When Good Things Happen to Bad Fig Trees

A Sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian

March 3, 2013

Luke 13:1-17

Our text this morning is actually the first part of the chapter we read last week. Jesus, remember, is headed to Jerusalem, and to his death on a cross.

And Jesus’ followers want him to answer the questions we always want God to answer for us too—why do bad things happen to good people? Apparently some people had died when a tower collapsed on them. That story reminds us of deaths from earthquakes, the mass shootings that seem to be plaguing our society, or people who die too young from cancer, etc—people who were just going about their lives when it all fell apart. Did they deserve to die? Had they done something wrong?

But the other illustration isn’t as clear. Some Galileans had been murdered by Pilate. The description is that their blood was mingled with their sacrifice, which tells us a few things.

One, they were in the temple in Jerusalem, because that’s the only place a good Jew would have been making sacrifices.

Two, this particular atrocity has political and not just religious implications because the Roman authorities normally left the religious life alone. They may have taxed you and kept you from civic and cultural freedom, but they tended to leave your religion alone.

But in this story, which is only recorded in Luke and not in any outside documents, Pilate has people murdered in the Temple as they are making sacrifice, mixing their blood with the sacrificial blood—desolating sacrilege.

So this illustration may have just been about the first question—why do bad things happen to good people—or it may have been intended to stir up Jesus’ nationalistic fervor.

In any case, Jesus, on his way to the Cross event, had been calling people to repent and to prepare for the transformation of the world that was about to take place, and takes the time to address the misconceptions behind their questions. Because the common assumption of people then, and probably of people now, is that when bad things happen, we have somehow done something to deserve it. God is punishing us for our own sins or for the sins of our ancestors.

Jesus stops them in their tracks. “do you think that because these people suffered in this way that they were worse sinners than the other Galileans?

Well, when he puts it that way, it doesn’t sound quite right.

But maybe that is what he is really exposing—perhaps our underlying thoughts when bad things happen to other people is really arrogance—“Those poor people….they must have done something to deserve it. That could never happen to me.…” Most of us don’t consciously believe that, I trust.

So Jesus calls us to fight the tendency of our culture to blame things on people.

Whether we’re blaming Pilate, or the engineers who designed the tower of Siloam, or the Terrorists, blaming Hollywood or video games, blaming President Obama, or still blaming President Bush—we want to be able to blame things on somebody. Anybody.

But Jesus won’t let us stay there.

Because good people die in bad accidents and from cancer. Bad people live to be 100 and die in their sleep. Bad people die in bad accidents too, for that matter. But blaming Pilate doesn’t change the fact that life is fragile, beautiful, and uncertain. Blaming Pilate doesn’t change the real issue under our control.

Repentance.

Do you really think those people are worse sinners than any of the rest of you?” Jesus asks. “Whether you die when a tower collapses, or die quietly in your bed, don’t ask the wrong question. The real issue is repentance. Yes, life is fragile and short, so don’t worry about the righteousness of your neighbor. Worry about your own relationship with God. That ought to keep you plenty busy.

And then Jesus goes on to talk about a fig tree.

This fig tree has been in a guy’s vineyard for three years, which is plenty of time for a fig tree to start making figs, but it is barren. It is not doing its job. “Cut it down!”, he says. Which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Property is valuable, so if something isn’t producing as it should, you get rid of it and plant something else.

But the gardener argues for the unrepentant fig tree. “One more year. If I just spread some manure around it, I’m sure it will produce figs.”

I think this is probably not very good gardening advice. But I think it is a great illustration of the faithfulness of God. Because God, like a gardener, gifts us with mercy beyond measure. Long after we should be moved out of the garden, God for reasons only God can understand, continues to prune us, continues to nurture us, continues to have faith in our potential.

When Jesus confronts the people about the Galileans and the Tower of Siloam folks, he tells them about a fig tree and then says, “what kind of fig tree are you? Are you producing fruit, or are you just taking up space?

We want to ask, “what will keep us safe?” God wants us to be asking, “what will give us life so we can bear fruit?”

We do that. We ask the wrong questions. And maybe the fig tree story is to remind us to ask the right ones.

Because the truth is this—if God were in the business of handing out punishment as consequence for our behavior—none of us would be standing. The vineyard wouldn’t have a single fig tree left in it.

Thanks be to God for the unfathomable mercy of God that our little fig trees are still standing, still striving to be faithful disciples.

