When I was at theological school, we had a rather unusual system of evaluation. Instead of getting grades, we were given an Approved or Not Approved. Either we met the requirements for that particular area of study or we didn’t, and we were asked to go back and do more work. We also had something called the Faculty Student Review Committee, that happened twice a year. The faculty got together and discussed each student’s academic, spiritual and theological growth. You’d make an appointment with your advisor to discuss the results of your evaluation. Generally, you would already have a good idea of what to expect; but every now and then a student would get blind-sided by a concern they didn’t even know existed: an opinion that he wasn’t taking his studies seriously enough; a perception that maybe her attitude could use a little work; or even a belief that he or she was on the fast track to nowhere both academically and vocationally.
When that happened, it didn’t feel very good. Being judged is not a pleasant experience – even if, maybe even ESPECIALLY IF, we know that their judgement may be dead on.
The Gospel lesson today is one of those ones that makes a preacher groans when it comes up in the cycle of readings for the year. Luke gives us a parable about a fig tree which will not produce fruit; the owner wants to chop it down, while the gardener wants to give it a little more time, and a little TLC to see if it might still bear fruit. This parable is set in the context of sayings about the end time, and the problem of the repentance of Israel. The passage is preceded in chapter 12 by parables about watchfulness and accountability, and the signs of the dawning of a day of judgement, which many people expected the Messiah to usher in. Luke’s intention for this passage is not to deal with the questioning of human suffering. What he wants to do is emphasize the reality of sinfulness and the immediacy of the forth-coming judgement of God. Jesus responds to the fate of the Galileans whom Pilate had killed by stressing the urgency for repentance for all the people. None of us know how many days we will have on this earth. Jesus urges them to, as we used to say, “Get right with God!” before it’s too late.
The image of the fig-tree is a familiar one in Scripture: the flourishing of the fig tree is a sign of God’s blessing, of abundance and prosperity. The barren fig tree is a symbol of desolation, a symbol of turning aside from God. There’s actually a similar story in Ahikar’s Parables, a Middle Eastern text written before the 5th century, that provides an interesting contrast: a father condemns his son for unfruitfulness, and compares him to a barren fig tree; the son pleads for another year to prove his worth, but the plea falls on deaf ears. Luke’s parable has significant differences: it is the gardener who pleads for leniency, for another chance for the fig tree; and the gardener puts his energy into nourishing that tree. Our parable ends, not with absolute condemnation, but with a warning.
How can we understand this parable in its context? It might be natural, if this parable is about judgement and the end times, to equate God and the owner. God is the owner who has given up on the tree and decided to cut it down. This judgement is final, complete, leaving no margin for change. This is the type of judgement associated with the end times and the Day of the Lord, and it is what we generally think of when we hear the word judgement in the Bible. It makes us liberal Christians pretty darn uncomfortable. Somehow or other we need to come to terms with the fact that the Jewish people of Jesus’ day, the early Christian church, and most likely Jesus himself, believed that God could and would judge the lives we lead, either after death, or at some apocalyptic moment that would turn the world and human history inside out. I’ve got problems wrapping my head around that, and I’m guessing some of you do too.
But the interesting thing about this story is that it’s not a clear-cut parable of judgement. Both the owner and the gardener tell us something about how God acts. The judgement of God in the person of the owner is balanced by the mercy of God; the tree gets another chance, through the benevolence of the Gardener-God. Jesus’ parable is a warning, an urgent message that yes, the time is short, and final judgement is coming, but it is not too late. There is still time — time to repent, time to live a life nurtured by the Spirit.
The Greek word for judgement, krisis, is the root of the word critique. Critique, in its positive sense, means encouraging growth through pointing out where one is going astray — like in drama club when we used to get people to sit in on our final rehearsals to let us know what needed more work. When I was thinking about this passage, the phrase “Judgement stinks” leaped into my mind; the notion of judgement as the fertilising manure was too irresistible to pass up. Judgement’s not pleasant, it’s not pretty, but it can nourish our growth. Judgement in this world is not a once and for all Not Approved; it is more like the process of critique which is behind the Approved-Not Yet Approved system we had at VST. By having the places we were weak pointed out, we were given the opportunity to improve our work and to reflect on what we had done and what we needed to do.
In this reading, Jesus is ringing the alarm bells – giving a Not Yet Approved, so to speak. His listeners likely looked at those who died in the accident or at the hands of the Romans as more sinful than they; but Jesus doesn’t let them get away with it. He challenges them to look at the places they themselves go wrong instead. The passage points out the necessity to change the way we live our lives – not next month, not next year, but now. To put off our repentance and postpone changing our ways in a world as broken as ours is to risk being in league with the forces that hurt and destroy. We are compelled by the Gospel to take up the way of discipleship at the call of Jesus, and to do so now. What better time than Lent to examine our lives and heed the Spirit’s call to bear new fruit?
When we think about God judging sin, some of us have inherited an image of God as a a hanging judge – ready to sentence us to punishment for the slightest transgression – what the Roman Catholic church calls venial sins. But when the people of Israel – and we ourselves – are called to account by God, it is most often not for our petty sins and misdemeanours, but for perpetrating injustice – or even tolerating it. The United Church of Canada has a long history of working with partners around the world to promote a more just society – but I wonder sometimes how many of us really get involved in those efforts at any point in our lives – other than perhaps writing a cheque now and then. When I was younger, I went on marches and did workshops and wrote letters and spoke publicly on social issues. But now the demands of work and everyday life have left most of that on the sidelines – and I don’t feel good about it. I wonder if you sometimes feel the same way? Thank goodness our gardener God is ready to give us another chance.
One of the organizations through which the United Church works is Kairos. The Kairos movement began in the 80s with social justice work in South Africa, and now Kairos groups around the world work year round on a variety of issues. Members of the UCW are going to share some information about Kairos with you at this time. As we hear it, call to mind the parable of the fig tree, and see if there is anything in this description that might call forth some of that stinky judgement, that nourishing critique. By paying attention to the work of Kairos, and other organizations like it, we submit ourselves to the judgement of God, and may hear an invitation to bear some new fruit.