Fertilizing Repentance

Luke 13:1-9

1.

Why do bad things happen to innocent people?

Why were fifty Muslim worshipers killed on March 15 in a senseless act of violence and hatred?

Now, I’m not curious about the gunman’s motives; I’m not trying to understand why he did it. That’s not what I mean by “why.” Rather, it’s bigger. I’m asking why there’s evil in our world at all.

God is good, right? And we like to say, too, that God is all-powerful, omnipotent.

So then, why doesn’t God just put a stop to it? Eradicate every last trace of evil in our world?

God is good; but evil continues.

So, I wonder if this was the question those people have in mind when they approach Jesus at the beginning of today’s Gospel.

Some Galilean pilgrims were in Jerusalem, they say, offering sacrifices at the altar of the Temple itself, when Pontius Pilate cut them down in cold blood.

Why, Jesus? These were good, pious, innocent people. Why is there such evil in the world?

But Jesus doesn’t answer this question. Instead, he answers another question that was probably on their minds too.

“Do you think,” he asks, “that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” And the answer is: “No.”

And thus we learn, at least, that evil is not a manifestation of God’s judgment—a message that, sadly, still makes its way around some Christian circles.

And in case it doesn’t stick, Jesus makes this point again, referring to a tragedy, a tower that fell and crushed eighteen unsuspecting passersby. Were they “worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Jesus asks. And again, the answer is no.

Jesus makes one thing clear: Evil is not a display of God’s judgment.

2.

Jesus also makes a statement about repentance. And he also makes this statement twice, which emphasizes it: there’s another important truth here. But this one isn’t so clear.

“Unless you repent,” he says, “you will all perish just as they did.”

What does Jesus mean?

He can’t mean death. For they died; and we will all die too, whether we repent or not.

But if we repent, Jesus says, we will not die in the same way they died.

Well, does that mean that, if we repent, then we will be immune to evil or disaster?

Surely not! Surely there were repentant people on board Flight 11 on that fateful day in September, 2001!

Repentance is not some magic protection against evil—a forcefield or whatever.

Nor is it some simplistic message about moral uprightness or belief, as if to say that all those people mentioned—the Galileans cut down by Pilate and the Jerusalemites crushed by the tower—all went to hell because they never had a chance to believe in Jesus; and you too will go to hell unless you repent.

No, that can’t be it! Indeed, the Galileans were cut down as they engaged in a pious act of belief!

There is something about repentance Jesus is getting at here. He brings it up twice! But just what is it? Thus far, it’s not clear.

3.

Maybe there’s a clue in the parable that makes up the second half of today’s Gospel. Let’s turn our attention to that; maybe there we will learn what Jesus means today by repentance.

So, a man had a fig tree that bore no fruit for three years. He told his gardener to cut it down. For, “Why should it be wasting the soil?” he asked.

And right away I’m remembering John the Baptist’s words about repentance back in chapter 3: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And, aha, here is one clue. The repentance about which Jesus speaks is likened to a fruit-bearing tree.

The barren fig tree in today’s parable thus represents persons living yet in an unrepentant state, like those Galileans who were cut down at the altar; or like those eighteen unsuspecting Jerusalemites upon whom the Tower of Siloam fell.

But then the gardener speaks up. “Sir,” he says, “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.”

Is this another clue?

The tree has been sitting in the same soil for the past three years; and it has borne no fruit. The gardener asks for one more year, one more chance to bear fruit, one more year to repent.

So just what, exactly, will be different about the year ahead?

As far as I can see, just this: the gardener will dig around the tree’s roots and mix manure into the soil.

Manure! That’s what will be different in the year ahead.

Now, what do we associate with manure? Fertilizer, yes. But otherwise isn’t it just waste? Sewage? Excrement? And a whole slough of other words I won’t say from the pulpit?

Our understanding of manure today isn’t very different than it was two thousand years ago!

In other words, I am fairly certain the manure in this parable represents the evil that is everywhere around us.

Yes, we have another clue!

Put it all together: manure is connected to fruitfulness; or, alternatively, evil in the world is connected to our repentance.

Why is there evil in the world? We don’t know. But there is.

What Jesus tells us today is that we’ve got to look at evil differently, not as a power over which we have no control, not as useless waste; but as a power that can be redeemed just as manure finds redemption as fertilizer.

4.

What does Jesus mean in today’s Gospel by repentance?

We can keep looking at the world the way we always have. Evil is here. We throw our hands up and do nothing about it, just live with that knowledge and try to avoid it—and bear no fruit.

And we will perish just the same as everyone else.

Or, as followers of Christ, we can see the evil in our world as he saw it: redeemable. Then we confront it, bury ourselves up to our knees in it, and even transform it by means of love.

Evil can be redeemed, at least to some extent, through love.

So, fine and well. It’s a nice idea. But what does this look like in real life? What does this look like, say, in our relationships with one another?

Well, what results when evil is at work in our relationships? Isn’t it various forms of domination?

One person becomes superior to another. One class becomes better than another. Entitlements and privilege abound for one group, but not for other groups.

Domination!

When evil is at work in our relationships, whether individual or corporate, we rank ourselves and others; we establish hierarchies; things like slavery, classism, and racism are the soil in which we dwell; our mentality becomes partisan, us vs. them; and rigidity characterizes our world.

So, do we simply throw up our hands and live with it?

Or, what if we repent—change our worldview and seek to redeem the manure in the world?

Then, instead of ranking, we link, one person to another, one organization with another, for the common good.

Then, instead of hierarchies—instead of leading from the top—we lead with others, hand in hand.

Then, social injustices like slavery, classism, and racism are topics on the table for all to discuss, no matter how uncomfortable these discussions may be; reparations are made and we move forward together.

Then, we move beyond our competitive partisanships towards a mentality of us and us.

Then, we become flexible, navigating our way into the future together in ways that humanity has rarely if ever seen.

Then, the result is not domination but equality!

And then, reports of mass shootings and other senseless acts of violence and hatred will dissipate, and maybe even disappear altogether.

And maybe, just maybe, when wide-scale repentance is established and maintained, evil will be redeemed, transformed into good through love.

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