Lent 3c, February 28, 2016

February 29, 2016

To Be Continued
Luke 13:1-9

1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them–do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” 6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

I’m not a television junkie. The most important people in my life don’t live or work at Downton Abbey, but I do like a good television show. I have some anxiety about the upcoming finale of that epic series on Masterpiece Theater. There’s going to be a gap in my life when that show comes to an end, but with the help of my friends on NCIS, and the return of Scandal I’ll get over it.

For those of you actually have a life and don’t spend much time watching television, what you need to understand is that there are basically two different kinds of series. You’ve got shows like NCIS, which has the same main characters each week who are faced with new situations that have little to do with what happened the previous week. Now it helps to have seen the previous twelve seasons of the show so you know the complete backstory behind each character and you can pick up on the subtle comments their coworkers make to them about former spouses or unresolved cases, but it’s basically a new plot each week that they encounter and solve. Occasionally there will be an episode that is continued in to the next week or the following show, but most world-threatening situations get resolved within the hour.

But you also have these shows like Downton Abbey or Scandal, where you really need to know what went on over the past few years of these people’s lives. Otherwise you’ll never know what’s going on when they give each other these long gazes without any dialogue.

And I don’t know how anyone lives without a Digital Video Recorder anymore. I never watch shows when they’re actually being run. We record them and watch them at our convenience, and for me, it’s often a big decision. Do I want to watch a show like NCIS that will be neatly resolved at the end of the hour? Or do I want to see what will happen next for the long-suffering Lady Edith on Downton Abbey. And what will come of poor Barrow the Under-Butler?

Sometimes I’m in the mood to watch a show with some clean resolution. Sometimes I want to see the diabolical plots of cruel and greedy people get smashed by the creative thinking and brave acts of the good guys. But there are other times when I want to have my emotional strings plucked and tugged and left to wonder what will happen next. Downton Abbey doesn’t reflect real life as I know it, but it’s probably more realistic than an episode of NCIS. Occasionally situations get resolved in real life, but it always takes more than an hour, and there’s always something more that needs to be addressed.

Sometimes we get a little something behind us, but we usually have some residual issues that carry over from one day to the next. And if you are looking for a way to get away from this you don’t need to go looking for relief in the Bible. Anyone who ever went to Jesus in hope of getting an easy answer to life’s persistent problems didn’t get much satisfaction from Jesus. People who came to him with simple questions weren’t given easy answers – they generally departed with questions that were even more perplexing.

I hate to say it, but as Luke tells the story of Jesus, we are presented with a series of stories that are far more perplexing than resolving. The illustrations Jesus uses to respond to the situations the Galileans presented to him don’t provide easy solutions to the ongoing tensions of life. In fact, these stories may even serve to create more confusion than resolution. Because what these stories reveal is the way in which faith in God is often at odds with the simple solutions and understandings we often latch on to about the way God interacts with this world operates.

I’m not saying that there’s not some profoundly good news wrapped up in these illustrations and questions that Jesus provided, but if you are looking for easy answers and fairy-tale endings you need to close your Bible, turn on the television, and find an episode of NCIS.

This morning’s passage of scripture is another case where Jesus simply didn’t give people the reassurance they were looking for. It appears that these Galileans came to Jesus in hope of hearing him rail against those evil Romans. Apparently Pilate had sent soldiers in to the Temple and they had slaughtered some people from Galilee who were in the process of bringing their sacrifices to God. It sounds like a truly horrific event, and there was no doubt a lot of outrage within the Jewish community about that event. I’m guessing these Galileans expected Jesus to join them in ramping up their righteous anger against their Roman occupiers, but that’s not what he did.

He asked them if they thought that happened because they were worse sinners than most other people — which is what people generally believed when something bad happened to someone. Jesus didn’t join them in judging the action of Pilate, Jesus challenged them to reexamine their way of seeing the world.

The popular way of interpreting a bad situation was to think that people got what they deserved. If you’re familiar with the story of Job you’ll recall that his so-called friends kept trying to tell him that he had surely done something to bring about his terrible calamities. They were trying to make sense of what had happened to him, and the only thing that made sense to them was that he had offended God and he needed to repent from his evil ways.

Certainly there are occasions where people suffer the consequences of their own choices, but this is not always where suffering originates. And the result of this type of theology is often very devastating to people who are the most vulnerable. Anyone with any infirmity was tormented by their disease and stigmatized by the belief that their condition was the result of their sin.

But of course you make exceptions to this popular theology when a situation involves the action of a sworn enemy, so these righteous religious people weren’t blaming the victims for their own slaughter, they had an enemy to hate, and they must have been disappointed when Jesus refused to join them in their rage and reminded them of their usual way of interpreting tragedy. He asked them if they thought they were worse sinners than everyone else. And he answered his own question by saying they weren’t, but then he pointed out to his hearers that they needed to repent or suffer the same fate.

Clearly Jesus didn’t provide a clean resolution to that episode. And he brought up another current situation where some men were killed when a tower collapsed. He asked the same question about whether these people were killed because they were worse sinners than everyone else. And he once again answered his own question and said, “No”, they weren’t worse sinners than everyone else, but then he went on to suggest that his hearers were worse than those who had died and they would suffer the same consequence if they didn’t repent.

It’s some odd logic, but I think what Jesus was saying was that they needed to change their way of thinking and become less judgmental if they didn’t want to suffer from some harsh judgment.

And I would be interested in hearing from anyone who thinks there’s an obvious and indisputable lesson in this parable that Jesus told. You don’t have to stand up and give it to us now. In fact I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t explain it to me in public, but this parable generates more questions than it answers. It’s not exactly clear to me who is playing what role in this parable.

Is God the man who owned the vineyard, or is Jesus wanting us to think that the man who owned the vineyard represents the attitude of the people who are impatient for the messiah to turn things around in Israel. Maybe we are to see God in the role of the gardener, who continues to nurture the fig tree, and who desires for Israel to bear new fruit. There are a number of ways to look at this parable, but I there’s one nice detail at the end of the parable – life isn’t over. There’s still time to change and to grow.

Following Jesus presents us with an ongoing set of challenges. Like the Israelites who harbored bad concepts of how God functions in our world, we can hold fast to our own distortions of who God is and how God operates. It’s natural to have opinions about how God functions in our world. In fact if you have any interest in God you can’t help but to have such thoughts. It’s not bad to have strong beliefs about God, but you also have to know that God can’t be fully understood by any of us, and God never fits neatly in to the boxes we want God to occupy.

It’s not unusual or unheard-of to have moments of clarity about the presence of God in our lives and in our world, but the series isn’t over, and what you understand to be true today may become a bit more complex tomorrow. I think the best any of us can do is to be diligent in trying to nurture our relationship with the One who does know the truth about God, and who seeks to help us understand.

So if you want to see a problem solved in a clean way go find an NCIS rerun. But if you know that life isn’t made up of clear answers and obvious solutions you have the makings of a good disciple of Jesus Christ. The path is narrow that leads to abundant life. Jesus didn’t provide easy answers nor did he ask easy questions. It’s a challenge to get to know the living Christ.

And as the gardener indicates in today’s parable, the nurturing process can be a bit messy, but everything Jesus did was done with the desire to nourish our spiritual roots, and to lead us in to communion with the eternal truth and grace of our loving God.

I wish it were easier, but I’m primarily glad that this series hasn’t come to an end. So stay tuned in – the story is to be continued.

Thanks be to God.


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