Wasting the Soil
When I first consulted my Bible to see the texts appointed for today’s sermon, I was taken aback. My Bible has headings – brief titles – before each section. The title for this morning’s Gospel passage is “Repent or Perish.” As a preacher, I’ve been described in many ways, but “Prophet of Doom” has never been one of them. Fortunately for me (but most of all for you!) our Gospel text is so much more subtle, so much more grace-filled, than one modern-day editor’s three word inserted heading.
It seems that some who were in the company of Jesus – we don’t know who – had heard a terrible true story, and they shared it with him. There had been some Jews in Galilee – Jesus’ own home region – who, in the midst of making a sacrifice to God were killed in cold blood by the soldiers of Pontius Pilate. Pilate, then, had taken their precious blood and mingled it with the blood of the animals they had sacrificed. What a mockery of their holy ritual! What an unspeakable statement that the lives – the worth – of these Jews was like that of animals, sub-human. What a horrendous waste of human life – people whose families would never be the same for the grief. And to think that they were praying to God when run through with swords. It’s not an ancient story only, of course. Bishop Oscar Romero, a champion of social justice in El Salvador, was shot as he lifted the communion chalice; hundreds in churches in Rwanda were butchered on their knees in prayer; in a small town in Guatemala, in the early `80’s, worshippers were pulled out of church, one by one, and tortured and killed. (My husband and I lived briefly in that town. We would pray in that beautiful church. We would look at the angels carved into the ceiling, who were looking down on us, and shudder to think what they had seen.) Little girls in Sunday School have been blown up in our own country. Those praying in Mosques in Iraq and Pakistan have been blown to bits. In Jesus’ time, as in our own, a special indignity – an inhumanity – was felt to accrue when innocents were killed as they worshipped their God.
Jesus hears the story of his fellow Galileans and the first thing he wants to know, to understand, is how the people around him are making sense of the tragedy. “Do you think,” he asks, “that because they died so horribly and so unjustly that there MUST have been something about them that caused it – that they must have had some awful, awful sin to their credit to earn such a fate?” He answers that question himself, and his answer is pure mercy.
We generally think of “yes” as the desired response to questions. It is positive. It is affirming. It is our heart’s desired answer to our longings and strivings. But it all depends on the question, and sometimes “no” is the most beautiful answer in the world. “Is it malignant?” “Was she there when it happened?” And for those concerned with the horror that befell the Galileans, “Did they deserve this?” No. No, says Jesus. They didn’t deserve this at all. There are butchers in the world and the ruler of Galilee happens to be one. Average people are killed randomly. That, in and of itself, is cold comfort to those who have lost a dear one to violence, but Jesus’ message is still a grace-filled one. No – they did not die because they deserved to, but because a butcher went on a rampage. All will eventually be judged by God, including the butchers.
Jesus adds, for his hearers, a story that he himself has heard. There was a group of people working on a tower – actually, maybe an aqueduct – and the big structure on which they were working toppled over and crushed them to death. They were just workers; they were just there. Did they deserve this? Was there anything about them that merited such a quick, early, hideous end? Again, the most beautiful word imaginable – no. It may have been, and we can now never know, that those who were killed were working on an aqueduct for Pilate. In a structural sense, they might have been seen as accomplices to the unjust and occasionally brutal rule of Rome. The answer is still no. No. That lovely word, no.
Jesus’ response to the story of the Galileans suggests that he knows very well the ways we humans (and he was one) search for meaning behind our suffering. The rage of tyrants or of maniacs, the whims of the natural world, all of which snuff out life in its prime, life that was good, life that was passionate about life – extinguished with a gunshot or a crash or an earthquake’s shaking. Jesus knew how hard it can sometimes be to make meaning of suffering that seems so senseless, and he wants us to know that we must not cling to understandings that such suffering is somehow deserved. “No”, he says. If you struggle to find meaning in the death of someone you love, hear this liberating word from Christ: No. God does not zap us for sins committed. We are Pilates to one another, cutting one another down with swords or words, or we are in a place at a time when the natural world exerts its freedom and power over us. Judgment for the sins we commit is very real, but judgment is not now. God doesn’t wipe people off the face of the earth now for sins committed (actually we might all wish that God would – there are tyrants we might love to have erased from existence). On the other hand, what good news this is for us all. If God routinely exorcised this world of its sinners, wouldn’t we all be in trouble?
