1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 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? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6 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. 7 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?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Let us pray. O Lord, Uphold me, that I might uplift thee. Amen.
My grandmother had a cross-stitched saying above her sink. “Who plants a seed beneath the sod and waits to see believes in God.” It was titled the gardener’s prayer. Her yard was covered with daffodils. I knew her as the fun loving master of the game of Simon says. “Simon didn’t say!” back to square one we’d go, having a ball. But, this woman from what I know now did not have an easy life. Perhaps that is what drew her to tending African violets, these houseplants that are famously fussy. It sounds like my grandfather led the household like a game of Simon says. They were at square one a number of times. I think of her at that sink sometimes, praying that prayer, and trusting that God was with her.
Today’s text is about rugged seasons of life. If you have ever gone through a time of suffering, real suffering, the divorce, the hospital stays where time was measured by the shift changes scribbled on the dry erase board, the greyed-out reality of depression, the shock of a death, if you’ve seen war or natural disasters like what is playing out on the news, then you know our theology is grabbing God by the sleeve and refusing to let go. It’s sitting in the back of the church and staring into the eyeballs of God as hymns wash over you wave upon wave. Faith becomes as essential as air. It’s a load bearing wall in life.
That is how I imagine today’s story in Luke starting off. People came up to Jesus, waving a newspaper saying, “How in God’s name do you explain this, Jesus? Senseless tragedy. Violence in a place that was supposed to be safe and holy. What did these people do to deserve this?” That might be the most asked question to any pastor. After a God-awful thing happens to someone you love, or to you personally! Why? What kind of God would do this to people?
Jesus met the people in their heartbreaking question. He always seems to meet people where they are. He asked, “Are you wondering if these folks who suffered were worse sinners than anyone else? If they brought this on themselves? No. I tell you.”
No. That’s not it. That’s never it. God loves you. How many ways do I have say it, Jesus wonders? He’d eventually give his life on the cross to answer this question. But in this moment, Jesus called the people to repent. Repent is a Lent-y word that means think differently. Change the direction of your thoughts on this. You’re headed in the wrong way. And that’s when he gives them this parable.
Imagine a disappointing fig tree, he says. Imagine a vineyard owner who wants it to be ripped out. Imagine the years of waiting for something worthwhile to grow there. And there was nothing. No figs at all. Imagine seeing nothing in that tree but loss. Can you see that empty tree?
Of course, they can.
Many people read this parable and assume God is the vineyard owner. Many people assume God is fed up. God is going to tear this tree up from its roots because our lives have not yielded anything. Many people read this story to mean: If we don’t repent, we are as worthless as a barren fig tree, so no wonder God visits pain upon us. It’s so we will finally learn. Others face suffering and abandon the whole idea of God, but then, they often substitute ideas just as unforgiving… like genetics or physics or politics… which also feel like inescapable powers that are not on your side.
Here’s the cool part: Parables always have a surprising twist to them. They always upend conventional wisdom. They are stories meant to disorient and challenge people, not confirm the biases people have already. In those days, many people believed the gods were as fickle and punitive as human beings. Either that or they relied on cold hard logic. So, as in all of Jesus’ parables, he is unearthing, challenging and uprooting the standard way of thinking.
In the Gospel of Luke, it’s important to know that God is rarely cast as the vineyard owner. That is often the role that Scripture uses to describe people. How hard we are on ourselves. How merciless we are with each other. How quick we are to judge. We know that voice, don’t we? The voice that says, “After all I gave to that church! After all I poured into that marriage! After three years slaving for that job! What did it get me? Not one single fig.” We know that urge to uproot, don’t we? “We are moving. I am quitting. I have no choice but to step back.” I believe that in this parable the voice of the land owner is us.
So, who then is the other character here?
The other voice is that of a gutsy gardener. (Note: With thanks to Rev. Joe Clifford for his observations about this in his strong paper for The Well, our annual lectionary preaching group.)
