Luke 13: 1-9

We seem to be in an era when people decide they will not back down, no matter what; they will not turn back, even if they think they are headed in a wrong direction, and they won’t apologize. At least in the public arena such stands are rampant. Then rhetoric becomes defiant. Rarely is there progress in the arenas of justice or peace with those self-serving attitudes. But there are some wonderful examples of remorse, of compassion, or of just good business in our world too. For example, in spite of having no responsibility for the massacre that happened in New Zealand, their Prime Minister still announced that “Families of the fallen won’t have to worry about the full cost of funeral expenses while mourning their loved ones, regardless of their immigration status….As I’ve said before, immigration status is not a factor. It is based on the event happening here in New Zealand.” So funeral costs, up to $10,000 per person, are being covered, largely for the peace-loving members of a small mosque who were gunned down. What a stand: not of stubborn defiance, but of caring for your neighbor. In Flint Michigan in 2014, the water source was shifted from a safe one to the Flint River to save money. The governor directed the change. To this day, Flint water still has toxic levels of lead in the drinking water, yet there has been no repentance, and no apology by the governor. There has been silence. Slowly old pipes are being replaced, which is very costly and tedious process. Then last April, the state stopped providing bottled water. Can you imagine asking your children to drink cloudy water with varying levels of lead? After hard work from Mayor Karen Weaver, Nestle Corporation stepped up to provide bottled water again-a wonderful move, perhaps for company business, but also for the health of the residents. In our own state last fall, perhaps because of budget shifts in the last administration, many say that red tide developed on Florida’s west coast, ruining beaches, killing fish, and stopping tourism. But now under the new administration, without apology but with action, state money has been shifted to help keep the same conditions from reoccurring. Thousands of Floridians hope red tide will remain a 2018 nightmare, but not one for 2019. As Presbyterian Minister Mr. Rogers put it: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem. Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

Two things that mend fences and move groups from conflict to cooperation are remorse and repentance. Jesus spoke specifically about repentance. John the Baptist did too. Few words are paired together better than remorse and repentance. A simple illustration might make that clear. Some boys are on an empty lot playing baseball. It’s just a group from a neighborhood. One boy at the plate really hits a pitch on the sweet part of the bat and sends the ball through the window of a neighbor’s house. The boys could have faced the owner by being defiant, not giving him any names for restitution—that is, money to get the window fixed. Or they could have faced the owner, denying that any of them broke the window, even as a baseball was on the floor of his house. Instead they chose the Jesus way, instituted back in the days of the Old Testament, even before Jesus was born. They went to the man and the boy who hit the ball said, “I really caught the pitch perfectly and I heard it break your window. I am sorry about that.” (That’s remorse. Not that hard, is it?) Then he said, “I think the guys and I can adjust the bases so we can aim the field in a different direction so that this will not happen again. (That’s repentance; making a change so the same thing will not happen again.) “And sir, the boy said, “I’ll pay to get your window fixed.” (That’s restitution- the restoring of something that has been broken.) Look at those powerful words; Remorse; repentance; restitution; restoring of a relationship. In fact in the Lord’s prayer, Jesus actually said, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” because in spite of the price he would pay on the cross, he knew that the debt between two people was only squared when there was some payment for a wrong, whether it was a payment of money or payment of time served in some fashion. When the account is squared as much as possible, debts get forgiven. This is what is missing in today’s world; in national standoffs; in condo fights; in classroom fights: it is this formula of building bridges, not creating deeper and deeper rifts. Listen to Jesus’ terse comment when people in his day were worked up into real indignation about what some others had done: “I tell you, unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” [Luke 13:3] People who do nothing or say nothing, in the midst of a conflict, a defiant act, or a damaging event become complicit in the consequences. In those circumstances, how many people say to themselves or others, “Not me! I’m staying out of this!” And Jesus turns to them, to you, and to me, in our deafening silence or defiant inactivity and says: “Unless you repent, you will perish as they will perish.” There is no Monday morning quarterbacking. There is no claiming of ignorance. There is no washing our hands of guilt. How many neighborhoods—where there has been a shooting—have police ask a crowd, “Who saw what happened? Who can help us bring the shooter to justice?” Then, in spite of each person holding a cellphone that might have recorded some useful footage, they look at the ground and shuffle their feet. Jesus has little compassion for those who don’t work to raise the level of discourse, responsibility, and conscience in their neighborhood or world.
Apathy is the devil’s work. Jesus was about making a difference during the short time he walked this earth. After his death, he counted on his disciples then and now to spread the gospel and do his work. A fanciful story is told of Jesus ascending into Heaven and meeting up with an angel. The angel said: “You really were changing a lot of people’s lives while you were on the earth! What’s going to happen now?” And Jesus replied: “I’m counting on my disciples to carry out my work.” The angel then said: “What is your plan if they don’t do it?” To which Jesus clearly said: “I have no other plan.” Jesus has no other plan to save souls and change lives other than through the spread of his message by disciples then and now; and by human beings doing the right thing to help neighbors. If we, like some elected officials, are silent about wrongdoings, Jesus says: “Unless you repent, you too will perish.” We have to have our sleeves rolled up; our hearts and minds engaged, and mouths willing speak when needed. We need to call out wrong and commend righteousness.

As a teacher, I think Jesus pulled on the examples that were around him. Today as he was likely near a fig tree; he decided to make his point—as usual—with a parable. Listen to author and teacher Barbara E. Reid’s insights into this passage:
The parable in 13: 6-9 conjures up familiar biblical images. In several texts in the First Testament the combination of fruitful figs and productive vineyards symbolizes prosperity that comes from God’s blessing. Fig trees were frequently planted in vineyards. In Micah 7:1 the prophet speaks of his frustrated search for figs and grapes at summer harvest time as a way of depicting God’s disappointment over Israel’s faithfulness.” [Parables for Preachers, Year C, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2000, p. 51]

The Bible is rich in imagery. The prophet Isaish, told Israel, and by extrapolation, us: “All we, like sheep, have gone astray, everyone to his own way” [Isaiah 53:6.] Today it is Jesus’ turn, comparing Israel, and by extrapolation, us, to fig trees. The world, the story goes, is the garden, and the trees (human beings) in God’s garden produce figs: that is their purpose. If they are not producing figs for up to three years, (which is a biblical number of completeness) the trees are given one more year to bear fruit, as a gift of grace and patience. Using the tree analogy, how do we know if we are bearing fruit or not? In part it is stepping up to the responsibility plate and doing the right thing. God needs evidence that we are bearing fruit. A card always sits on my desk and today I’m going to tell you what it says: “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” God, the gardener, is giving some of us one more year; just one more year to carry out Jesus’ ministry and show evidence of being his disciple. The Gardener is also the grader. God grades on grace, but not forever. When, do you think, that our “one more year” begins? Perhaps, it has already begun.

Jeffrey A. Sumner March 24, 2019