Feast Day: Third Sunday in Lent
Readings: Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
“Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.”
As a season Lent is a microcosm of the Christian life. We hear the call, as in our readings this morning, to turn to Jesus Christ and live. As the leaves of a plant turn towards the light of the sun when the curtains in a dark room are drawn back so Jesus is calling us to turn to him, the source of our life, that he might nourish us with his own life and generate spiritual fruit in us. The word that names this turning to the Lord is repentance and we hear it on the lips of Jesus this morning: “But unless you repent, you will all perish.”
To some that may sound rather threatening. Is Jesus saying that perishing—whatever that means—is a consequence prepared for all those that do not come to him? Do those who perish deserve it? That seems to be the question put to Jesus at the start of our gospel reading. Those Galileans who suffered and died, were they worse sinners?
Before we scoff at such logic we should pause and ask ourselves are we much different? Do we not rush to justify our own sins as quickly as we rush to condemn the sins of others? Do we not draw lines between “them” and “us,” between “sinners” and the “righteous”? Have we not become a society that oscillates between moral outrage and moral grandstanding? In either case, the temptation is to view others as worse sinners than us. “Those Galileans probably deserved it!”
However, as followers of Jesus we are called, at the very least, to resist such polarization. Jesus turns our outrage and our virtue-signaling on its head and rather invites us to understand that everything is an opportunity for our own repentance, everything is an opportunity to draw nearer to the Lord, to know his mercy and forgiveness, to let go of our own sin and give it to him.
After all, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn remarked, the line between good and evil does not run between “us” and “them” but rather cuts through every human heart. So, for those of us that insist on keeping score there is one sin that is worse than all the rest, my own. Ever since I first read them I’ve been haunted by these words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all.” “But unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Perishing is the natural consequence of sin—sin isn’t natural at all but permit me the use of the word. Note, not consequence for sin but consequence of sin. Sin leads to perishing much as the 400 south leads to Toronto. Or, as St Paul put it: “the wages of sin is death,” (Rom 6:23).
In the words of the Psalmist, sin is that “dry and weary land where there is no water,” (63:1). This is the land in which we find ourselves. We are parched and thirsty, perishing, lacking fruit. Jesus himself put it even more starkly in the gospel. We are like a barren fig tree, unable to bear fruit, the ax is at the root. Forget about refreshment we are in need of life. In need of turning towards the one who is Life. “Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,” says the prophet Isaiah. But how can a dead thing turn?
Repentance is a necessary part of the Christian life apart from which there can be no fruitfulness. But it is itself is a mystery that we can only get into by a paradox. Consider those first words we heard from Isaiah this morning: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Repentance is a bit like hungry people buying and eating to their delight without money.
Jesus calls us to repent but even repentance isn’t something we can take credit for. We got into this party without a dime in our pockets and besides, the food here isn’t for sale anyways so pockets full of cash won’t do you much good. You see, the kingdom of God is grace all the way down. Your sin doesn’t disqualify you anymore than your moral uprightness qualifies you.
Even a living plant turn doesn’t turn towards the light all on its own. Rather the light and the warmth of the sun draws the plant towards itself. A dead plant hardly stands a better chance of getting its act together: “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”
Lucky for us, death is how the kingdom does its work. (Capon) Whatever else the parable of the barren fig tree means it means at least this: As long as Jesus has breath in his lungs he won’t give up on us. In fact, when push comes to shove, he’ll give up the breath in his lungs on the cross in order that his body might become dung for our barren souls.
“Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.” This is a parable that highlights the grace and mercy of God. As St Peter writes elsewhere: “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance,” (2 Pe 3:9).
Love is patient, we heard a few weeks ago. Jesus is patient, his love suffers, endures, hopes, never ends. “Sir, let it alone,” says the gardener to the owner of the vineyard. Later on in Luke’s gospel the very same words are on the lips of Jesus as he hangs there on the cross: “Father, forgive them,” (23:34).
You see, Jesus is our Advocate with the Father, as St John put it. He is the propitiation for our sins, the gardener of our souls. We live, as the fig tree lives, because of his forgiveness. He draws us to himself, pruning away whatever is harmful, filling our lives with holiness so that we may produce good fruit for him (St Cyril of Alexandria).
Lent is a time to remember this because it is easy to forget. We think we live by our own merit and we like to imagine that salvation is essentially a pat on the back for a job well done, or at the very least that our repentance makes up for our unsuitability. (Fr Robert Capon)
But that’s not how the cross works. On the cross Jesus becomes sin for us, and he goes outside the walls of the city, on the garbage heap where he becomes compost and manure for us. (Fr Robert Capon) And then he comes to us with a word of forgiveness: “Sir, let it alone for one more year,” “Father, forgive them.” And he sends our roots resurrection. He does not come to see if we are good enough, he comes only to forgive. For free. For nothing. And as long as you are in him and he in you, you will bear fruit. As long as his death feeds your roots, you will never be cut down.