Second Chances

3.24.19:  Luke 13:1-9     Fellow children of God, in New Zealand, brothers and sisters at prayer, have been gunned down in an unnatural disaster that is becoming all too commonplace in our day and time. Why do people harbor such hate? —we rail at God, at Jesus, at anyone who will listen. Why do bad things happen to unsuspecting people? Is there a message in these atrocities for the rest of us? Whose fault is it? It is our human nature to want to point the finger somewhere.
Jesus’ contemporaries were very accustomed to the idea that an atrocity signaled sin, either on the part of the victim or the victim’s ancestors. The two events described by Luke are different — one was an act of terror inflicted by a government leader and one was a construction accident. Neither are found in any other sources outside of Luke’s gospel, but they clearly were on the minds of the people who surrounded Jesus. They could not get their heads around the death of their countrymen at prayer at the hands of state-sponsored terror. Perhaps Pilate had gotten wind of their desire to rebel against him. Or perhaps Pilate was simply acting out of fearful spite, sending an ugly message to one and all: I am in charge here, don’t mess with me. Remember that it will be Pilate who will ultimately send an innocent Jesus to his death as well.
Jesus’ contemporaries were ready for Jesus to take their side against Pilate, to agree with them. He doesn’t bite. Instead of pointing a finger at Pilate, where a finger belonged, he uses the incident as a way to illustrate the need for repentance on anyone’s part. And no, the deaths were not a result of their sinfulness. Just like the Muslims killed at prayer in New Zealand, we can not say that the Galileans died because they had committed a sin against God or against humans. Jesus will not say that. What he does say is that death is real. It comes for us all. It is time for you to change your hearts and lives. Let this atrocity be a call for repentance for each of you. What are you doing with your life?
Their anxiety over the deaths of their countrymen reminds Jesus of another event they must have been talking about around town—the accidental death of construction workers at the tower of Siloam. In any time period, a construction accident, a mining accident, a bridge collapse becomes sad and sobering to all survivors. Did they die because they had done something against God or against their fellow humans? No, the deaths were not as a result of their sinfulness. But the truth is, death is real. It comes for us all. It is time for you to change your hearts and lives. Let this accident be a call for repentance for each of you. What are you doing with your life?
Jesus will not get sucked into a theodicy discussion—theodicy is the conversation about why bad things happen that always goes around in circles and never gives us a satisfactory answer. Instead, he focuses on the need for repentance, period. For all of us. No one is exempt from troubles and trials and tribulations. We don’t know when the other shoe is going to fall, we don’t know when we too will face a fearful time. We do have the power to repent, to recognize that we need God.
I’d like to share with you two descriptions of repentance that I find helpful. One comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who died in Nazi Germany because he spoke out against Hitler and his terrorism. In some of his writings, he defines repentance as allowing oneself to be caught up in the way of Jesus Christ. Jesus uses these terrible events as ways to call all his listeners to turn their lives and hearts toward him, to get caught up in his way. Another way to describe repentance comes from a Baptist minister who teaches at Princeton Seminary, which is a PCUSA seminary in Princeton, NJ. Eric Barreto declares that repentance acknowledges that God can redeem, God can set right, God can make whole. Repentance involves acknowledging that we are not being as fruitful as we could be, it means we know we are in need of the resources and the care of the One who is generous to a fault, the One who is ready to give us another chance, the One who wants to see us fruitful.
Repentance is God’s desire for us. Fruitfulness is God’s desire for us. Jesus tells a parable about fruitfulness to underscore his point. The fig tree can not be fruitful without the needed attention and time and resources to help it grow. You might wonder why the vineyard owner has a fig tree in his vineyard. Apparently, an agricultural practice of the day was to plant fig trees so they could be used as trellises for the grapevines. If you care for your tree well, you also get fruit from your trellis! The fig tree does double duty, and the landowner has the potential to get double fruitfulness. Except when it is not bearing fruit. The landowner was totally ready to de-clutter, to toss the fruitless tree and make more productive use of the space and the soil. But it is also interesting to read in Leviticus about the practice of planting trees and giving them three years without picking their fruit. Then the fourth year was a year of celebrating the bounty for God. Finally, in the fifth year the tree would produce enough to make it worthwhile to eat and share and sell the figs.
Maybe the landowner in Jesus’ parable was impatient. Maybe the landowner did not know the description from Leviticus. Maybe the landowner was like us in our de-cluttering mode this Lent, wanting to make the best use of his time, his energy, his property. In this case, the best use is being the most productive. The fruitless fig tree is no longer sparking joy.
The landowner is a step removed from the tree. He appears to be only worried about the bottom line: is this tree wasting soil? Taking up space? It is the gardener who knows the tree, who cares for the tree, who advocates for the tree to be given a second chance. It is too hard to look at this parable allegorically, trying to figure out if God is the landowner and Jesus is the gardener and we are the fig trees. Jesus does not seem to be telling a story about God’s nature (I don’t think he means to point out that the rough and tough landowner God needs to be talked into being kind), but rather about the kind of attitude we are called to take.
I think Jesus tells this parable to put his listeners on watch. Repentance is needed, becoming a follower of Jesus is the way to flourish. This parable is told to encourage his listeners to take advantage of the care being offered—tilling, keeping, watering, putting down manure for nourishment and healthy growth.
Parables always invite reflection and meditation on the part of the reader. This parable invites you and I to consider ourselves—are we producing fruit or are we taking up space? Are we in need of a second chance? Are we willing to offer a second chance to a relationship, to a workplace, to a community? Will we be the advocate for someone else? Do we have someone who is advocating for us? Tires can be given a second chance to produce life as they serve as holders for plants. Even in front of a boarded-up house flowers can be planted as a proclamation of life and beauty and hope for a resurrection. Perhaps there is an object or a situation in your life that seems like it needs to be trashed on first glance, but a deeper look shows there is potential, hope, and opportunity for growth and life. After all, we believe in a resurrected Lord. We believe in the God of second chances. For you, for me, for others. That is what truly sparks joy! Amen.

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