again, do you think those eighteen people who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them died because they were worse offenders than all the other people living in Jerusalem? Again he answered, No, I tell you.
Jesus’ response was not a half-hearted no. It was an emphatic NO. But then he goes on and tells those gathered that unless they repent, they will perish just as the others had. This is where it can get confusing. First, Jesus tells them those people did not die because of their sinfulness, and then he tells those gathered that they need to repent or they will suffer the same fate as the others.
When we read this at face value, it sounds like Jesus is contradicting himself. Fortunately we have also been given some “tools” to help us understand this message. One of those tools is the parable that Jesus tells about the fig tree. Understanding that figs and fig trees are often used as metaphors for Israel and Judah, the subject of the story turns from the Galileans and the people living in Jerusalem, and turns toward God and God’s faithfulness to the covenant and God’s mercy and patience towards humanity.
We as humans don’t always live the way we are called to live. We tend to follow our own agenda, work for what we like, look out for our own welfare more than we do others. We tend to give to others out of our excess instead of sacrificially. We tend to not get involved in matters of human rights until our own are threatened. God is patient, ridiculously patient.
I imagine many in this congregation can relate to this parable. Many are farmers or gardeners. When your livelihood depends upon plants producing, you don’t want plants that don’t produce taking up space or using the nutrients from the soil that could be used for a plant that does produce. The logical thing to do is to pull that plant up and replace it with one that does produce.
In our society, we tend to treat people the same way. In organized sports, teams are always looking for new and better talent. If an athlete doesn’t produce, they are traded or benched and replaced with one who can produce. In some businesses, one is only as good as their last month, and if one has a bad month, they could be replaced with someone who shows promise to produce more.
But this is not always the case, and it is not the case with God. I had a longtime family friend who was passionate about raising orchids as a hobby. He went all out. He built a greenhouse in his backyard. He cared for each orchid as if it were his child. He would spend hours each week in that greenhouse carefully attending his plants, giving them just the right amount of water, the right amount of nutrients, making sure the temperature was the correct temperature for the plants, and making sure they get just the right amount of light.
If one of his orchids did not grow properly and produce, he would work with it, nurture it, fertilize it, and give it a little more care until it did produce. I can’t remember him ever discarding one.
Whenever we would visit, he would take us into his greenhouse and show us his orchids. He was so proud of them and how well they were growing. He was so proud of what his care and nurture accomplished.
I imagine this is a little bit like how God feels about us, and I feel that is what this parable is all about. God is always ready for us to repent and turn back to God, always ready to welcome us as the father welcomed the prodigal son. God is willing to wait longer than a reasonable time for us. God is willing to do amazing amounts of work to seek us, to nurture us, and to help us bear fruit.
If we were a fig tree, God would tend to the soil, aerating it so the moisture and nutrients could work their way down to our roots. God would fertilize us so we would have what we need to produce fruit abundantly.
Isn’t this what God does for us as humans? God created us and the world in which we live. When humans rejected God and turned away, God sent prophets to try and turn us back. When the world rejected the prophets, God sent his own Son to come and live as a human, to be a human. Jesus lived among people and experienced the joys and the suffering we humans experience. He experienced love as a human. He experienced the loss of loved ones as a human. He saw what diseases and disabilities did to people, and how others treated people with disabilities. He witnessed how people treated those different from themselves. He experienced firsthand the cruelty humans can show towards each other.
Yet he taught love and forgiveness. He calls us humans to live with each other in peace, in community with God and with each other. Yet, we continue to build barriers separating us from those who differ from us; sometimes these are physical barriers, sometimes they are legal barriers, and sometimes they are verbal barriers in the form of dehumanizing labels.
He calls us to help the poor, feed the hungry, house the homeless, yet as we drive through our communities, we see people standing on the street corners, begging for help. In this, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, we have not found a way to end homelessness and hunger.
Jesus calls us to love God with all of our heart, our souls, our mind and our strength. Yet many people continue to turn their back on God and go about their lives as if God doesn’t exist. And it seems some people in America are trying to eliminate God from our public lives. There are groups who want to remove “In God we trust” from our currency, and groups who want to remove “Under God” from our pledge of allegiance. Plaques with the Ten Commandments are being ordered out of our courthouses. Prayer in schools and at school functions is not allowed.
Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Yet we often hear news of people killing other people, or of people having road rage instead of being patient, or of young people bullying each other in our schools. Businesses these days seem more concerned with the bottom line than with the welfare of their employees.
Sometimes when I look at what is going on in this world, with all the violence, the wars, the hatred and fear, the greed and deception, I feel the human race hasn’t made much progress towards following Jesus and answering his call on our lives. We haven’t made much progress in helping the poor, the hungry, and the homeless. We haven’t made much progress towards living in community with each other and with God. We haven’t made much progress toward loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and we haven’t made much progress towards loving our neighbors as ourselves.
God loves us, God is patient with us, and God forgives us. God continues to work to bring us back. God continues to nourish us spiritually as the gardener works the soil and fertilizes the plant to help it produce. God sent Jesus to show us the way and in this season of Lent, as we reflect on our lives, we discern where we have strayed. God is patient. God is forgiving. God is waiting for us, all of us, all of humanity, to come home. God is waiting with outstretched arms to welcome us.
In this season of Lent, as we follow Jesus to Jerusalem and to the Cross, let us remember what he has done for us, how he willingly gave up his life, how he suffered at the hands of humans, how he sent God’s Holy Spirit to be with us, how he loved us and still loves us. Let us repent of our sins and recommit ourselves to follow Jesus as his disciples. Let us continue to do what we can to bring peace to this world, to end hunger and homelessness, to break down the barriers that continue to divide God’s children, preventing us from living in community with God and all of God’s creation. Let us continue to let the light of Jesus shine through us for others. Let us continue to let others see and experience the love of Jesus though us, the same love that we experience from Jesus.
Let us pray:
"Lord, make us an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that we may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life."
Amen and Amen.