“It’s Madness!” Luke 13:1-9, Isaiah 55:1-9. Third Sunday in Lent. Donald W. Dotterer, PhD, 3/24/19.
Well, it’s that time of year again--college basketball tournament time, better known as “March Madness.” And things can get a little crazy.
It seems that everybody has filled out what is called a “bracket.” A bracket is a form that can be completed on-line
or printed out and completed by hand. In the bracket the participant predicts the outcome of each game in the tournament, which has proven historically to be impossible to do.
You could say that’s it’s madness to even try. That is because no person has ever been able to prove that he or she filled out a perfect NCAA basketball tournament bracket. That is, no one has ever picked all the winners
Get this: according to one calculation, the odds of filling out a perfect bracket are nine quintillion, 283 quadrillion, 372 trillion, 36 billion, 854 million, 775 thousand, eight hundred and eight to one! Now those are some long odds! To even think that you can get it right is madness.
Billionaire Warren Buffett is the third richest person in the world. He is trying to give away 99% of his fortune before he dies. Warren Buffett is now 88 years old and is worth eighty-three and a half billion dollars, so he’s got a ways to go. Maybe he’d like to help us with our leaky tower project.
One of his giveaways is an annual March Madness bracket contest. First prize is $1 million a year for life for the person
who can pick a perfect final sixteen, what’s known as the “Sweet 16” in the tournament. However, there is a catch.
You must be an employee at his company, Berkshire Hathaway, to collect. So March Madness really is madness. But it’s good fun.
Today’s gospel lesson is about a different kind of madness. At least it seems like madness to human beings. This is yet another instance in the Bible that teaches us that so often our way is not God’s way, as we heard in our Old Testament reading from Isaiah. This is the story.
A landowner had a fig tree planted in his vineyard. This landowner is frustrated by the fact that the tree has not yet produced any fruit. For three years the owner checks the tree.But it still has not produced any figs.Now three years was more than enough time to wait to begin getting something back from the investment of money and labor in this particular kind of tree. Generally speaking, if a fig tree did not produce good fruit within three years it would never produce.
The landowner then justifiably felt that he had waited long enough. The owner ordered that the tree be cut down. That would be the sensible, smart thing to do. This owner must have thought to himself, "Why should I wait any longer? I can plant another tree here. Then I will not be wasting time and money and space."
However, the gardener, the one who had planted and cared for the tree for three years, pleads with the landowner to give the tree one more year before cutting it down. The gardener promises to dig down around the tree's roots and fertilize it. The gardener must have loved the tree and believed in its potential or he would not have bothered to do this extra work. He was willing to make the extra effort as he says to the landowner, "Please, just wait till next year."
This teaching of Jesus has been called "The Gospel of the Second Chance." And I believe that this description really gets at the heart of what Jesus' ministry and mission are all about. Because you see that is what God does with each and every one of us.
No matter what we have done, no matter how many sins we have committed, every single one of those sins has been forgiven once and for all through Jesus' sacrifice on the cross. The Lord God is always willing to give us that second chance that we need to keep going and keep living.
Some may say that is madness. St. Paul calls it the “foolishness” about the message of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18). It is surely not what most humans think. But it is God’s way. In order to fully understand this parable we need to consider the verses that immediately precede it. There were two tragedies that during the time of Jesus that he needed to interpret for people who were upset about them.
The first tragedy was the order of the Roman governor Pilate to kill worshippers from Jesus' home region of Galilee while they were offering sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem. This was a brutal crime committed by the government authorities.
This slaughter of innocent people was made more horrible by the fact that the Galileans were murdered while they were worshipping in the holy temple. Today, an equivalent act might be worshippers being gunned down by soldiers while taking communion at the altar of our church. This sort of thing happens today in some countries in the world.
Jesus asks his audience this question—"Did these victims die because they were worse sinners than their neighbors?" It is, in effect, the question that perplexes all people of faith in God, “why do bad things happen to good people?”
Jesus then asks the same question about the eighteen
people on whom a tower fell, killing them all. This was a purely random event, like a roof caving in on a building.
The question was, “were these persons worse offenders of God's law than their neighbors?" That is, were they worse sinners than their neighbors?
In both instances Jesus answers with a resounding "No!"
Surely those who fell victim to tragedy needed to repent and turn their lives around. But--and the “but” here is critically important--these people did not need to repent any more than anyone else. Jesus' point here then is this, everyone needs to repent. There are no exceptions. As St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). No one is excluded from the need to repent, no matter how good we think we are. No one is excluded from the demand for faith in God. Now this was a hard teaching for the people in Jesus' time.