Our Gospel passage, which to me at first seemed a bitter pill of hard news, has yet more grace in store for us. Jesus continues to speak to his friends. He tells them a parable about a fig tree, a story that, in his wisdom and compassion, he believes ought to follow his teaching on sin and suffering. The owner of a vineyard visits his trees, and is angered by a fig tree that has yet to produce any fruit, despite the time and money that have been expended on it. He orders his gardener to chop it down – he says that the tree is “wasting the soil.” The gardener requests time – one more year of specialized attention to the tree, and if even then it bears no fruit, it can be chopped down. The parable concludes there, but one is left understanding that the gardener’s request for a reprieve was granted. God is the owner, walking through the vineyard with an eye to eliminating those trees that, no matter how much careful tending, no matter how much expensive attention, have no fruit to show for it. But God is also the gardener, holding back on judgment in hopes that one last spurt of nurturing will bring the tree to abundant life. As one biblical commentator has written of this parable, “God’s mercy is still in conversation with God’s judgment.”
And thank God for that! This is a parable about divine patience. For those of us who feel that we have not brought forth the fruit that we are capable of, or who view our current fruits as miniature or worm-eaten shadows of the fruit we know we can grow, we have some time and we have holy support and encouragement for our efforts. For those of us who feel that we’ve never let our true colors show - that we have yet to discover who we really are and to what we have been called - there is time, support, and encouragement. For those of us who would not like to face judgment particularly soon - who have much work to do, many sins for which to repent, relationships to repair, faithfulness and integrity to cultivate in ourselves - the gardener of our souls gives us more time and the offer of help. Thankfully, God is more patient with us than we sometimes are with ourselves, more patient with us than we often are with others.
An appropriate Lenten task for us would be to nurture in ourselves the patience that is shown by God. We are often quite ready to point to others and claim that they are “wasting the soil.” What an image! Like the owner of the vineyard, we can call for their heads because they are not productive, they don’t earn the money, time and grades – the soil! – that are spent on their upkeep. God, the gardener, the merciful, knows that no growing thing is a waste of soil. God identifies immeasurable value in those we might cut off. As Isaiah writes of God, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” The Bible suggests that they’re higher – God’s thoughts and ways are better than our own. God’s valuing of living things, both the productive and the barren, is quite unlike ours. God’s faith in every person’s potential to bear beautiful fruit, to repent of the most egregious sins, is infinitely stronger than our own.
God’s faith in our potential is just as grace-filled. God, the gardener, does not believe that we are wasting the soil that sustains our life. We are worth the extra time and energy of this holy caretaker. Like the woman who turns her house upside down looking for her lost coin, like the shepherd who goes to greatest lengths to find the one sheep that is missing, we are worth the energy, in God’s mind, that it might take to help us bear fruit. One little coin among many is still priceless, as is one little sheep in a large flock.
This Lenten season is when we are encouraged to inspect ourselves – hearts, minds, and spirits – very intensively. We are to clean our house, to prepare ourselves for the most wonderful guest of all. He will come on Easter. In humility and anticipation, we clean our house to do him honor – he deserves that reception from us, and we want him to have it. This honest, critical stock-taking is sometimes interpreted by individuals and congregations to mean that we must get in touch with our essential sinfulness, our basic badness. We are all sinful, and some of us may be cruel, but Christ’s teaching about the fig tree is, I think, a suggestion that our dedicated spiritual house cleaning in Lent be rooted in an understanding not of our radical badness but of our radical value. The common coin, the wandering sheep, the barren tree, speaks of an infinite value in things that are ordinary, dimwitted, or profoundly flawed. Christ calls us to join him in the wilderness not because we’re so awful that we deserve to be there, but because we have such potential. We have unlimited potential, and God and Christ believe it can flower. We go to the wilderness with Christ so that we may finally see in bold relief those things that truly separate us from God, there in the wilderness where the demands and routines of our daily lives cannot obscure or dilute them. In the wilderness, our shortcomings are stripped of any place to hide. There we must face them, perhaps wrestle with them, ask God’s forgiveness for them, committing ourselves to leave them in the wilderness and never practice them again. All this we do not because we need to remember that we are fundamentally lousy, but are fundamentally loved - searched for, waited for, prayed for – for we are of infinite value.
There is, then, abundant mercy in the teachings of Jesus for this morning, but it is applied in equal measure with his urgent call for full repentance from sin. God and Christ are sure that we can do that so let’s live that way.
Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Series, WJK Press.