I don’t know about you, but this scripture reading leaves me asking tree-mendous questions:
- Why is Jesus talking about these two horrible events?
- Why is he connecting suffering with sin?
These two tragedies, the people that were murdered by Pilate, and the tower that fell on people, must have had people concerned. Maybe someone told Jesus hoping he would offer the people some comfort, some answers. Jesus does that, but Jesus also gives them a challenge. And he doesn’t leaf it at that. He follows up with a parable about a tree that doesn’t give a fig. It’s a parable about change. More than that, it’s a parable about grace.
It was common in Jesus’ time for people to think that when bad things happen to someone it’s because they did something wrong. It’s still something we wrestle with today.
I was listening this week to the Ted Lasso podcast that Christian Dashiell does with Brett and Marisa Callan. They have an episode in which they talk with Nadia Bolz-Weber, one of our favorite writers and pastors. As they’re talking, Nadia says that we tend to have this idea about God that if God loved us, then life would look like we want, but if it doesn’t, then maybe God doesn’t love us.
It’s the main argument that the friends of Job are making in that book of the Bible. Job has experienced the loss of everything – his farm, his children, his health – and so he must have done something wrong for which God is punishing him. Job’s friend Eliphaz says, “My experience shows that those who plant trouble and cultivate evil will harvest the same” (Job 4:8). But Job isn’t suffering because he sinned. The very first line of the story tells us that Job “was blameless—a man of complete integrity. He feared God and stayed away from evil” (Job 1:1). Job is suffering because, in life, bad stuff happens.
But like Job’s friends, we want reasons when bad things happen, explanations, so that we can figure out how to protect ourselves from having the same trouble, or so that we can be helpful.
Kate Bowler, who wrote the book we’re reading for Lent, Good Enough, has another book called, Everything Happens for a Reason and other Lies I’ve Loved. In the book, she tells about her struggle to finish her dissertation for her PhD when her body suddenly stopped cooperating. Her arms became useless. Doctors couldn’t explain it, but they tried. One said, “You’re doing too much yoga.” But she couldn’t even do yoga. After seeing so many doctors, she was frustrated and depressed and feeling helpless. So her husband and parents suggested she move in with her parents so that they could help her finish her dissertation, which made her feel even more helpless. She says:
“My body was failing me, failing all of us. Pain rippled through my limp arms. I was no longer proof of anything that testified to the glory of God, at least not in the eyes of the people around me. I was nothing like a sign and a wonder. Instead, I was living in my parents’ basement, and I simmered with resentment. Wasn’t I better than this? ‘I used to be shiny,’ I said to a friend with a sour laugh. ‘I really was pretty shiny at one point.’”
In the scripture reading today, to the question of whether suffering is God’s punishment for sin, Jesus says emphatically, “Not at all!” We can’t assume a correlation. God doesn’t always work this way.
So, Jesus says, “But unless you repent, you, too, will perish.” (Luke 13:3,5)
Q: What does it mean to repent?
A: To turn from sin, to express regret. We sometimes equate it with apologizing.
The Greek word that is used here is metanoia. It means to change. To change one’s mind. To reconsider. To think differently.
To change our minds is to make space for the Holy Spirit to work.
To the people asking about suffering, Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you too will perish.” C.S. Lewis says that suffering is just part of nature, part of life. And if we try too hard to avoid it, we will find that we’ve squeezed out life itself.
Change or die. It sounds rather extreme. It is the situation for the family business that is Downton Abbey.
In the TV show, Downton is a large estate run by Lord Grantham. There are tenant farmers on the land, but they are stuck in old ways and not productive enough to make a profit. So the estate has been surviving by investing the money that has been handed down through the years. But Lord Grantham makes a very bad investment and loses so much money that they are going to have to sell the estate, bringing an end to the life they have known for generations. His son-in-law Matthew proposes an alternative – update the farming practices so that the land becomes productive and makes a profit. You’d think that this would be an easy decision, but Lord Grantham has trouble making change and it takes a long time to convince him.
Change is hard. Jesus says unless you change, you will perish.
To further illustrate this, Jesus tells the parable about the fig tree. The landowner wants to cut it down because it hasn’t produced any figs, but the gardener talks him into giving it one more chance. A year of grace.
For the fig tree, that change is going to happen in the form of digging up the soil and putting in some fertilizer. Giving the tree some medicine to help it grow.
Why does digging help a tree to grow? Digging helps let the air and water get into places that have gotten compacted. For people, change helps us find new life. Digging lets the Holy Spirit get into places that have gotten compacted or stuck in us.
