Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent
February 28, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
People make bad choices all the time. Sometimes the results are tragic, and sometimes they are quite entertaining, like famous people embarrassing themselves. Sometimes other people jump at the opportunity to exploit other people’s mistakes, and sometimes people respond to them with grace.
It’s a mistake to interpret Jesus’s parable of the fig tree as an allegory. Some people will tell you that the vineyard owner, the man who orders the fig tree planted, represents God, and the gardener, who begs for mercy when the owner wants to destroy the tree, represents Jesus, and the tree represents us — or maybe it represents a person or group we think should be behaving differently. But this makes no sense, in part because it’s inconsistent with the rest of Luke’s theology, in part because it portrays a disagreement between two Persons of the Trinity, and in part because trees can’t sin, and often outlive the people who plant them. When a tree fails to bear fruit, is never because of the tree’s moral failing or obstinacy or pride. The tree could be diseased, or it may have been planted in the wrong place, or improperly tended.
While the parable is not a metaphor for persons, I think it is a metaphor for phenomena. Which is related to the first half of the reading, where Jesus talks about phenomena that were troubling his audience. They were concerned about the unsettling news of their day, and their concerns were exacerbated by bad theology. The idea that God punished bad people with disasters, and rewarded good people with luck and prosperity, was even more popular then than it is now. Jesus had no time for that. He points out that sometimes good people suffer precisely because they were good, citing a recent incident when Pontius Pilate brutally murdered faithful Jewish pilgrims from his own homeland of Galilee. In Luke’s narrative, of course, this also functions as foreshadowing. Then Jesus points out that sometimes people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. When people were killed in a building collapse, it was not because God had manipulated them into standing there, it was because the tower was structurally unsound. In both cases, the people who suffer never see it coming; if they had, they wouldn’t have been there.
We don’t want to think about it, but deep down we know that Jesus is right, that we don’t know how much time we have, or whether we will suffer or prosper. That’s why we are tempted to rationalize events that challenge our world-view. Because this also means that when things are going well for us, it’s not because God is so impressed that he’s granting us favors; it could be that we’re in the right place at the right time.
The fig tree in the parable doesn’t know that there is an argument going on about whether it should be cut down. If it were sentient, it could very well conclude that the gardener is fertilizing it because he is pleased with its barrenness, and that it should remain barren in order to get more.
In other words, our circumstances are not God. Our luck is not God. Our health and wealth and pain are not God. So do not worship them, and do not put your faith in them. They don’t love you, and they won’t last.
Jesus didn’t engage in ministry in order to help people accept the inevitable. He proclaimed good news, not fatalism. The good news is that God is love, and God is always with us, through good times and bad, with us to the end, no matter how or when. And while God does not guarantee that this life will be easy or fair, God does offer a rich, full, and everlasting life, and sent Jesus to help us choose it.
Unlike trees, we do get a choice, and our choices matter. We can choose to narrow the gap between ourselves and God. Sometimes we get the opportunity to make a great leap, but more often our spiritual progress takes the form of steady, measured progress. And even when we fail, God does not exploit the opportunity to punish us. God isn’t some monster with a sack full of torment he’s just waiting for an excuse to unload on us. Rather, in our sins, God finds opportunities to strengthen and nourish us. When our mistakes catch up with us, when we reap what we’ve sown, and recognize that we’ve done wrong, this humility born of suffering is the manure that nourishes us. God is so gracious that God uses our sins as avenues of blessing, and the growth that ensues in us gives glory to God.
So have faith in God, and persist in your efforts to live a more Godly life. The world may or may not reward you, but God is always faithful to us. God loves us, blesses us, and keeps us, now and always.