“Another Chance” Colchester Federated Church, March 20, 2022, (Luke 13:1-9) Third Sunday in Lent

On this Third Sunday in Lent we hear Jesus teaching a parable.  A parable about repentance and potential.  A parable about God loving us too much to let us stay exactly the way we are right now, especially if we find ourselves in a rut.  Jesus tells a story about a fig tree in a vineyard.  For three long years this fig tree doesn’t bear any fruit.  The vineyard owner tells the gardener, “Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?”[1]  This proposed action could represent an economic loss—fig trees didn’t exactly come cheap.  But at least this worthless fig tree would be out of sight and mind.  The gardener intervenes, “Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer.  Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.”[2]  The gardener asks the vineyard owner for another chance for this tree.

Biblical scholar Arland Hultgren points out that applying fertilizer to a fig tree would have been highly unusual in Jesus’ day, “a sign of extraordinary care for the tree.”[3]  That’s exactly what the gardener demands.  Let me go the extra mile for this fig tree.  Let me see if my extra attention and love will make a difference.  The two figures in this parable (the vineyard owner and the gardener) could represent two sides of God: judgment and mercy.  It shows how God must sometimes wrestle with seemingly barren fig trees that aren’t living into their potential.  Maybe God wrestles with cutting them down or loving them that much more so that they will bear fruit in the end.  Note that the story ends with the mercy of God.  This may be what Jesus was teaching his followers in this parable—that mercy wins the day.  God’s grace is greater than anything we can imagine or deserve. Our God is a God of second chances who sees potential in us that we may not yet see in ourselves. 

In one of this week’s Daily Meditations from the Center for Action and Contemplation, Father Richard Rohr wondered about our personal images of God and the connection between our families of origin and how we see God.  Father Richard wrote, “We have to break through our ideas about God to find out who God really is. Our early and spontaneous images of God are typically a mixture of our experiences with our own mothers and fathers. If our mother was harshly critical, so is our God. If our father was domineering or authoritative, likewise our God. It’s almost tragic to witness how many people are afraid of God, experience God as cold and absent, and even have a sense of God as someone who might hurt and betray them. These ideas about God reveal far more about the state of our parent symbols than they do about our Trinitarian God.”[4]

It’s worth doing some internal spiritual work to figure this out.  How do we break through our inherited ideas about God (particularly if those ideas are problematic) to find out who God really and truly is?  Because we do have ideas about God that are developed early in our lives from our families of origin.  Maybe we don’t think about that consciously, but it’s true.  Is God harshly critical?  Is God authoritative and domineering?  Is God cold and absent?  Are we afraid of God?  If any of this rings true, we can ask ourselves where these ideas are coming from and begin to challenge these ideas.

We have an exercise that we do together in Discipleship Class when we have our class on Jesus, and I ask the particular group of youth that I’m teaching to think about how they picture Jesus.  What color is his hair?  What color is his skin?  What color are his eyes?  Is Jesus short or tall?  Is he someone you would say is attractive or more “normal looking”?  What about his general size and stature?  Is he somebody you would immediately notice in a crowd?  Does he have a loud voice or soft voice?  A deep voice—would Jesus be a tenor or a bass?  So I ask all of these questions about Jesus and mostly focus on his physical appearance.  Then we look at pictures of Jesus together—from classical European artists all the way to contemporary artists or iconography or actors who have been cast as Jesus in movies or TV shows.  There is often a surprising moment when someone will point at a picture and declare, “That doesn’t look like Jesus.”  The point of this class exercise is that we have an image of Jesus in our minds already.  The question is—what does Jesus look like for you and let’s weigh that with the historical reality that Jesus was a real human being who lived outside of Jerusalem and died around 33 C.E.  He was of Middle Eastern Jewish heritage, so probably didn’t have white skin, blue eyes, and blond hair.  If we have that image of Jesus in our minds, why and where does that come from?

Let’s consider this exercise and think about our image of God.  We have this parable from Jesus about a man who owned a fig tree and that fig tree was planted in his vineyard.  The tree wasn’t producing any figs for three long years.  The vineyard owner is ready to cut it down because it’s depleting the soil’s nutrients.  But the gardener wants to give it one more year, to dig around that tree and give it fertilizer, to help it grow.  If we follow the line of thinking of Professor Hultgren and consider that Jesus may be speaking about two sides of God here—judgment and mercy, which side of God are we more drawn to?  Judgment or mercy?  Which character in our parable do we more readily identify with—the vineyard owner who wants to cut that tree down or the gardener who wants to help the tree grow?  Maybe it depends on the day.  Or maybe it depends on how we understand God.  Less so on the physical level—how does God look to you, though that is a worthy question to ask.  More so, how does God work or who or what is God?  Again, Father Richard says that we have to break through our ideas about God to find out who God really is. 

It always makes me sad when people view God as someone or some thing to fear.  Because fear is the opposite of faith.  Living your life based on fear that you’re not good enough, you’ll mess up, face judgement, not be forgiven, burn in hell—it’s hard to see where there is freedom in this way of life, let alone grace.  In the end, we can remember that God is love.  God is love.  As we can read in 1 John later on in the New Testament, “God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them.”[5]  Yes, there are many sides of God.  We can’t deny that both mercy (the gardener) and judgment (the vineyard owner) are present here in this parable.  But notice how Jesus ends this story, “Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer.  Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.”[6]  This parable ends with the mercy of God, with another chance—give it one more year.  That is some good news in this holy season of Lent.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Luke 13:7, CEB.
[2] Luke 13:8.
[3] Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, 244.
[4] Father Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation, “The Circle Dance of God,” Wednesday March 16, 2022, https://cac.org/the-circle-dance-of-god-2022-03-16/
[5] 1 John 4:16.
[6] Luke 13:8-9.

Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash