Third Sunday in Lent
March 14, 2004
The Gospel: Luke 13:1-9
Sermon: "The Lesson of the Fig Tree"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or 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? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did." Then 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. So 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?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
Third Sunday in Lent - March 14, 2004
It was fairly subdued in the funeral home that evening. Even though the line was long there was very little talking. The family was in line greeting relatives and friends. Many tears were flowing and people were very sad. The small casket was surrounded by flower arrangements in the shape of hearts and teddy bears were in every little nook and comer. The casket was closed but nearby there was the picture of a young girl smiling and happy. The family was grieving the death of their young daughter who died in a freak accident.
Most of the people in the line hugged family members with tears in their eyes. Many of them did not say a word. Some simply said they were sorry. One man hugged the mother and the father. He took the father by the shoulders and said, "Don't worry about your little girl. She is with God now. God planned it this way. This was all part of God's plan for you." The mother and the father were both taken back by the statement. In fact, many people were shocked and questioned the comment in their own minds. Could this really be God's will? Did God really intend for this child to die in this way? What could this child and this family have ever done to deserve this pain?
The question of sudden death, accidents, and even debilitating diseases has been a question concerning God forever. We even see the question in the Gospel lesson from Luke. In the lesson we hear of some Galileans who were killed by the Romans under Pontius Pilate. Pilate was a cruel man. There is plenty of evidence to show he killed many Jewish people with no apparent cause. They had done nothing wrong and yet they were killed. We also hear about an accident where a wall fell suddenly on eighteen people. No apparent reason for their sudden demise.
Yet, the culture of the day believed that everything that happened was caused by God. If something good happened it was the result of God's favor. If something bad happened it was the result of God's displeasure. However, God is just. So, if something bad happens then it must be due to the presence of sin. The person or persons to whom the calamity happens must be sinners and deserving of their punishment, even death.
I wish this concept was due to a lack of ancient understanding of the nature of God. I wish I could say we have grown, changed or evolved in our understanding. I am afraid this concept does still exist and prevail in the minds of many today. Whatever happens from the littlest event in our lives to major events that affect the world are all the result of God's decisions. We have nothing to say or do about what happens in the world in this understanding of God.
This concept of God is false. This concept of God removes free will and human freedom from creation. Our sinfulness may have consequences in our lives, but it does not mean that God is waiting to strike us down for our sins. It also does not mean that God is waiting to reward us for our good behavior. Whether we like it or not, God does not have a book that says Bill Oldland, two good works today and three sins. If he keeps this up by the end of the week he's history. God does not work in that way. Death is not the result of God's action against us.
Life and death are uncertain. Death is capricious. We live in an imperfect world and death comes when it comes. Life is not mapped out for us. Life has joy and sorrow, laughter and crying, excitement and boredom. Life is a gift. It is a gift to be received and explored to the fullest. The moments of life are precious. Death is a part of life and judgment is inevitable.
Yes, we will be judged according to the scriptures. The lesson of the fig tree is the other aspect of God we have to view. It is vitally important to the discussion of sin and death. In this story, the fig tree has not borne fruit. Good soil in Jerusalem was hard to come by. A tree that had not borne fruit in three years was then cut down and cast aside. It was not useful and so was destroyed. But, not this fig tree in this parable. This tree was given another year. The lesson of the fig tree is about God's mercy. When John the Baptist was preaching in the wilderness he declared that the ax was poised at the root of the tree ready to cut it down. He said that any tree, any person, not bearing fruit would be cut down. Now, Jesus comes. Jesus' message is about God's mercy. The gardener in the lesson asks for another year to tend to the tree. Jesus comes proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor. This year is a year of forgiveness, restoration and second chances. Furthermore, this year is a year in God's time not our time. We do not have an angry, judgmental God. We have a God who loves us far more than we can possibly imagine. We have a God who is always more willing to forgive than condemn. We have a God who desires to show mercy and love and wants us to love freely in return.
One final point to tie this all together. The lesson of the fig tree is that God is merciful and loving. God is not whimsical about judgment looking for sinners to cut down. Life is uncertain. Death will come and then judgment will occur. Life is indeed a gift. Suppose we found out we had only a short time left to live, six months, a year, maybe even two years? How would that affect our daily lives? We are challenged by this lesson. We are challenged not to take life for granted. Each day is precious. Each moment is to be savored and lived with God. The challenge is to live each day in such away, that when we die, we have no fear of what we have done. We can face God with open hearts as We account for how we used this precious and incredible gift from God.