Thirsty Fig Trees Bear More Fruit
Year C, Isaiah 55:1-9 and Luke 13:1-4
Sermon to Pohick Episcopal Church March 24, 2019
The Rev. Dr. Lynn Ronaldi
“Whoa, what did THEY do to deserve THAT?”
This is what’s on their minds when some people ask Jesus why God allowed the Romans to slaughter Galileans who were worshiping and making sacrifices in the temple.
The people of Israel believe those who experience affliction are being punished by God. They assume if someone suffers, they deserve it. Jesus also knows they’ve been struggling with His message of human repentance and divine mercy.
So he articulates their unspoken question:
Do you think these Galileans committed worse sin than other Galileans?
Then Jesus answers his own question with an emphatic NO. Furthermore, he adds, when the tower of Siloam fell on 18 people as they stood in the wrong place at the wrong time, they were not worse sinners, either.
Jesus points out that neither those Galileans who suffered an untimely death, nor the 18 tragically killed when the tower fell, were more egregious in their sins than those who now stand before him.
What they are asking whether there is a cause-and-effect relationship between sin and suffering. A common assumption of the people of Israel was that those who experienced pain were being punished by God, either for their own sins or for the sins of their ancestors.
Today, that theodicy still exists. Wherever pain and suffering exist, some are sure to remark that the afflicted ones must have done something to deserve God’s wrath.
Just a little over a week ago, when a lone gunman killed 59 worshippers in two New Zealand mosques, religious fundamentalists were surely wagging their heads and insisting that God must be judging Muslims.
After Hurricane Katrina, when refugees poured into Houston, I saw a pastor lay his hands on a refugee’s head, and shout, “Lord Jesus, we are so thankful that you saw fit to cleanse New Orleans of its evil and vice with this great storm!”
Now this sounds horrifying to our ears -- and rightly so.
But ask yourself, don’t you ever wonder if God allows things to happen to people because they deserve it?
If we’ll admit it, most of us have surely asked the same question when something bad happens to us:
Why Lord, did I do something to deserve this?
Or when someone you love has a terrible accident, or gets a bad diagnosis, or dies, haven’t you simply wondered why bad things happen to good people? Where is God in this?
If you’ve asked any of these questions, you are certainly not alone. There are times we all tend to assume that there’s a correlation between a person’s problems and a person’s sin.
Human beings have struggled with the problem of evil and suffering for thousands of years. Including in Jesus’ day and all the way back to Isaiah’s.
But Jesus is emphatic here: God does not rain down punishment. He does not favor one sin or sinner over another. No one receives preferential treatment. His Grace is available to all who hunger and thirst for it. To those who return to the Source of Life.
In other words, God’s judgment is tempered by divine mercy. The only “price to pay,” if you will, is repentance, a turning from our disordered attachments and a returning to God. And life is short, so repentance needs to happen now.
Jesus uses the parable of the fig tree to illustrate this hope for salvation and the urgent call to repentance.
The imagery is reminiscent of Scriptures in which the people of God are compared to a garden planted and tended by the Lord. The fig tree represents the apathy and indecision widespread among those who hear Jesus’ message.
The master who owns the garden comes to the gardener looking for results. The fig tree has produced zero fruit. The master demands that the gardener “Cut it down,“ for it is “wasting the soil.”
But the gardener pleads for one last chance for the tree. He begs for an extension: just one more year. The gardener promises the master he will nurture the tree with manure and tend to it while it grows to its full potential.Doubtless, he will water the thirsty fig tree and hope for the best.
Divine mercy falls like a gentle rain, and quenches all kinds of thirsty soil, bad or good. Resistant or receptive. On fertile fields or parched desert -- God’s mercy flows freely.
The dehydrated who drink from the font of life will indeed produce the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, gentleness, kindness, patience and self-control.
The prophet Isaiah offers that same hope to exiles in the 6th century BC. He is addressing people who have been conquered and who are struggling with similar questions. Isaiah calls out to them, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters…come buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
Isaiah admonishes them for wasting their resources on and striving for things that are of no benefit. They have been seeking in the wrong places and working for the wrong goals.Instead, Isaiah entreats them to “eat what is good,” and “take delight in rich food.”
Finally, Isaiah reminds the people that life is short, so break from those empty attachments now, and repent. He says, “seek while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them.”
In other words, do not become distracted by the question of who deserves mercy. Instead spend your precious time discovering what attachments keep you from living life to the fullest, and repenting of them.
Metropolitan Anthony De Mello describes how our disordered attachments, thoughts and emotions destroy our hearts. We are often tossed around by our own emotions, suffering the pangs of anger, depression, anxiety, fear. But think about it: just about every time, it is because we set our sights on:
- something we do not have
- holding onto something we have,
- or avoiding something we do not want.
For instance, maybe you’ve had an experience in which:
- You were in love, and felt rejected. Suddenly all your heart and mind were focused on that one thing, and the banquet of life tasted like ashes in your mouth.
- Perhaps you were determined to win an election, and in the noise of the battle, you couldn’t even hear the song of the birds.
- Or maybe you were faced with a serious illness and you found it impossible to concentrate on anything else.
In other words, the moment you picked up that attachment was the moment your heart began to be destroyed, according to DeMello.
Take a moment and think about a time when you longed for something, thirsted for something, became attached to something that troubled you. Maybe you’re feeling troubled right now by some attachment.
Keeping this attachment in mind, consider these three truths:
- You must choose between this attachment and happiness: you can’t have both. The attachment has thrown your heart off kilter, and your carefree life is gone.
- Second, if you want to become fully alive, you have to gain a new perspective. Life is infinitely greater than this trifle you have become attached to, and which you have given the power to upset you.
- The unavoidable conclusion is: no thing or person outside of you has the power to make you happy or unhappy. You choose whether you will cling to your attachment, or thirst for new life.
Jesus reminds us not to be distracted by wondering what someone did to deserve suffering. Or wondering why something happened to us.
Instead, look inside your heart for the longings and attachments that threaten to destroy you -- and detach from them while you still have time.
Because, friends, life is short. We can choose to live it like one who is dead, or only half alive, all the way to the end.
Today, hearkening back to Isaiah and other prophets, Jesus is passionately urgent. He refuses to get caught up in whether or not someone deserves to suffer. God’s mercy rains down on all who thirst.
Jesus directs us to ask the right question:
“What attachments need repenting in my life, now?”
He longs for us to use the time we have left to detach from our disordered desires, and attach ourselves to the amazing gift we have already received: God’s love and mercy.
Listen again to the call of Isaiah:
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters…
Incline your ear and come to me;
Listen, so that you may live.”