Lent 3 – Luke 13.1-9
This week I heard something rather unusual. Something rare.
I heard a high profile public figure say they’d got it wrong and had changed their mind about something.
Gary Neville, well known football pundit and prominent local businessman, speaking in an interview with Sky News’ political editor Beth Rigby, said his long held opinion that sport should rise above politics and international crises was “wrong” and that there had been a change in his view that football and sport should try and welcome in international money. Recent events in Ukraine had forced him to reconsider his position. In short, his perspective has changed.
Gary Neville is not alone. Countless politicians and business leaders have been compelled to revise their views about the Russian leader and his intentions and have changed their minds about doing business with him and his associates.
They now view the world from a very different perspective.
As Christians God calls us to shift our perspective. We are invited into a new way of seeing things and to live a life oriented towards God. We are called to think differently. We are called, as today’s Gospel reading from Luke reminds us, to “repent”.
Repentance of course, involves far more than the Oxford Dictionary definition of feeling regret or remorse for wrongdoing. It is more than moral uprightness. Deriving from the Greek “metanoia” it means to “change one’s mind”. Some scholars have suggested that derives from a military term which described a soldier marching in one direction and then doing an about-face.
How we all crave that kind of repentance now in Ukraine!
To repent is, in the words of theologian Matt Skinner “to encounter life, God and your purpose in a new way, in a truer way….It is to be jolted into discovering a different reality.” It involves a new way of seeing things and being persuaded to adopt a different perspective.
Inevitably repentance carries with it moral implications and connections to forgiveness (see Luke 24:47) and, as one writer puts it, “a new consciousness of one’s shortcomings and circumstances” but essentially it’s about living a life inclined towards God.
In the NRSV and NIV Bible translations the first half of the Luke passage carries the rather disturbing title “Repent or Perish”. The Bible wasn’t of course written with such sub-headings and I note in passing that the CTS New Catholic Bible and New Living Translation contain the less threatening headings “Examples inviting repentance” and “A Call to Repentance” respectively.
In the first five verses (described by one commentator as “not a template for pastoral care”) we are told how some of those who were with Jesus told him about the death of Galileans at the hands of Pilate. Jesus, referencing that and the accidental death of people killed by a collapsing tower, reminds them that death is always close and is not always explicable or controllable. It can happen suddenly and unexpectedly. Jesus implicitly challenges the Orthodox Jewish belief of the time (still repeated by some Christians today) that the greatness of the calamity or tragedy indicated the extent of the victims’ sinfulness. He reminds those with him that all of them are sinners who need to repent, failing which they will, ultimately, perish.
That then is the context for second half of the passage, the parable of the barren fig tree.
A parable which only appears in Luke’s gospel it is very different from the accounts of the fig tree cursed by Jesus in Matthew (21:18-19) and Mark (11:12-14). Like many parables, it permits of more than one interpretation.
Now a note about fig trees: The edible fig was one of the first plants cultivated by humans even pre-dating wheat and barley. In the Old Testament (along with vines) fig trees were often seen as signs of God’s blessings - symbols of peace and prosperity - and to represent the people of Israel. Unproductive plans were seen as a symbol of unfaithful nations or people. In Galilee fig trees would produce fruit twice a year. Rules prohibited harvesting for the first three years so a good gardener would remove the fruit to get the tree fully established.
We’re not told why the the fig tree had no fruit. The age of it is unclear so we can’t know if the situation Jesus describes is that of an ignorant landlord who knew nothing about farming and the teachings of Leviticus 19 or that of a truly barren plant. In the time of Jesus absentee landlords were often experienced as remote and ruthless, visiting only to exact their dues, one reason for rejecting interpretations of the parable which see God as representing the landlord and Jesus as the interceding gardener.
I can’t help but wonder, had the fig tree been planted in the wrong place, or in unsuitable soil? Might the gardener have failed to give it sufficient attention? That might explain his asking for a another year’s grace for it.
It is to be noted that the fig tree doesn’t simply exist to perpetuate itself but to bear fruit and provide sustenance to others. In addition to bearing fruit, in Biblical times it also served the useful purpose of offering shade from a hot sun. These days fig trees are also acquired for their ornamental value in gardens.
The fig tree in the parable, with support from the gardener, is afforded a reprieve and given an additional year in which to bear fruit. It is spared the axe and given a second chance. The parable thus ends on a hopeful note, that the tree, with the right treatment, might produce fruit after all.
Yet we are left in no doubt, that if, not withstanding the care and support of the gardener, it still fails to bear fruit, it will be cut down. Coming in the context of Jesus’ exhortation to repent or perish it’s not a comfortable read – most of us don’t want a religion based on fear or judgment.
We are left in suspense as to whether the tree goes on to bear fruit and avoid the axe completely.
So how are we to read this parable?
Are we to read ourselves into it as the fig tree, in whom God won’t tolerate a lack of productivity forever? (One commentator identified himself more with the manure!)
The sense of urgency is disturbing. It suggests that the time to change our ways is limited. Yet we are also reminded that we are not simply left to our own devices but are the beneficiaries of God’s grace and mercy, a grace experienced as one writer observes “within the precariousness and strange beauty of our fleeting existence”.
Reading this passage as we do in Lent, a time when we do so much waiting and reflecting, it appears that the one thing we shouldn’t wait to do is change, for whilst tragedy and hardship can nudge us closer to God they can come so suddenly (as recent events in Ukraine remind us) that there is no opportunity for a change of mind and way of living. No opportunity to see the world as God sees it.
If we delay we miss out on experiencing that wonderful different perspective.
Like the fig tree we too can have additional purposes. We may be mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, providers, healers, teachers, entertainers. But our primary purpose, is to live as God wants us to. Created in God’s image we are to be a people of faith, hope and love.
What does that mean in current times? How are we to live our lives not just as individuals but in community in a time when the sins of our institutions are being so graphically exposed?
How do we press the re-set button and set about “changing our minds”?
What soil should we plant ourselves in?
Do we really want to change?
I was struck by a quotation from the Methodist theologian William Willimon:
“Our difficulty is that we don’t want God. We want answers, and many of us will go wherever we can find easy ones.”
Easy answers aren’t available at the moment as we face perhaps the defining crisis of our lifetimes, so I’ll end with some words I found whilst preparing this sermon, words from a Presbyterian minister Robert Dunham:
“ In the presence of the God we know in Christ we get a God whose love in our lives challenges and enables us to live without all the answers.”
Richard Young (Rector)