Sermon: Fresh Figs

March 24, 2019
Third Sunday in Lent

Luke 13:1-9

by Eric Anderson

Something just feels right about retributive justice. It’s got a pleasing simplicity to it. It feels fair.

Do this bad thing, and that bad thing happens to you.

It’s the logic of discipline for a child, a logic straightforward enough that they can follow it. Leave your toys on the floor, and you can’t watch television until they’re picked up. Start yelling, and you get a time out, away from friends and play.

As a father, though, that’s not how I thought about it.

What I wanted was to discourage certain behaviors on the part of my children, behaviors that were dangerous to themselves or others, behaviors that would damage things, and behaviors that just made them unpleasant to be around. What we did was to set a price on those behaviors. If the child did one of those forbidden things, they’d have to pay a price in privileges or deprivation.

And in some cases, they made the cold, hard, decision that they’d just as soon pay the price.

So… we’d raise the price the next time, and let them know, so they’d be less likely to pay it again.

It was a constant back and forth: what would cost too much for them to do this thing they wanted to do, but we didn’t want them to do.

Good times.

But here’s the thing: There wasn’t anything in the least “fair” about it. It wasn’t moral. This was disciplinary economics, and the prices were essentially arbitrary. They only changed if they didn’t meet the goal of discouraging the behavior.

When they got older, we changed the technique. Who wants to play with prices and consequences for months and years? We changed to description and persuasion: we’d like you to be a good person. These are things a good person does. These are things a good person does not do.

We tried to be a little less arbitrary about those.

So there was Jesus, and along came some people to tell him about the latest tragedy: Galileans, probably charged with rebellion, slaughtered by the Romans apparently while at worship. And Jesus asked the question on everybody’s mind:

Did they deserve it?

If a retributive justice system is working properly, then they should have deserved it. They should have been not just rebels, but rebels acting in their own interests rather than their people’s. They should have been sinners to have died at worship.

There are people in the Christian church today who will tell you just that about the Muslims killed at worship in Christchurch, New Zealand, or the Jews killed last year in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or the Sikhs killed in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012. They were not Christians, those people will say. Non-Christians deserve death.

Jesus said: No.

No, it wasn’t true that those Galileans were great sinners. No, they didn’t die because of their sins. Neither did the people killed by the collapse of a Jerusalem tower. No, there’s plenty of sinners living and breathing.

Righteousness and success, sin and tragedy, are not linked. Life is not that simple.

As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg writes, “Our highly individualistic American culture loves to talk about how if I do well, I will get a cookie from God, I will get money, be free from disease, safe, I will be OK, I, I, I, me me me me me.  That’s not how this works.”

No, that’s not how this works.

The world is not some automatic system of retributive justice.

Instead, Jesus asked: “What about you?”

It’s not enough to accept that tragedy strikes where it strikes, without regard for the righteousness or sinfulness of the sufferers. Jesus didn’t want us asking about them. He wanted us to ask ourselves about us.

As Matt Skinner writes, “Jesus wants to talk about repentance. The need for repentance is a universal condition, shared by random victims and finger-crossing survivors.”

Jesus demanded that we shift our focus from them to us.

As I discovered as a father long ago, I do not have the ability to control another person’s actions. They do what they do. I also do not have the ability to determine the state of another person’s soul. They are who they are.

And while it is true that some unrighteous behavior increases the chances of consequences – aggressive driving causes two-thirds of traffic fatalities, according to – that’s never a guarantee.

And it’s still about them.

So what about fig trees?

Angela Reed writes, “Newly planted fig trees have a long juvenile period, generally requiring four to five years to produce the first crop. Once they are producing fruit, they will generate an edible crop once or twice a year depending upon the weather conditions and the care provided through fertilization and pruning. Healthy fig trees can continue to provide fruit for decades.”

Jesus’ parable implies that God has some patience with us, so that we can grow and bear fruit in our time. Further, Jesus’ parable implies that God gets actively involved with us, so that we are more likely to bear fruit. As Matt Skinner writes, “The tone of the parable emphasizes that patience and mercy temporarily keep judgment at bay. The role of the gardener offers a crucial characterization of this patience and mercy. The tree has not been left to its own devices. Everything possible is being done to get it to act as it should. Correspondingly, God does not leave people to their own resources but encourages their repentance.”

Encourages our repentance.

D. Mark Davis says, “In the end, holding these two stories together offers an alternative to the kind of quid pro quo justice of revenge that many people ascribe to either God or some kind of universal force. We might call it ‘karma’ (don’t, please) when someone driving obnoxiously gets a flat tire, or think it is God’s doing (don’t, please) if a bad person meets a bad end. As an alternative, Jesus offers a parable that invites digging, cultivating, dunging, and doing everything one can to give a fig tree a chance to bloom. It is a plan of action to assist the one who is failing, not a passive hope that they get what’s coming to them.”

To restate it, though: It is a plan of action to assist me as I am failing, not a passive hope that I’ll get what’s coming to me.

We are each of us fig trees. God looks to us for fresh figs.

If we focus our attention on what’s happening with others, to blame or correct them, we will spend our energy and resources on things we have limited power to influence or to change. And we will short our own spirits of the concentration needed to be the best person we can be. We will not be the person God made us to be.

Even worse, we may fail to notice the diligent, loving attention God gives to each one of us: treasuring us as a favorite fig tree in the garden, doing all the things that can make us grow.

God is with us. God can bring from us fresh figs.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Fresh Figs

And once again, Pastor Eric felt free to adapt during the sermon. This is likely to happen. Yes, it’s likely to happen.

Photo of a fig tree by Fir0002, used by permission under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on March 24, 2019

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