I went to my 50th high school reunion in 2017, and several of us agreed that if our lives were measured like a football game, we would be in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. That, of course, is something we can only surmise, and, indeed, some of that cohort have died since that time.
The COVID-19 Pandemic has made it more difficult to avoid thinking about one’s mortality, whatever quarter of the game we might imagine we are in.
I turn to the 13th Chapter of the Gospel of Luke to reflect on the mysterious interplay between divine providence and human freedom, and what Jesus might have to say to us about our living of these days, however many of them we are blessed to have remaining.
Years ago, Author T. C. Boyle wrote an intriguing short story entitled “Chicxulub” which appeared in The New Yorker magazine. Chicxulub is the name of an enormous asteroid (or perhaps a comet) that collided with the earth around sixty-five million years ago on what is now the Yucatan peninsula, leaving an impact crater one hundred and twenty miles across, and twelve miles deep.
Boyle’s short story intersperses such episodes of catastrophic natural disasters with a story of one night in the life of one family. The main characters are a husband and wife, parents of a 17-year-old daughter named Maddy. They receive a phone call from a hospital: “There’s been an accident!”
Apparently Maddy has been hit by a drunk driver while walking home from the Cineplex. They head to the hospital in that dream state of shock that overtakes those in the midst of disaster. At the hospital they are unable to get much information out of the staff. They are told she is in surgery. They wait and wait. Finally, a young doctor comes out and speaks to them. He drops his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he tells them.
When I first read the story I was deeply moved, even though I knew it was a work of fiction. I may have wept. But Boyle was toying with his readers. He was toying with me. Because in the end we learn that Maddy is not dead. The dead girl on the gurney is a sixteen-year-old friend of hers, Kristi, who borrowed Maddy’s I.D. to get into an NC-17 movie in the next theater. Maddy gets another chance.
But Boyle has deftly created in fiction that dread state of anxiety we experience when confronted by a sudden and arbitrary shock. There are asteroids out there, he tells us, and there is no rhyme nor reason as to when or where they will strike. And there is nothing we can do about it.
In the 13th chapter of Luke, we hear Jesus telling his disciples similar stories about two shocking, horrific episodes. The first is about a recent atrocity that would have been well known to the disciples: how Pontius Pilate had murdered a group of Galilean pilgrims as they were making sacrifices in the temple.
Jesus evokes the unnerving picture of these murdered worshipers lying in their own blood amid the blood of their sacrificed animals. This would have been a shocking story for the disciples, who were themselves Galileans. But Jesus shocks them further when he says, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Then Jesus tells them a second shocking story, again a tragedy from the local news, known to his hearers, about a tower that has fallen on innocent bystanders, killing eighteen of them. He asks, “Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Jesus here calls into question the popular belief that all misfortune is punishment for sin. We may deny that we think that, but at some primitive level such a belief protects us from life’s harsh truths. So, when disaster happens to others, we too often tend to think there must be a good reason. When we read the obituaries, we may imagine the AIDS victim is an IV drug user or perhaps involved in high-risk sexual behavior. The one who died of COVID must have been careless about public health recommendation to wear a mask and social distance.
These are not fair assumptions, of course. but they provide a way of distancing ourselves from the pain of others. We make a bargain with God, that if we live relatively ordered and cautious lives, we will be safe from the asteroids, safe from the terrorists malice, safe from drunk drivers, safe from a deadly pandemic.
And when misfortune does happen to us or those, we love we all become theologians. We ask, to use the title of Harold Kushner’s popular book of years ago: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
It’s a question as old as the book of Job. Perhaps the best modern treatment of the question is Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge at San Luis Rey, in which a bridge collapses, killing a dozen or so people. Wilder looks at each of their lives up to the accident: “Why these and not others?” Why Kristi and not Maddy?
And that question surfaces anytime a sudden unexpected disaster strikes, such as 9/11, or when a tornado rips through a town. There are always stories about lucky survivors, people who changed planes at the last minute. But why were these people on the plane or the train, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Why these and not others?
It’s a popular question, a kind of theological parlor game. But it is not a question Jesus will answer, except to say, “So that you might repent!” It is worth noting in the Gospels how few times Jesus ever answers a question Instead he often tells a story, “A certain man had two sons . . .”
In Luke 13 we hear Jesus tell the story of the fig tree. The fig tree has not done much; hasn’t lived up to its promise. “A man,” Jesus said,“ had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So, he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ The gardener replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9)
The fig tree gets a stay of execution; like Maddie gets another chance. The possibility of fruitfulness still lies open. God’s mercy is still in serious conversation with God’s judgment. God is patient, but God’s patience is not to be presumed upon.
