Parable of the barren Fig Tree Luke 13:1-9
Sermon by The Reverend Charles Royden
An old Hasidic story
A king visited a prison in his kingdom and talked with the prisoners. Each one insisted on his innocence except for one man who confessed to a theft. “Throw this rascal out of the prison!” cried the king, “He will corrupt the innocents!”
It is a simple story which looks at our willingness to see the wrong in others and condemn them and yet be blind to our sins. The prayer comes to mind
‘Give me grace dear Lord to myself as others see me’.
So it was that often people came to Jesus and pointed the finger at suffering ones and asked about the sin which brought tragedy upon them. It is important to stress at the outset that Jesus will have none of this. Do you remember when they used the example of the man born blind the man born blind? Obviously the man couldn't have sinned before he was born so it must have been his parents who brought the illness upon him. Jesus Heals a Man Born Blind John Chapter 9
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.
Where did these ideas come from? Well if you read the Old Testament then you do get the idea that when you are good, God will be good to you. It was a treaty like any other treaty in the ancient world. There were blessing and curses. If you obeyed the king you were blessed if you went off and had alliances with others then there would be the curses.
Then we see developments in theology, Job complicated the whole thing, why do good people suffer? Suffering is a dreadful idea and one that we grapple with, why do bad things happen to good people?
So we have all sorts of strange goings on in people’s heads. People feel guilty and imagine that God is punishing them. Some people drive bargains, they ask for God’s help and promise in return that they will be good.
This then is the context in which we pick up our first verse of today’s passage where a few who had gathered around Jesus talk about how Pilate mingled the blood of Galileans with the blood of the sacrifices they were making in the Temple.
While we do not have a historical account of such events, the story does match in theme and tone, other accounts of what Pilate was like.
Jesus responds by asking,
“Do you think that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?
This response is what I like to think of as a Jesus twist. Here we have a group who thinks that there is a hierarchy of sin and punishment dealt out accordingly by God, Jesus points out to them that they think this in all likelihood because they are safe and therefore more holy. He recognizes that they are arguing that the violence of one’s death relates to the darkness of one’s sins – Jesus goes right to the point and is unwilling for his listeners to believe they are
- greater than
- or that they sin less
- or that their sins are lesser
So he says: “Everyone must repent. Everyone is called to repent, repent early, repent often, repent now, and repent.” He tells them they are going to die too and suddenly and unprepared ! Jesus rejects the idea that God works in such ways. Jesus acknowledges that in this life there are unfortunate accidents, and they are just that. Jesus makes the point that you are not responsible when a tower falls on you. These events remind us of how uncertain life can be.
That does not mean that we should not all take the time we have to sort ourselves out. So, we see that Jesus is teaching those who will listen that they must all repent. They must repent because they do not know what may happen and death may come at any moment. They must all repent. No one has more or less sin than someone else.
How is repentance something that bears fruit?
- Repentance helps us understand the individual acts we take or do not take that have affects on the wider community.
- How do my habits of consumption affect others?
- How do my wants and desires get bruised when I don’t get my way?
- How do I lash out and blame others when I am at fault?
- How do I seek to have others give me esteem so I feel good about myself instead of understanding that God esteems me and loves me?
When we change our habits we change the world in which we live.
Repentance - conversion of the heart - does not mean being filled and tormented by guilt. Instead, it means being ready to admit our responsibility for our actions and our need for forgiveness, and having a firm desire to change our life: to turn away from ourselves in prayer and in love.
Repentance means, above all a constant, patient, growing in love. It means our willingness to open ourselves to the work of the Spirit in us and to embrace fully the gift of our salvation.
This is not dry theology, it expresses what goes on in our consciousness. It is just as real today as it was when Jesus dealt with it 2,000 years ago. Human guilt, remorse, self righteousness, these are all themes which we struggle with. These themes are as important now as ever they have been. Les Miserables is a classic example and how popular it all still is.
Those who have seen it will remember the opening scene. Men pulling a huge ship up into a dry dock wit their bare hands. What terrible crime had they committed to be punished so?
We are then introduced to the hero Jean Valjean. Has he battered an innocent man to death with his bare hands to steal money for beer? No, out of hunger and starvation he has stolen a morsel of bread to feed a hungry child, and for this he endures years in chains. The innocent suffer - and through the film we see scenes and scenes of the innocent suffering more suffering than one person should ever endure, so much so that eventually you are suffering too ! Indeed many people for no greater sin than having bought a ticket leave the cinema in floods of tears.
But then there is a scene of hope. The convict having served his sentence for his dreadful crime goes to a monastery and having stolen again, we see him forgiven by the bishop and he stands next to a cross on a mountaintop. Valjean had been turned into being a villain by the lack of humanity shown to him, but the kindness of the bishop turns him around.
Valjean takes the stolen stash of silver he is given and he turns it into a fortune that benefits many. It is the parable of the talents, it is the miracles of the leaves an fishes .
Despite the misery and suffering that permeates the story, “Les Mis” radiates hope, the kind of hope we all need. One of the great recurring themes of the Bible is that the line that separates the sinner from the saint is really no line at all. Research a saint and you uncover a sinner, the ideal saint is made of plaster, not real flesh and blood.. We are all sinners. We all need to repent. And one of the things we need to repent from right upfront is the audacity to regard ourselves as “ok” and regard others as degenerates. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. In Lent, that’s a great place to start.
One of the really nice touches in the passage from Luke comes from the words of the gardener. When asked to chop the tree down the gardener says ‘Lord, let it alone"--kyrie aphes auten. The Greek word Aphes also means "forgive." It is a word Jesus will subsequently use from the cross--"Father, forgive them (aphes autois, 23:34). We could change the translation, the gardener would say, "Lord, forgive the fig tree’. This kind of thing is to be expected in a story told by Jesus and there’s a final point, there is no mention anywhere in the Old Testament of anybody of putting manure on trees, that kind of mercy is pure Jesus. Charles Royden