Jesus tells a parable about an unresponsive fig tree in a man’s vineyard. Seeing that the tree has never produced any fruit in the past three years, the man tells the caretaker to cut it down. It is worthless and is taking up ground that could be used for something else. Cut it down, he tells the caretaker. But the caretaker pleads with the man to give the tree one more year . . . he will give it some extra tender loving care . . . give it more fertilizer; then, after a year, if it is still not bearing any fruit . . . then cut it down.
Now this is an interesting parable that Jesus is sharing . . . interesting because it comes at the end of a discussion about some pretty horrific things that have taken place. In one, we hear a story how Pilate has sent his soldiers into the Temple, attacked a group of Galilean pilgrims as they are worshipping and offering their sacrifices to God . . . murder them all. The writer of the Gospel of Luke tells us that their blood was mixed with their sacrifices. A horrible and sacrilegious act on the part of Pilate upon innocent people. Then the second, is a story about some innocent bystanders who are standing by a tower when it falls down . . . kills 18 people. They are just standing there, going about their business, when the tower suddenly falls down and smashes them flat.
Of course, from those who shared the story of the Galileans killed by Pilate, the question is why did this happen . . . why do “bad” things seem to happen to “good” people? In Jesus sharing the story of the tower falling on innocent people who just happened to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time . . . the same question is being thought . . . why do “bad” things happen to “good” people?
So, the question is “why?”
The prevalent view point in Jesus’ time was that bad things happened to bad people. The story of Job is a good example of this thinking. Remember how Job’s wife and friends urged him to step up and admit his sin to end his suffering? They just assumed that Job had committed some horrendous sin deserving of the way his life had gone down the tubes. But, Job was spotless . . . even God had said that he was the best and most faithful. But, the prevalent point of view was that “bad” things happen to “bad” people.
The problem with this view point is that it doesn’t always fit. This is what makes those sharing the story of what happened to their friends at the hands of Pilate so frustrated . . . that makes them so angry. Their friends were good and faithful people . . . they were killed in the Temple worshipping. This just doesn’t make sense or fit.
Of course Jesus doesn’t feed into their anger. Instead he presents them with the situation of the tower falling down and killing 18 individuals. Again, when viewed in the formula of cause and effect . . . of “bad” things happening to “bad” people . . . it doesn’t make any sense. So Jesus tells asks them, “. . . do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Of course not! These people were just innocent bystanders in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Most twelve step groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous, have that popular saying, “Poop happens!” And, that is true. The belief that “good” things happen only to those who are “good”, and “bad” things only happen to those who are “bad” . . . it just doesn’t stand up to experience. All of us can share stories that fly in the face of this belief; yet, it is still a pretty prevalent understanding of faith. The truth is that fate plays no favorites . . . “good” and “bad” things happen on both sides of the fence to both “good” and “bad” people.
Jesus doesn’t even go there.
Instead, after each of the two stories, Jesus hits his listeners up with the statement: “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Jesus is not going to get into this game, instead he gives a stern warning with a clear call to repentance . . . he calls upon his listeners to change direction. Now, remember, to “repent” is to turn and change direction. Jesus is not going to get into this idea of “cause and effect” nature of sin. This is not a matter of sin, if it were . . . well, we’d all be dead . . . after all, we are all sinners.
Here is Jesus issuing a call to all those who are listening to change directions in life . . . to change directions in life before it is too late. Since Jesus issues that call to change twice, I would think that this is probably an important point that he is trying to make. Yet, there is that lingering question . . . that prevalent idea of “good” and “bad” . . . that just won’t go away. The focus is there . . . and, because the focus is there, we are missing the point.
I’m going to hand out a picture for you to look at. (Look at the picture at the top of this page.) Take a moment to look at the picture and tell me what you see . . . some of you saw a young woman . . . some of you saw an old woman. Which is it? Well, it comes down to perspectives . . . comes down to what you think you see. With those who shared the story of Pilate’s killing of the Galileans in the Temple, there was only one perspective; and, because of that one perspective there were conflicting feelings . . . these were good people that did nothing to deserve what had happened to them. Same for those who were killed when the tower fell down . . . they did not deserve what had happened to them. That is all that anyone could see.
Yet Jesus sees it differently. For Jesus this is not a matter of whether or not they deserved it because “bad” things happen all the time . . . sometimes they happen to “good” people, sometimes they happen to “bad” people. They just happen and when they happen that is it . . . it is done . . . there is no going back to fix things or change things . . . there is no chance of going forward and changing things. It is done. More upsetting to Jesus is the idea of whether or not these people had repented . . . whether or not they had changed their course in life . . . before they had died.
Thus he warns them . . . “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” And, remember, he issues this warning not once, but twice. This is what he wants . . . he wants people to change course . . . to get into relationship with God . . . to love God completely . . . and, in a like manner to love others.
Which brings us back to that parable. What does this parable mean? What does it mean in light of the previous discussion of the “cause and effect” of sin?
Simply put, the man who owns the vineyard has a “cause and effect” view of the trees in his vineyard. If it is producing . . . it gets to live; if it is not producing . . . chop it down. But the caretaker steps in for the unproductive tree . . . tells the owner that he will give it some special tender loving care . . . give it extra fertilizer . . . then if it does not produce fruit at the end of the year, he will cut it down. It is a moment of grace as the owner allows the caretaker to step in with the offer. In the year to come, the tree survives on grace . . . it is given another chance.
On one hand this parable tells us that we . . . who are still alive despite all the things that have happened in our lives . . . are still here because of the grace of God, and that our purpose is to bear fruit for God. Especially if we view ourselves . . . in the abundance we have, as being among those who are blessed. After all, we are “good” people. Thank goodness for grace.
On the other hand . . . another perspective . . . is that maybe, “cause and effect” has nothing to do with it. Maybe, just maybe, we are that unproductive tree in the vineyard who has been given all this extra special care because we do have a difficult time producing fruit for God. Maybe it is not a matter of blessing as much as it is a matter of needing extra time and help to get it right. In hearing the parable, which tree in the vineyard would you have identified with? I imagine that most of us would have chosen one of the trees that were producing fruit . . . we would never chose to be identified with the unproductive tree. And, yet, we very well could be that tree. It is a matter of perspective . . . ours or God’s.
So, in the end it all comes down to repentance. We are to turn around. We are to change the course of our lives. We are to get in line with Jesus and his ways. That is what Jesus wants from us. And, maybe we ought to seriously consider this call to repentance . . . you never know what is going to happen when it comes to life . . . one day we are here, the next we might be gone. Each day is a day of grace . . . miraculous grace. Once again, God has decided to give us one more chance. Amen.