The parable of the fig tree is Jesus’ commentary on the other two stories of disaster. It doesn’t address the question of “Why these and not others?” So, if it doesn’t answer that question, what then does the parable tell us?
First of all, it tells us that we don’t have all the time in the world. Life has a quality of crisis and immediacy about it. There will be a reckoning. Time and mortality are themselves a reckoning. This is a recurring theme in Luke’s Gospel. Recall the story of the rich fool who accumulated more and more stuff and kept building bigger barns to hold his possessions. But then disaster strikes: “This very night your life will be required of you.” The rich fool’s time is up, and all that he has worked for counts for nothing.
Jesus tells us that life a test. So, what is the measure of the test? For one thing God looks for fruitfulness. I’ve often preached that God doesn’t look for success, but for faithfulness. But that can be used sometimes an excuse, because a good case can be made from the Bible that God also looks for fruitfulness. Jesus says, “You can judge a tree by its fruits.” In the context of this parable each tree in the vineyard would have used resources, so a fruitless tree would be a liability to the whole vineyard.
Let us notice something else about the fig tree. God doesn’t look for fruits that don’t belong to that tree. From a fig tree he looks for figs, not pineapples or bananas! God gives each of us the unique combination of gifts and talents, of time and opportunity, to bear fruit appropriate to us. We cannot judge our fruitfulness by the measure of others. If I measure my ability as a basketball player against LeBron James, or my writing against Shakespeare, I clearly don’t measure up.
Likewise, if I measure my Christian life against St. Francis, I have little to show. But God knows what he has given each of us. God knows what we can do and what we cannot do. That applies to congregations, too.
And that brings us to the next feature of the parable. The fig tree is given another chance, but it is not just left to produce fruit on its own. No, the gardener prunes it, and fertilizes it, and digs a ditch for good irrigation. In other words, if the fig tree produces good fruit it will be the result of some real effort. The gardener doesn’t create the fig tree or the soil it’s in, or the sun that shines on it, or the water that will nourish it. God gives all those things. But the ongoing effort to make the most of what God gives will be what produces good fruit. It is the hard work of the vinedresser who makes the most of the second chance the tree is given.
And the final thing the parable tells us is that fruit will only come if it can tap the source of its life. In other words, what we have here is not a fruit problem, but a root problem. That is what the call to repentance is about, to turn to the source of nourishment and life.
I once saw a good example of such turning to life in the natural world. When my family and I visited the south of France years ago we saw fields of bright yellow sunflowers. In French a sunflower is called tournesol, which literally means, “to turn to the sun.” And you can actually see the sunflowers during a single day turning to face the rays of the sun as it crosses the sky. They turn to the sun that gives them life by photosynthesis. Sunflowers are “helio-tropic,” made to turn toward the sun, and people are “theo-tropic,” made to turn toward God, the source of our life. So, we were made for worship, made for prayer, made for God.
That is what Jesus means when he tells them to repent. To repent simply means to turn, to change direction. Jesus wants his listeners to shake off complacency about their lives and realize they face a crisis. They can turn to God or they can go on living for themselves. The good news is that they have another chance; a chance to turn.
One of the reasons I think people love Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol is because of the dramatic turnaround in Ebenezer Scrooge. Remember Scrooge’s midnight dream, when he finally realizes who he has become and he is thrown into a crisis. “Are these things I see what must be, or what might be? Is it too late to turn?” The Christmas Carol is a redemption story without the religious baggage. It is about turning and finding yourself again after you have lost your way.
That is Jesus message for us today: “Listen to me and follow me. Turn and live.”
We live day by day by the mercy of God, for “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.”
This is the great mystery of our lives, that though we are sinners, in need of God’s mercy, we are also God’s beloved sons and daughters, the apple of his eye, his pleasant planting. And like the fig tree in the parable, God looks to us for fruit. God has made us for his own good pleasure, and wants to delight in us and see us blossom and flourish with fruits of faith, hope and love.
We are given another chance. So, the asteroid misses the earth, we miss the plane, or take the wrong train, or the test comes back negative. We are given another day, another chance.
And how might we take advantage of another chance? “Turn and live,” Jesus bids us. “Follow me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
“God’s steadfast love abides forever and his mercies cannot be counted.” Amen.
This meditation is excerpted and expanded from a sermon I preached at the First Congregational Church (UCC) of Lee, Massachusetts, on February 28, 2016. (Picture: detail, Jesus heals the crippled woman and the Parable of the Fig Tree, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague, 1430)