But our repentance does matter. Repentance, or turning back to God, should call you back to living for God, for standing up for justice, for actively seeking God’s kingdom on earth.

The fig tree parable should also be a reminder to us as people who labor in the vineyards. We are called to tend to the garden, to pull weeds, to add manure, to do the labor—but to also remember that the harvest isn’t ours.

We don’t get to be the people who determine which fig trees are worthy. We are not in control of this harvest or of God’s kingdom.

Thank God that we aren’t the ones in charge.

But oh, how we wish we were!

And then the text moves from the fig tree to Jesus teaching on the Sabbath. He sees a woman enter the synagogue. She’s all bent over from an 18 year long affliction. He calls her over, heals her, and she goes off rejoicing and praising God—one fig tree who is all excited to finally be producing fruit.

But the religious leaders can’t get over the fact that he’s breaking the rule—“any other day of the week and we’d be celebrating with you, Jesus, but you can’t just go saving people’s lives on the Sabbath. Silly Jesus”.

But chalk this one up to the Kingdom. He puts his opponents to shame and the people rejoice at the work that is being done.

We too, have a response to make. Are we going to look around at the great things that God is doing in our midst and say, “we’d love to celebrate that good news, but it happened on the wrong day of the week, and really, a bent over woman isn’t who we’d heal anyway.”

Or are we going to be like the crowds, rejoicing that life has been made better for one of God’s children, even if we had nothing to do with it? And even if the recipient of the healing isn’t the person we’d choose to heal?

Because like the fig tree parable, the healing of this woman is outside of the religious leaders’ control. Let’s face it—if we were going to heal someone of an 18 year long affliction, we’d schedule it. We’d have an American Idol like competition to find the most deserving and popular person to heal.  We’d publicize it—don’t do it next week—let’s save it for Easter when we’ll have big crowds! We’d call the Idaho Statesman and tell them to bring a photographer.

But Jesus doesn’t do that. He’s in the middle of teaching a lesson, and then he sees her, calls her over, heals her, and presumably goes back to his lesson. He doesn’t even stop to ask about her righteousness, (or her repentance, for that matter). He doesn’t know anything about her. She could be a person who throws litter on the ground, doesn’t like puppies, and yells at kids on the playground!

Jesus’ PR people hang their heads in dismay.

But the crowd gets it. They get a glimpse of the mystery of God. A woman is healed!

What kind of God is this that just heals random people without first checking to see how deserving they are?

I hope, like the crowd, you see this as good news!

You may have seen this video already, as it made the rounds this week. But I offer this to you as an illustration of one way to be a fruit bearing fig tree.

This kid had no reason to throw the ball to a player on the other team. It wasn’t going to help his team win. It wasn’t the way the rules are written. No coach would ever routinely tell their players, “when you inbound the pass, make sure it goes to a member of the other team, preferably one who is standing unguarded under the basket.”

But this kid is a fig tree bearing fruit. Unexpected, yet joyful and life giving.

So, when we get hung up on the fact, the truth, the reality, that bad things happen to good people, Jesus calls us to remember that good things happen to us as well. It is in the good, the bad, and the boring, equally, that we are called to live out our calling to bear fruit.

As Jesus marches toward Good Friday and the cross, he is leaving us with all sorts of evidence that the world is different when God is in charge. It is out of our control. It isn’t what we’d script. And it benefits us for reasons that we can’t even begin to imagine. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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3 thoughts on “When Good Things Happen to Bad Fig Trees

  1. looks like you found something to say… and the sermon is certainly fruit bearing… thanks for the Good News

  2. nice work!

    the thing I always wonder about the ‘why do bad things happen to good people’ question, and that I think is really played up by this text, is that the reality is that none of us are “good people” who *deserve* to have good things happen to us. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…does the fact that bad things happened to some mean that some are good and some are bad? nope. It means that s&%* happens. The bad-things-good-people thing always makes me wonder why we think we deserve a pass on the hard or tragic parts of life? and if it really was bad-things-to-bad-people, would we feel any better about that?

    LOVE your use of the video…thanks for sharing!

  3. For me, it goes back to an interpretation of the book of Job. It’s not a book answering the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” For the story of Job, we’re already given the answer for that specific situation. More importantly, though, God seems to be answering the question “What should good people do when bad things happen?” For Job, it was maintaining righteousness, maintaining a relationship with God (albeit a stressed one), and seeking to figure out how his life could be better.

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