Artwork: "You Are Worthy,” created by Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman
A Sanctified Art LLC | sanctifiedart.org, used with permission
In this morning’s Gospel reading, we find Jesus in a teaching moment. He’s on the move – proclaiming the Good News, healing, and teaching. And this morning, as Jesus teaches, we get to experience two of his teaching methods.
The first, I’m going to call: Let’s read the signs of the times.
And the second: Let me tell you a story.
Let’s read the signs of the times. As the teachable moment opens, someone brings to Jesus an event of their day, and Jesus invites the crowd to make meaning out of it. We do this all the time. We read or see something in the news – a pandemic, a war, yet another shooting of an unarmed Black person – and we say, “How can this be? Why? How does this even make sense? What are we to do with this?”
We move through life with a sense of the way the world works – our worldview – and then something happens that doesn’t fit – that doesn’t make sense. And so we have to re-think. We make meaning out of the events of our day – and we bring to that all the resources we have, including our sense of who God is and who we are, and the life we experience together. There’s an old maxim that people of faith “read with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”
Someone in the crowd brings to Jesus an event of their day – something that would have been “ripped from the headlines.” They tell Jesus about some Galileans “whose blood Herod had mingled with the sacrifices.” Now, we’re not really sure what historical event this might refer to – no one’s been able to find another telling of this. But evidently, Herod – the tyrant of the day – had a group of Galileans killed, and to make some point, he mingled their blood with the Temple sacrifices – a gruesome atrocity. They bring this to Jesus – in the middle of a teaching session – and they say: “Jesus, Teacher, what do you think about this?”
And Jesus doesn’t play. He goes right for the heart of their question: What you’re asking me is “Why did they die? Why did this happen to them? Was God punishing them for something they had done?” And Jesus adds another current event – What about the people who died when the Tower of Siloam fell? Are you thinking that God was punishing them too?
Jesus names one of the fundamental questions of human existence – “Why do people suffer?” And Jesus takes head-on a construct that would have been common in their world – and that’s all too common in ours – the sense that God causes everything that happens – so if something bad happens to people – God must be punishing them.
And to that, Jesus says very clearly: “No.” That’s not how God works. That’s not who God is. God doesn’t want – or cause – people to suffer. Ever. No.
Now, Jesus, the Teacher, doesn’t solve the problem of human suffering for them. As Justo Gonzalez says, “Jesus doesn’t answer the question of human suffering, he just tells them that a certain answer is wrong.” No. God doesn’t punish people and cause them to suffer. Stop blaming the vulnerable. Stop blaming God.
But then Jesus says this – the Teacher complicates things – Jesus says, “but unless you change your ways, you’re heading towards destruction too.”
God doesn’t cause suffering –
but the way you live your life does matter.
God doesn’t cause suffering –
but the way we live in and structure the world... does.
No one is saying – at least I don’t think they are – that God is causing the war in Ukraine. But we have together created a world where nations rage and threaten each other with destruction – a militarized world, where violence too often gets its way, where despots can invade – a world that if left unchanged, and unchecked, inevitably leads to destruction.
God isn’t causing climate chaos. We’ve constructed a world based on aggressive, ravenous consumption – and the ways we are living – left unchanged and unchecked, inevitably will lead to destruction.
Read the signs of the times, Jesus says.
God doesn’t cause suffering –
the reality of how we live our lives –
collectively and individually – often does.
Remember, in the Gospel of Luke, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are creating – birthing – nothing less than a whole new world – a new creation. In Jesus, God is turning the world rightside up. This is the new world proclaimed by Mary in the Magnificat – God is raising up those who have been pushed down, and bringing down the powerful. It is the new reign for which John the Baptist says we should prepare the way. It is the life described by Jesus at the start of his ministry: “The Spirit is upon me. I’ve come to proclaim good news for the poor, release for the captive, freedom from all oppression, and God’s cancelling of every debt.”
There is an old paradigm still at work in the world – systems of power-over, consumption, and exploitation that lead toward destruction. And, even now, there is a new creation opening up that leads only to life. Choose life.
And then Jesus says, “Let me tell you a story.” And he tells them a parable. Now, it’s been a while since we’ve talked about parables. A parable is a story that stirs things up. The Greek for parable – parabalo – means “to throw alongside.” Jesus throws a story alongside the life we live – and it startles – it surprises – it stirs up all sorts of questions. We listen to these ancient stories, and try to hear them as the folks back then heard them – in their time and their world – What would they have expected? What would have surprised them? And then we translate that into our world. What’s the meaning for them? What’s the meaning for us?
As Jesus continues teaching, he tells them this parable: There was a fig tree planted in a vineyard. One day, the landowner came by looking for fruit on that fig tree, but found none. So he said to the gardener, “For three years, I’ve been looking for figs on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down. Why should I be wasting soil on it?”
