Lent , Year C
Readings: Isaiah 55:1–9; Psalm 63:1–8; (1 Corinthians 10:1–13); Luke 13:1–9
We’ve all heard mixed messages. “Your call is important to us. Please wait on the line, and you will be connected to a service associate by midnight, tomorrow at the latest.” “Unlimited calling. Some conditions apply.” We may have given a few mixed messages in our time. “You know I love you and trust you completely. Be home by eleven-thirty sharp, and if I smell one whiff on you, you’re grounded for a month.” “I love you and I think we should see other people.” Evidence of conflicting thoughts we’re having. A caring and attentive listener may be able to help us sort out our thinking. But generally people just get confused when they hear contradictory thoughts.
What message do you want to hear if your parents or grandparents were dragged away from home fifty years ago, and you have been living more or less as a prisoner all your life, like the Jews in Babylon twenty-five hundred years ago? What about this: I give you a feast, for free. Not candy floss. Food that really satisfies. Reassurance. Huge reassurance. And what for? Not to make you feel all sleepy and content, but to be a witness to a daring way of thinking about being human and being in society. “I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.” Really? Hostages will be a witness to the peoples? If you say so. Reassurance, then, and also challenge. Was the prophet nuts? Was God? Sure, Nebechudnezzar was dead, and there was no one as tough and mean as him to take his place. So maybe there was hope. Maybe people could go back to Jerusalem, resume covenant living.
But wait. There’s another part to the message, adding to the mix. It’s not all soothing words. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?” This was all a long time ago. Who needs to hear words like this these days, the critique and the reassurance? What other faith group has seen many decades of decline? Who else locates their best feelings about their faith community in the past?
Cut to the Jesus story. Luke sets up the theme of sin and punishment. Does God getcha if you’re bad? Are people who die in falling towers badder than the rest of us? No, says Jesus, God doesn’t work that way. But unless you repent, you’re going to go the same way. Talk about a mixed message. Then comes the parable about the tree, the fig tree, to shed light on how God deals with sin. I think. Turns out the fig tree is a traditional symbol for blessing or curse: fruitful tree? Good for you! Barren tree? Oh, oh. You must be cursed. Jesus tells this story about a fig tree that hasn’t borne any fruit for three years.
You can see his listeners asking themselves, Who’s he talking about? Them? Us? Who? Cut it down, says the owner. Makes sense from the owner’s point of view. But what about the tree? If the tree is those rich people, those leaders in bed with the Romans, feel free. But what if it’s us?
Then the gardener pipes up. No, don’t cut it down! What? Where’s he going with this. If he’s talking about collaborators, no mercy! Get out the axe. If he’s talking about us, bring on the fertilizer. Shovel away. We can bear fruit, just watch!
OK, that may have been a grabber two thousand years ago, but that was long ago and far away. Except we do this all the time. If the axe is going to fall on those people, what are you waiting for? If it looks like we might be the target tree, that’s a different matter.
Last Sunday at the book study, attention turned to the plight of women throughout the world. A report just came out outlining how one in three women on the planet will be the victim of assault during her life. Much of this will be at the hands of an intimate partner. And of course, many men will be victims of some kind of violence in their lives, some of it from intimate partners. But the world seems to be tilted against females: education, health, rape as a weapon of war, sexual predation, property ownership, the list goes on and on. Why has the church not been more outspoken about all this? What have we been doing?
Perhaps we have been too patient, too ready to suggest the fertilizer approach, too slow to get out the axe. The church is not exactly innocent in all this. The policies of the Catholic church, the biggest Christian church, seem to contradict Jesus’ actions toward women. In episode after episode, Jesus treats women as equals. I happened to notice a story in this morning’s paper about Catholics who have left the church because if its attitudes on questions such as the ordination of women, or marriage for priests. In one case, a woman’s lifetime of working inside the church for change left her burnt out. If Christ were telling the story about the fig tree today, and she is, how much mercy would be on offer for the church? How are we doing as witnesses to the amazing story of the gospel? Are we bearing fruit?
We’re looking forward to Easter, which is both the answer to a question we have, and a question to what we think of as answers. Our scriptures challenge us all very directly, if we let them. They challenge our personal lives–why do we go for food that doesn’t satisfy?; our church–what is our purpose, and how are we being witnesses to the fierce love of God; and our societies–how are they bearing fruit for all of God’s creatures?
As we go to make decisions for our church for the coming year, we remember other times, other places, when people faced challenges and needed the word of hope, the word of reassurance, and the insistent demand to gather for the food that really satisfies, and bear fruit that will satisfy others.