In the story of the Scripture, God is more often depicted as the gardener. Remember the story of Genesis? God is the gardener who gives Adam and Eve all they need to flourish. Remember the story of Easter? Jesus is in the garden transforming even betrayal and death into new life. And in this parable, it is the gardener who refuses to give up on the fig tree. The gardener says… let me have another year. Let me give this tree some space. Let me spread some manure. The gardener believes, knows that life will come. The gardener knows that fruit will come, knows that it will be well and good. And even so, the gardener does not force the vineyard owner to accept this fact. He says, “If after a year, you still don’t like the results, you cut down the tree yourself.” As I hear this parable, it seems like God is the gutsy gardener who does not give up on the tree. God is the gutsy gardener who knows space and time and yes, even manure, will bring growth. Do we believe that? This is not an idle question.
Did you know that our view of God affects our brains? People who believe in a punishing God get increased activation in their amygdala, which is the part of the brain that coordinates fear and anger. They get angry more easily, and that increased anger makes it hard for them to forgive themselves when they fail. And because they can’t forgive themselves, they can’t forgive other people either. It fuels the tribalism and fear of the other that we see on the political extremes. If you believe God is a divine police officer, it can be helpful with impulse control on a short-term basis. You are not going to eat that cookie if you think God will smite you, but after a while, it can make you into a fearful person with chronic stress. It can make you prone to powerlessness.
And on the flip side, when you look at someone who believes God’s primary attributes are love and mercy, their blood pressure is lower. Their stress levels decrease. And a very different picture appears in brain imaging studies.
There are really fascinating structural changes in the brain. First, there is a thickening or richening of gray matter in the part of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex (https://relevantmagazine.com/god/how-your-brain-wired-god, also as Mike McHargue, aka “Science Mike,” described on the podcast, For the Love, with Jen Hatmaker). I love this part of the brain because it’s where empathy and compassion emerge. And then, there is a richening and a thickening in your prefrontal cortexes, which is where willpower and agency and intentionality live.
So, people who believe in a loving God become more compassionate, more thoughtful, and more patient people, who are less fearful of people who are different than they are, and they find it easy to forgive themselves and forgive other people.
Today, I want to make one point: How we see God matters.
If we worship a gutsy gardener God, we are much less apt to see suffering as something that is done to us, as punishment, and more likely to see God as making space, bringing growth, and insisting on life, even if things smell like manure sometimes.
One of the best books I have ever read about suffering was by Gerry Sittser. It’s called A Grace Disguised.Sittser was a theology professor, and one awful day, he lost his mother, his wife of two decades, and his daughter in a car wreck. He faced a kind of loss that was immobilizing. He sank into a darkness that he thought would swallow him whole, along with his two remaining traumatized children. But, somehow, it did not. He wrote this:
Initially my loss was so overwhelming to me that it was the dominant emotion – sometimes the only emotion I had. I felt like I was staring at the stump of a huge tree that had just been cut down in my backyard. That stump, which sat all alone, kept reminding me of the beloved tree that I had lost. I could think of nothing but that tree. Every time I looked out the window, all I could see was that stump. Eventually, however, I decided to do something about it. I landscaped my backyard, reclaiming it once again as my own. I decided to keep the stump there, since it was both too big and too precious to remove. Instead of getting rid of it, I worked around it. I planted shrubs, trees, flowers and grass. I laid out a brick pathway and built two benches. Then I watched everything grow. Now, three years later, the stump remains, still reminding me of the beloved tree I lost. But the stump is surrounded by a beautiful garden of blooming flowers and growing trees and lush grass. Likewise, the sorrow I feel remains, but I have tried to create a landscape around the loss so that what was once ugly is now an integral part of a larger, lovely whole.
That is the work of the gutsy gardener.
Did you read about people from 165 countries using Airbnb to book rooms they never intend to use to funnel $17,000,000 to people in Ukraine? Or 36,000 people who used the platform to offer their home to refugees?
That is the work of the gutsy gardener. That is the work of a God who does not give up on us. From cross to grave to garden of new life, God will not let us go. Maybe we need that cross-stitched near the sink or maybe it’s written on our heart, but it sounds like this:
The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope ensures.
He will my strength and portion be, as long as life endures.
May it be so.