Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or 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? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6Then 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. 7So 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?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (NRSV)
Before jumping into our text, let’s recall a deep-time story. Against God’s specific instructions, Adam and Eve tasted the forbidden fruit. Soon hiding behind scratchy fig leaves, the couple knew they’d been busted. Adam tried to blame it on both God and Eve.
Well look, he said “the woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave [it to] me.”
But the devil made me do it! said Eve (Gen. 3:13)
Interesting. As soon as human beings had both language and community, people started blaming their failures on others.
It’s significant that the couple could not return to the garden after they ate the fruit. Once their eyes were opened, they could neither un-see what they’d seen nor un-taste what they’d tasted. They had entered a new reality, one they had to learn to both endure and enjoy. And here’s the good news in the story of Adam and Eve: The first gift is life itself. The second gift is companionship. And the third gift is the gracious, double-gift of repentance and forgiveness.
Whatever mistakes we try to hide behind our fig leaves, they don’t have to define us. That’s what makes repentance a gift and, therefore, Lent a season of hope and new life.
In today’s gospel text, some people are talking to Jesus about a particularly graphic atrocity when Pilate mingled the blood of executed Galileans with that of a Jewish animal sacrifice. While historians agree that Pilate was a violent authoritarian who was willing to use any means to maintain power, the blood-mingling incident has no historical confirmation outside of Luke’s gospel. Maybe that’s why, when the people ask about it, Jesus immediately turns the people’s attention away from the sins of others and toward the issue of repentance. He does so by mentioning a tragedy at the tower of Siloam, an event which also lacks corroborating evidence. In doing so, Jesus turns what are likely fabrications, or at least embellishments, into object lessons.
Maybe we can see some similarities in how Parson Weems’ thoroughly un-true account of George Washington cutting down his father’s cherry tree became a beloved national myth about, ironically, truth-telling.1
Jesus’ point is to say, No, God is not some vengeful beast. And repentance is more than mere confession. It’s a way of life, and it’s for everyone, not just those whom you decide to call sinners.
Too much Christian teaching has declared, explicitly and implicitly, that God basically creates us for hell then sits back to let us decide for ourselves whether or not we want to go to heaven. That reduces our lives to non-stop efforts of trying to appease or, like Adam and Eve, to hide from an angry God. But any god of insatiable anger and eye-for-an-eye vengeance is a projection of our own fears and prejudices. Those small-g, made-in-our-image gods allow us not only to persecute enemies, but to treat neighbors, friends, and family with self-righteous disdain, spite, and even contempt. So, those gods are emphatically not the God revealed in Jesus. That’s the point of Jesus’ decisive “No” to those who wonder if Yahweh had used Pilate to kill sinners.
Jesus follows that No with a parable. In the story, a landowner gets impatient with a fruitless fig tree. Get rid of it, he tells his gardener. It’s just wasting space.
Well, let me work with it, says the gardener. I’ll tend it for another year. I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. Then you can decide what to do.
Now, I’m no gardener, but my wife is. And my way of helping her with either flowers or vegetables is to keep my distance. I can kill a rock garden, and she can make one grow. I’ve seen her restore plants that almost anyone else would throw away, because where some would see a lifeless twig, she’s able to feel just enough life stirring in just enough cells to send some new shoot reaching for sunlight.
Good gardeners know that caring for plants starts with caring for the soil. Remember Jesus’ parable of the sower. The seeds are not at fault for their failure to thrive in poor soil. If the earth is unwell, it won’t sustain life, much less produce good fruit. In order to provide a healthy environment for things to grow, the soil has to be nurtured.
Hiding behind the fig leaves of the tree in Jesus’ parable is, well, a fig tree! A tree with both the capacity and, given the tree’s DNA, the desire to produce figs. Hiding behind those fig leaves is a kind of prayer: “Help me to be a real fig tree!”
And that is a prayer of repentance.
Hiding behind our fig leaves of fear, guilt, and all that utterly useless shame is exactly what God has created and loves—human beings who crave belonging, purpose, and joy. And from the Christian perspective, we are most fully and fruitfully human when we are in community. As communities, then, we have much more in common with soil than with individual plants. Our shared calling is to create a fertile environment for holiness; and we don’t create holiness. That’s God’s doing. Repentance, then, is less a private act of regret than it is a public act of solidarity in, with, and for one’s community, and the entire Creation for that matter. Repentance is less a private act than it is a public act of communal restoration.
While there is an individual element to repentance, through repentance—which in Greek means “to turn”—we’re turning more than our own selves. We’re turning the very circumstances in which we all live. If the prayer of the fig tree is “Help me to be a real fig tree,” the prayer of good soil is “Not my will but yours.”
As good soil, we involve ourselves, as Jesus did, in the social, political, and economic realities around us for the sake of the Creation—and especially for the sake of all that suffers and cries out for love, acceptance, care, healing, or rest.
To reduce discipleship to church-going, or doctrine, or conspicuous morality is to live for ourselves. And that would make us rather lifeless soil. Aren’t we more than that? Aren’t we here to participate in God’s work of creating, nurturing, and celebrating life?
The Lenten discipline of repentance restores us to community. It also restores as community. It returns us to the soil-tilling, fertilizing work of discipleship. As Jesus’ disciples, we’re here to help God offer hope to the poor, food to the hungry, laughter to those who weep, and welcome to those who have no place to belong.
We are called to live as a community of good soil in which mysteries beyond our comprehension and control produce the healthy and healing fruits of compassion, justice, and reconciliation. These fruits nourish us with desire, strengthen us with courage, and inspire us with gratitude.
And they reveal the entire Creation as something saturated with the ever-fertile love and grace of God.