Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent 3
Sunday, March 24, 2019
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
When considering a parable, it’s helpful not to rush too quickly into assigning meaning and determining who is who in the parable. Mystery is a good thing when it comes to parables. Allowing space for mystery, possibilities, and interpretations helps the parable speak to us, rather than us speaking to the parable.
With that in mind, let’s look at the parable of the fig tree in today’s gospel. There appears to be three main actors in this parable of the fig tree: the barren fig tree barren for three years, the angry owner demanding it be cut down because it’s wasting the soil and space in the vineyard, and the pleading gardener begging for one more year.
A traditional, quick, and easy interpretation of this parable, epecially when paired with the second reading today, might assign characters and meaning in this way:
The barren fig tree is us. We are the barren fig trees who in our sin, fail to bear the fruit God intends.
The angry owner, is God, demanding fruit, and judging us by our ability, or inability, to bear fruit.
The pleading gardener, is Jesus, who steps in on our behalf, pleading for us, and turning away God’s wrath, saving us from the punishment God wants to inflict upon us.
Today, however, let’s set the interpretation aside.
Let’s set that interpretation aside to consider another possibility. Some scholars suggest another understanding that is more faithful to Luke’s understanding of who God is.
Lutheran scholar David Lose writes; “Nowhere in Luke do we find a picture of an angry, vindictive God that needs to be placated by a friendly Jesus.” Instead, Lose suggests that Luke’s God is a loving God yearning for community.
Lose points out that when Luke describes God, Luke uses images of God as loving Father, scanning the horizon waiting for his wayward son to come home; and God as woman, sweeping her house all night looking for a lost coin and throwing a party costing even more than the coin’s worth when it was found. Luke describes God whose first instinct is not to punish, but to forgive sin and welcome sinners home in ways others think is foolish, wasteful and risky.
With this in mind, Lose writes: “Given Luke’s consistent picture of God’s reaction to sin, then perhaps the landowner is us! … Perhaps the landowner is representative of our own sense of how the world should work. That it is we who want things to be “fair” and we define “fair” as receiving rewards for doing good and receiving punishment for doing evil.”
With this insight, let’s consider the parable in this way:
That we, not God, but we are the angry landowners, with a “bear fruit or else” mentality. That we are the angry landowners who demand from others the fruit of right behavior, proper attitudes, and conformity. That we are the angry landowners, insisting that those who do not bear the fruit we desire, should be cut off and cast out.
What if, in the sober self-examination and repentance of Lent, we confessed that indeed, we are the angry landowners who see barren fig trees all around us? And that we, angry landowners, are way too quick to cut others off, dismiss others, and break relationship with those around us?
I think we could understand all the “isms” in this way. Racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, classism, xenophobia, all come from angry landowners deciding the kind of fruit required, the fruit of the right skin color, the correct sexuality, the proper gender, the prized countries of origin, the necessary ability, or preferred culture. And then cutting off from power, and privilege, and insider status, those who fail to bear the right kind of fruit – whatever kind of fruit it is.
Isn’t it true that we hear the accusations of angry landowners all around us:
Why should the fig tree be wasting the soil?
Why should that group be here and stand in the way of what we want to do?
Why should immigrants and refugees consume and waste our finite resources?
Why should I pay taxes for those people who do not work and do not contribute?
Into this system, into our judgment and anger, as gardener, steps God in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s important to recognize that God is not divided against God’s self. God as Father is not an angry, punishing, vengeful God who needs to be persuaded not to smite us by God as Son who is generous and merciful.
In the gardener, we can imagine the work of the Triune God. God’s very self, all that God is, all that God has been and will be, all the energies of God, all the creativity, majesty, and power of God, poured out for the sake of relationship with us, the barren fig trees!
God the Father, as gardener, standing with those cast out, persecuted, and rejected … pleading for understanding.
God the Son, as gardener, standing with those under the accusing glare …pleading for mercy.
God the Holy Spirit, as gardener, standing with those others have abandoned … pleading for relationship.
This triune God gardener, speaks both against us and for us. The gardener speaks against us when we are the angry landowners. The gardener speaks against us when we are certain that someone is worthless, unredeemable, and that we would be better off if the person was cut off. In those times the gardener pleads with us for mercy, in relationship with the very ones we would be quick to dismiss.
The good news today, is that God, as gardener, speaks for us as barren fig trees dead in sin! In grace and mercy, our Trinitarian God as gardener, pleads for us, begging to be in relationship with us.
A couple weeks ago, I heard a story told by a man who works with mentally disabled adults. Many of these adults have been abandoned by their families and many have very limited functioning. When asked why he and others spend so much time loving these severally mentally disabled adults he responds with a question.
Why do you love your grandmother, or grandfather, who lays in a nursing home, unable to feed, clothe or bath her or himself? The answer would be: because he’s grandpa! Because she’s grandma! Not because of the person’s ability to bear fruit, but because of the person’s value in relationship with another.
What if we saw in each other someone’s son, someone’s daughter, someone’s father, someone’s mother. What if we assigned value to each other not based on punishment and reward for fruit borne or withheld, but loved each other simply because we are children of God and that God loves us and pleads for us?
God doesn’t love us, because we bear fruit. God doesn’t cut us down when we fail to bear fruit. God loves us, God loves the great multitude that no one can count from every nation, from all tribes, peoples, and languages, because we are God’s children!
In this love of God, as gardener, scripture is fulfilled. In our First Reading this morning, in the prophesies of Isaiah, the prophet proclaimed the work of the gardener, in God:
offering wine and milk freely without price. Giving to all bread and labor that satisfies, and pouring out upon all abundant pardon not partial, not conditional, not sparing,but abundant pardon poured out on all.
In our Second Reading this morning, we find Paul pointing out the faithfulness of God, alive in Christ, with the people in the wilderness. With the Israelites, providing for the Israelites, as they journeyed from slavery, in the wilderness, on their way to the promised land. Paul referenced God’s faithfulness to the Israelites in their desert, as hope for us in our desert, barren, wanderings – that God is with us in Christ, in every situation.
Fellow angry landowners and barren fig trees, the Good News today, is that here among us, we meet the gardener!
We meet the gardener watering us at the font – naming us and claiming us as God’s beloved children forever.
We meet the gardener feeding us the table – meeting us in the bread and wine to feed us with the real presence of Jesus Christ.
In faith, with this interpretation of the parable of the fig tree, cling to the good news today!
In the repentance Jesus called for in the gospel, let us turn from our angry landowner ways. When we are quick to dismiss or cut someone off – imagine God, in all that God is, standing not with us, but with the other person.
In trust and hope, let us cling to the good news of God as gardener, when we are under the accusing glare of guilt, and sin, from others. Imagine God pleading on our behalf, kneeling before us, planting us in the communion of saints that bears the fruit of life, healing, and justice for eternity.
Indeed may it be so!