It helps us make room for God’s grace.
How do we make space for grace? Even small changes can make a difference. When I’m stuck on what to write, sometimes moving helps. Going for a walk. Going to a different location. Even just standing up and stretching, or turning my chair around.
Movement helps us mentally and physically. This week Mona Ball was telling us at our Operations team meeting about JoAnna Brashear Munafo, who’s been on our prayer list recently because of a cancerous tumor that had to be removed from her face. She is doing well. As part of her healing process, she has to keep massaging the area on her face where they did the surgery. Massage helps break up scar tissue, kind of like digging breaks up the soil.
Where in our lives might there be scar tissue that needs help to be broken up? Or a bit of digging or adjusting?
I read this week that there’s an update of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible being published. I know this makes some people nervous about what might change and why translators would think they need to do this, but the reality is that our understanding of ancient Hebrew and Greek, the languages in which the earliest versions of the Bible were written, continues to grow, and our own modern English continues to change. We use words differently now than we did thirty years ago, let alone fifty or a hundred or a thousand years ago.
For example, the word Guy: “This word is an eponym [a word that comes from someone’s name]. It comes from the name of Guy Fawkes, who was part of a failed attempt to blow up Parliament in 1605. Folks used to burn his effigy, [his image] a ‘Guy Fawkes’ or a ‘guy,’ and from there it came to refer to a [unlikable person]. In the U.S., it came to refer to men in general.” And now to people in general.
So Bible translators keep working on adjusting to keep up with current scholarship and usage. It’s a necessary change.
Fertilizer …is yucky. It’s kind of like taking medicine. We don’t notice it as much with pills, because we swallow them without tasting them most of the time, but I have one pill that is a tablet without any coating, and every once in awhile it gets too wet and sticks to my tongue and won’t go down and it is sooooo bitter. But I can remember when I was a kid and medicine was always liquid because I hadn’t learned to swallow pills yet, and there was one that was absolutely horrid tasting. I made a face every time….kind of like the face we might make if we got too close to a pile of fertilizer.
As yucky as it can be, change can be good medicine, but the results are not always quick or easily visible. For example, that fig tree. It takes several years for a tree to be mature enough to bear fruit. But I also wonder….
What if that tree were a person? What would make us justified in cutting a person down? What would be the fruit we should expect?
In her book Everything Happens, Kate asks similar questions:
“What if rich did not have to mean wealthy, and whole did not have to mean healed? What if being people of “the gospel” meant that we are simply people with good news? God is here. We are loved. It is enough.
“… A friend of mine looked at his newborn daughter, dewy from birth, and could not acknowledge what he saw with his own eyes. She was plump and pink with the lightly hooded eyes of a perfect child, but a perfect child with Down syndrome. Despite all the love in his heart, or perhaps because of it, he could not say those words aloud. Down syndrome. And that sliver of iron became a commitment never to proclaim, never to “negatively confess,” that his baby girl was anything less than typical.
“… I received this friend’s Christmas card in the mail not long after his daughter was born and stared at it on the fridge. The sun shone behind their heads, upturned in laughter, the baby on his lap, a gaggle of children hanging off of their mother. I exhaled slowly. I suddenly longed to have the strength to pick that baby up and hold her eye to eye, so I could say the words that I longed to hear: “You are perfect, my darling, just as you are. You are the gospel.”
What if changing our minds simply means accepting that God loves us all even in our imperfections.
What if that fig tree was ok just the way it is? It’s in a vineyard. A tree in a vineyard is there to be a trellis.
In the podcast with Nadia Bolz-Weber that I mentioned earlier, Nadia said one of her favorite scenes in the Ted Lasso tv show is the one in which the little girl named Phoebe goes to the house of a boy that’s been bullying her about her bad breath. With the help of her uncle Roy and Keeley, she’s written out her statement, telling the boy how he’s hurt her, telling him he should change his ways, but then without waiting for him to say I’m sorry, she has room for grace, and she says, “I forgive you.”
This is what God does with us all. Before we even think to say I’m sorry or work out how we need to change, God has already forgiven us. Just like that fig tree gets a second chance, we get a second chance and a third and a fourth – to love God, to love our neighbor, to forgive one another and help one another know God’s grace, and to know how much God loves us just the way we are.
As we make room for grace, God’s love changes us.
 Bowler, Kate. Everything Happens for a Reason (p. 19). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Bowler, Kate; Richie, Jessica. Good Enough (p. 104). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Bowler, Kate. Everything Happens for a Reason (pp. 21-22). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.