Preached at Holy Trinity, Charlotte on February 28, 2016. (Luke 13:1-9)
Last Monday night I was at our City Council meeting for the vote on the non-discrimination ordinances. I was one of 140 people who spoke. Some of us favored the ordinances and there were also those who opposed them. From the opposition, we heard recurring themes. There was a whole lot of misinformation being spewed about who can and can’t use a public restroom. There was also a lot of quoting Scripture and condemnation of whoever doesn’t interpret it the same way they do.
According to many of those who opposed the ordinances, Charlotte would pay for its errant ways if they passed. God would smite us, in a big way. Well, they passed. Are any of you scared?
We’ve heard this kind of logic before. Various groups who don’t meet the moral standards of the religious right have been blamed for everything from 9-11 to Hurricane Katrina. According to them, God’s in the business of rooting out evil-doers and punishing them. Sometimes in horrific ways.
Today’s gospel lesson reminds us that this viewpoint is nothing new. Jesus points to some of the tragedies that were making headline news in his day, and he knows that the conventional wisdom of his time said those tragedies occurred because the people had done something to make God angry, so God zapped ‘em. “But that’s not how things work,” Jesus says. God isn’t out to get us when we sin. In fact, just the opposite.
The philosopher Susan Nieman has written about evil in modern thought. Basically, her thesis is that we ascribe evil to things we don’t understand. It’s a way of creating the other, the person or thing or idea we label evil. The other is the manifestation of fear and ignorance. Nieman says that once we understand what we had designated evil, we no longer see it as evil. For example, at one time a person with schizophenia was considered demon possessed. Now, we understand more about it. The person isn’t evil. They have a mental illness. We ascribe evil to the things we don’t understand.
So, when we throw God in the mix, and we project our own limited and often distorted way of thinking onto God, we figure God must perceive evil the same way we do.
That’s the first fallacy in a theology that ascribes catastrophes and tragedies to the activity of God. That logic concludes, if you sin, according to our definition of sin, then you’re evil and an enemy of God.
But there’s a second problem with that theology. It assumes that God is angry and vengeful. And that’s what Jesus addresses in today’s lesson with a parable about a fig tree.
Now, Jesus could have chosen any kind of tree that his listeners might have been familiar with in this story. But he chooses a fig tree, and here’s why. Because a fig tree tries a gardener’s patience. It has to have just enough sunlight, just enough cultivation, just enough nutrients to produce figs. And even if you do all that, it can take a while for the tree to bear fruit. And, by a while I don’t mean a year or two. It can take up to six years for a fig tree to grow fruit. That’s a lot of work, and that’s a lot of time to wait. Many a gardener would be tempted to cut the darn thing down after a year or two with no results. “You good for nothin’ fig tree! You’re outa here!” Chop! Chop! Chop!
And yet, that’s not how the parable goes. Instead, after three years with no figs the man who planted the tree is ready to cut it down. “It’s just wasting the soil,” he says. But the gardener replies, “Let’s give it another chance. Let’s give it more time. Let’s not be so quick to say it’s worthless. Let’s care for it and see what it can do.”
Jesus wants his listeners to know that they’re all wrong about God’s justice.
You see, there are two kinds of justice. One is retributive justice. That’s a tit for tat kind of justice. You hurt me or someone I care about, and I’m going to hurt you back. You say something I don’t like, and I will verbally rip you to shreds. You attack our country and we will blow your country to smithereens. We call that justice. You will pay for what you’ve done, and you will pay in a big way. But that’s a limited view of justice. It’s retributive justice. That may be what we expect from something like the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Supreme Court takes us someplace else. God’s not into retributive justice. When we talk about the justice of God, that’s not what we’re talking about.
God is into another kind of justice—restorative justice. Restorative justice has a different goal. It’s all about restoring the relationship. When someone harms us, our relationship has been broken. The way to restore the relationship doesn’t come through punishing the other person. It comes through mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation.
When we say that God is a God of justice, that’s what we’re talking about. Not that God is going to zap everyone who does evil, but that God will do everything possible to bring us back into relationship with him when we’ve wandered from that relationship. It’s the kind of justice we’ll read about next week in the story of the lost sheep and the prodigal son.
Trusting in the restorative justice of God is the work of Lent: Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful. Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Like the gardener in the parable of the fig tree.
The parable invites us to consider the distinction between judgment and mercy. The easiest way to deal with the fruitless fig tree would be to cut it down.
That’s always the easiest way to deal with jobs that are difficult. Or people who are difficult. Or situations that are difficult. We just walk away. We cut them off. Problem solved.
It’s more difficult to care for the tree, to hunker down and do the hard work. We’ll have to endure a little manure under our fingernails and wait in hopeful expectation for fruit that may or may not come.
Mercy is like that. It takes lots of sweat and toil, with no guarantee of success or reward. There’s a big difference between being a person of retributive justice and a person of restorative justice-- a person of mercy.
In today’s parable, Jesus challenges his listeners, including us, to be merciful as God is merciful. As a community of people striving to be loving not judging, that’s a direct challenge to us.
So, consider the trees God has planted in your life. They may be people or a place or a situation. They may be dreams or projects. Which ones have been giving you a hard time lately? Which ones aren’t producing the fruit that you’ve expected? Which ones have you been tempted to chop down and walk away from? Perhaps with a little more tender care, these barren trees just might produce some fruit.
The question is, are you willing to be patient enough for this to happen? That’s what the Jesus way of life, loving not judging, calls us to do.