But the gardener scratches her head and says, “One more year. Let’s wait one more year. I will dig around it a little, spread some manure – some good fertilizer, and then, if it bears fruit – all well and good, and if not...”
In the world they know, the people listening to Jesus would have expected a different ending to this story. In a world of economic exploitation, the landowner is there to maximize the profit he can extract from the land. For a third year, he walks through the vineyard – the vines having been harvested of all their grapes – and he checks the fig tree and finds no fruit. For three years, no fruit. They know the way this story goes – they fully expect the landowner to cut down the tree. Maybe plant some vines there that will grow more grapes, produce more profit.
But in this vineyard, the gardener steps in – maybe like she has for the last three years– and says – one more year. Let me tend this tree – maybe free up its roots, spread some manure. And then let’s see – and if it bears fruit – all is well and good. And if not, well, we’ll talk about cutting it down.
They are living in that world we described – the world of power-over and exploitation and consumption. The world we find in this vineyard in this parable is different. There’s an affirmation that we are created to bear fruit – but that happens here in a vineyard where we experience what one writer calls “divine forbearance” – a spaciousness, a patient will toward growth, a God who is willing to do the long work with us. That growth, that bearing fruit – that happens in this vineyard through collaboration and cooperation – the gardener, working with the tree – tending the land.
In this teaching moment, Jesus meets them in a world where folks envision a punishing God, and create and inhabit systems of oppression, exploitation, and harm. Reading the signs of the times and telling a story, Jesus takes them by the hand, and walks them into this vineyard – a spacious world – where folks together till the soil of new creation – so that everyone can live, and thrive, and bear abundant fruit in season.
This teaching moment and this parable stir things up and open up a world of possibility and meaning.
Maybe we still have visions of that punishing God haunting the way we see the world – images of God as an angry man – just waiting to catch us messing up our lives and our world so that he can slam down the gavel and give us the misery we think we deserve. To that image of God, Jesus says no. That’s not how God works. That’s not who God is. God doesn’t want – or cause – people to suffer. Ever. In my life, in the death that surely will come, and in the resurrection you can’t quite comprehend, let me help you see this God who is full to the brim with love and life.
Rev. Larissa Kwong Abazia – one of the co-creators of our Full to the Brim theme – says that she reads this parable and the first thing she wonders is “What’s a fig tree doing in a vineyard?” As a woman of color, she explains that she often experiences the world as a fig tree in the midst of grape vines – “we are placed in fields not meant for us and yet expected to survive.” As she experiences this parable, she sees the gardeners tending the tree with everything it needs to grow into its purpose – “that purpose may be bearing figs. Or maybe the fig tree provides shade for laborers in the harvest, or an opportunity for the gardener to tend to the field in a new way, or transformation of the owner’s ability to see beyond the commodification of the land.”
Or maybe this story has a word to all of us who are caught up in this world’s insistence on production – the commodification of us – and our time – and our lives – the sense that we should always be producing something, and if we’re not... well, isn’t that just a waste of good soil. In this story of a fig tree with time and space to grow, maybe we hear a word in which grace abounds.
As you look around our world, and in your life – as you read the signs of the times, and hear of this story of a fig tree being nurtured into growth and life – what is the meaning you make out of all this?
I’m noticing that this year tree imagery keeps sprouting up. We began the year with Psalm 1 and some verses from Jeremiah – envisioning a tree planted by streams of water, sending its roots deep, its branches spread broad, giving shade and shelter on a dry and weary day. As we celebrated Asma Eschen’s life, we gave thanks for the thousands of trees planted in Afghanistan, as signs of peace in a time of war. And here we are this morning in a vineyard, as a gardener patiently tends to a fig tree, awaiting the bounty of a harvest she knows will come.
The world around us is filled with violence, and oppression, and systems and structures that do harm, and day to day, we are too often a part of that. The lives we live matter. And so Jesus comes to us, and says let me give you this glimpse of this new world – the new creation – a glimpse of resurrection. The Spirit is upon me. I’ve come to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captive, freedom from every oppression, and God’s cancelling of every debt. Leave the ways of that old world behind, and come – come, become a part of this.
© 2022 Scott Clark
 The sense of meaning-making I try to articulate here is grounded in and informed by my understanding of Jack Mezirow’s theory of “transformative learning.” See Mezirow, J.Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1991).  This maxim is often attributed to Karl Barth.  See Michael B. Curry and Leslie J. Hoppe, Commentaries in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 2 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), pp.92-97.  See Justo L. González, Luke (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010); loc. 3200 (Kindle ed.); see also Curry, p. 95.  This understanding of parable comes from Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (HarperOne, San Francisco: 2014), p.4-7.  Our worship series this Lent draws from resources created by SanctifiedArt, a collective of artists in ministry, including scriptural commentary by Rev. Ashley DeTar Birt, Rev. Larissa Kwong Abazia, and Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity.  See Larissa Kwong Abazia, Commentary in Full to the Brim materials, SanctifiedArt.org