No answer to the big questions but we need to keep asking them ...
Lent 3 2016
Reading: Luke 13.1-9
We see it all the time on the television news: some hostages are taken at random by a terrorist group and summarily killed; or a group of people on holiday are killed by sudden accident – their bus crashes or a building is rocked by an earthquake and falls on them. These appear to be arbitrary or capricious events that could happen to anyone: on the one hand indiscriminate terror, on the other hand natural disaster. There is no process of selection or justice that governs such events, the victims are just that, victims: the good and the bad, innocent and guilty, all suffer alike. We protest at such things but we cannot prevent them – we inhabit a world where this happens.
We know this to be true. We don’t like to think of it or be reminded of it. Secretly perhaps we reserve a thought in the back of our minds that such mishaps will not befall us; that we are privileged by God – and under special protection. Such casual thinking on our part raises real questions about how we imagine God to act and how we understand prayer to work.
With that caution in mind, why we may ask is Jesus, in the first half of this gospel, telling us the obvious about the unexpectedness of death? Is it really because he is on his way to Jerusalem? On his way to the place where terrible things happen? Is he reminding them and us that this is the world we live in and we have to be prepared: “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Is this one of those moments of truth telling when Jesus urges his hearers to shred away the illusions they daily live by (i.e. it won’t happen to me or at least not yet) and realise that what we seek to ignore or forget is inevitable – and we need to be ready for it - now. The word ‘repent’ is about a ‘change of mind’, changing how we think – abandoning illusion and living in the full consciousness of our mortality and in openness toward God: illusory living is replaced by intentional living.
So what about this parable of the fig tree? Why does Luke locate the parable in the context of his journey towards Jerusalem? The story invites our interpretation and we may ponder who/what fits the parts of the landowner, the gardener – possibly even the fig tree. The owner of the vineyard is usually read as representing God. Is Jerusalem possibly the fig tree: the city living on borrowed time, never living up to its high destiny? Most typically we have tended to read in the fig tree the story of our lives: that we are created to live fruitful lives but tend to serve only ourselves – and in that sense are fruitless.
The point of the parable is that the fruitless tree is given a respite from judgement, and given the opportunity to do better. We have all known such moments in our lives and sensed again a grace and hope in our living. We have all known moments when we needed a chance to start again; the well-known parable we know as The Prodigal Son engages with something of that experience.
But here is the fig tree and the gardener has got it another year in which to start to produce results and we hear of the plans to dig it and dung it – and give it every opportunity to prosper.
That leaves us with a question – pondering this gardener digging in the manure about the fig tree – what are the things in our lives that give us an opportunity to live fruitfully. That is worth taking some time and using some imagination to consider. We might easily enough recognise where we have been blessed or fortunate and consider how such things should be used for a common good. However what about those things that cause us grief, sorrow or hardship? Can they also produce some good in us? For example, might adversity produce compassion? It doesn't always - but might this just be possible?
How might we see the circumstances of our lives, whether favourable or not so favourable, as opportunities for fruitfulness in our living?
In this season of Lent as we review our Christian living, this parable reminds us of the seriousness, the urgency of our Christian calling. This parable invites us to ask questions. At the very least it warns us that we are not to live in illusion; we are not to procrastinate; we are to live fruitfully and be ready in the midst of our living to be held to account.