s154g98 Somerton Park 8/3/98 Lent 2
"Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?" Luke 13:7.
It needs to be said that the gospel stories were not written to convince us that Jesus was raised from the dead. If that was their purpose then the amount of words spent on that particular part of Jesus life is indeed minimal and contradictory. No disciple of Christ needs convincing that Jesus was raised from the dead. No, the accounts were written that the words and actions of Jesus in his earthy ministry were not forgotten. So the writers were not inspired by historical motives, detailing a chronological account of all that Jesus said and did, a biography of his life. The gospel writers were concerned to impart the truths of who Jesus was and the message he came to bring. So incidents and parables are put together, not because one happened straight after the other, but to serve the purpose of getting the message across.
The stories are meant to put flesh and blood to our experience of the risen Jesus, that we might not miss the vital things he had to say. All this is to say that each of the author's motives are theological not biographical.
So the parable of the fig tree without fruit is placed after the command to repent for a purpose. Indeed the parable of the fig tree without fruit is placed before the following incident of Jesus' ministry, the healing of the crippled woman and the response of the leader of the synagogue, for the same reason.
I am sorry for the long introduction. However if we read Jesus' words: "I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did" (Luke 13:5) and assume that we we think repentance is and what Jesus thought repentance is are identical, we might end up doing not what Jesus wants at all, and perishing.
For if Jesus is quite clear that repentance is necessary, we need to be clear what Jesus means by repentance.
Now, I don't know what any of you think repentance is, but when I think of repentance, I think of repenting the things I have done wrong. Repentance means admitting I've done something wrong and apologised to the person (or to God) I've offended. Now while this is good and thoroughly worthwhile thing to do, I'm not exactly certain that is what Jesus means.
Let me explain.
We should note that the issue of sin and sickness is not raised by Jesus. I haven't done a full study but my overall impression is that Jesus never raised that issue. It was always the disciples and the religious authorities who asked these sorts of questions. We are told that "At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices." (Luke 13:1). Perhaps it was in the context of why should this have happened - a very normal human expression of grief. But the fact that Jesus talks about this and the 18 on whom the tower fell, leads me to think that it is plain simple curiosity that is involved. It is more likely that the sin / sickness issue is being raised. Jesus goes to some lengths however to dispel the common perception that God is out there ready to zap people who do wrong, and don't apologise ...
Jesus goes to some lengths to say to those who are raising the question of sin / sickness in the lives of other people need to repent. Now Jesus may or may not have known these people, but he would have been an extraordinary character to have divine knowledge that each and every one of these persons had offended someone and had never apologised ...
What he did know about each and every one of them was that they were concerned about the relation of sin and sickness, particularly in other people's lives. So when he calls them to "repent" it is as likely that he is calling them to stop worrying about other people's salvation, forget completely about such theological issues and get on with living their own lives.
When he calls them to "repent" he is calling them to forget about other people, and what they did or didn't do to deserve what happened to them, and concern themselves with their own lives, of bearing their own fruit.
While it might sound all very lovely and religious, worrying about the chances other people may or may not be saved, is, like the fig tree, is simply a waste of space.
We see another waste of space in the leader of the synagogue, in the incident immediately following. After Jesus had healed the crippled woman on the sabbath in the synagogue, "the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day."" (Luke 13:14) What a waste of space! And if we are a waste of space, we are using up space someone else can use more profitably.
I wonder if you read the article about gardeners in the Advertiser recently. Jon Lamb wrote the article entitled "Green - thumbed dictator". He writes: "Traditional images of gardeners are of gentle, soft-hearted people. Nothing could be further from the truth, because really good gardeners are completely ruthless. ... The best gardens are managed with the ruthlessness of a corporate top 10 manager. Any plants that aren't productive or fail to live up to expectations are trimmed or removed without hesitation - and there aren't any redundancy plans involved either. It's direct to the compost heap. ... Most gardens benefit from a complete reappraisal every five years or so. (He quotes) an old Chinese proverb that says that creating a beautiful garden is just like ... painting except the plants keep changing and the canvas keeps changing too. Once you've accepted that nothing is static, it is much easier to develop a more ruthless approach. Pulling out a plant that's not doing so well will seem less of a crime if you keep reminding yourself that something else will thrive there." Advertiser Fri Feb 27 p73)
The Rev'd Chad Verah OBE, the founder of the Samaritans, the suicide prevention group with branches in every country of the world, was once reported to have said of some people he had encountered: "We are dealing here with the phenomenon of people who need to feel excessively virtuous by forcing others to conform to their ideas ... (they) are people who are not able to accept themselves, let alone other people as perfectly ordinary mixtures of good, bad and indifferent, as human beings whom God loves in spite of their defects. God isn't surprised that they aren't perfect. But people who can't see this are led into the blasphemy of wanting to manufacture other people into their own images." ("Penthouse" July 1978 p 85ff)
We're bidden to mind our own business, and to get on with doing what we should do. I am reminded with the exchange between the risen Jesus and Peter, when Peter wants to know about the disciple Jesus loved, after being given specific directions about what he had to do - being - "feed my sheep!!!". "When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, "Lord, what about him?" Jesus said to him, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!" (John 21:21-22).
After this service we are to have our Annual Vestry meeting, and one of the issues is whether we will for the first time in some years employ an outside professional stewardship promotion agency. I really don't mind either way, for I will continue to say whoever comes or doesn't come, stewardship (like the whole of the Christian life) is about my response to God, and that has nothing to do with anyone else.
I confess I have had concerns about paying an outside professional. I would object to spending lots of money for a person to come in for a couple of weeks, to "put the hard word" on people, and in doing so, undo all the trust built up over the last seven years of my ministry here, and leaving me to pick up the pieces. I would object if they were to walk away, congratulating themselves on a good job, if the program were successful; or with recriminations in their heart against the parish if the program weren't. I have however been reassured by a fellow member of clergy that this will not be the case for at least one of the agencies we are considering employing.
There is a limit to the inclusiveness of the Anglican Church, as there is a limit to the inclusiveness of Christianity. Trees get cut down when they bear no fruit or get in the way of others bearing fruit. If we use the exercise of stewardship, or anything else, as an excuse to look down our noses at others in the name of God, it is we who will have our career path truncated, not those who we may care to look down our noses at.
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