Because they really believed that people were punished for their sins by bad circumstances in their lives. The common belief was that if someone’s life was struck by tragedy, then he or she must have done something to deserve it. If tragedy struck, then that person must have done something to deserve it.
Now today, that is not exactly what we think of course. However, hidden in Jesus' question is an assumption that we still make. When we or our loved ones experience tragedy, or when we hear of tragedy, we ask, "Why did this happen? "What is the reason?"
And sometimes, like the Jews to whom Jesus was speaking, we try to make a connection between tragedy and morality. We say, "He must have brought this on himself." Or, "Well, she got what she deserved."
This extends to other negative life situations as well. We may say that someone who lives in in poverty or suffers from an illness does so because of bad life decisions. We may think that people who suffer devastation from earthquakes or hurricanes were asking for it because of where they have chosen to live.
However, we need to mark it down right here that Jesus makes it clear that he rejects the idea that tragedy, pain and suffering are punishment for sin. For those people who were slaughtered in the temple, and the ones on whom the tower fell, these poor souls were no worse than anyone else. Both those who died and those who were spared, all stood in need of repentance and forgiveness of their sin.
And there is another issue here. We tend to be complacent, even jaded when it comes to the suffering of other people. We assume that for someone's suffering to end, if they brought it on themselves, then they need to change. We think if only that person would change his or her life, then that life would be normal.
But again, Jesus tells us that that's not the way it works. Sometimes we just cannot make sense out of tragedy, misfortune, and trouble. Hopefully people can learn from experience. But blaming others is not the answer. And it is not an escape from responsibility for us to help.
But the one thing we can say for sure is this—if we are faithful, and if we are true to our calling to love and serve the Lord, then we will receive the gifts of peace and eternal life that God so graciously offers to us.
I came across an article by a cardiologist named Haider Warraich who asks this question, “Is pain a sensation or an emotion?”[i] That is, is the pain we feel physical, or could it be emotional, perhaps even spiritual? This has become a question for our day because of the opioid crisis.
Dr. Warraich says that using opioids to treat chronic pain may be the worst medical mistake of our era. That is because decades of research shows that opioids provide little to no benefit for chronic, noncancer pain.
Dr. Warraich claims that conventional thinking about pain has failed us. Our ancestors thought differently about pain and suffering. In the ancient world, which would include the biblical world, pain was thought to be the result of emotions and not physical. So pain and suffering can be thought of as spiritual problems.
We’ve all heard the expression “it’s all in your head” to diminish somebody’s pain and suffering. However, the mind does play an important role in how one experiences pain. The doctor writes,“How much something hurts can vary depending on factors like your expectations, your mood and how distracted you are. Just seeing someone in pain can make you feel worse, too.”
Well, again, the point is that there is a spiritual and emotional aspect to human pain and suffering. And so there needs to be a spiritual remedy. Repentance is a spiritual cure that can help put us on the road to wholeness in living. And everyone needs it.
But back to our parable about the fig tree. Again, the landowner is frustrated because the tree is not bearing fruit three years after it was planted. So he wants it cut down. However, the gardener argues that the landowner should give the tree more time, one year, to be exact. The gardener then pleads for patience.
Interestingly, the story doesn’t tell us what happens to the tree. We don’t know if the landowner cut the tree down despite the plea of the gardener. We don’t know whether or not the gardener prevails upon the landowner to be patient, we aren’t told if the tree blossoms and bears fruit in another year. Perhaps the lesson is that things can go either way.
Eric Barretto suggests that a good question to ask ourselves is this: who are we in the parable?[ii] That’s an interesting way to study the parables of Jesus. So often we don’t know who we are.
In this parable are we the landowner? Do we look at a person or and say, “there is no more life here.” We could say that about a church, too--“There’s no more life here. Might as well move on.”
When we do that, all we see is what others lack, instead of what they have. We don’t see any fruit. We see waste, not possibility. And we don’t see any hope that things will change.
Or are we the tree? Have we been dismissed by others as useless, unable to bear any fruit? Does someone look at us and say that there is no hope for us?
Or are we the gardener? Do we see hope and possibility where others see impossibility and a hopeless situation? Can we be patient with people who in our eyes are not useful and productive? Are we willing to expend some time and energy in watering, fertilizing and cultivating such a person? Are we willing to give people another chance, give them one more year, and then another and another, until they are touched by the grace of God? Things just happen in life. External forces such illness may do violence to our lives and the lives of loved ones. Accidents may happen, towers may fall. Disagreements happen. Harsh words are spoken. Feelings are hurt. There may be good reasons why we may not be bearing good fruit right now.
But human beings are fig trees. We and others need love and we need patience, some more than others. People deserve another chance. And with faith and repentance they can have it. What we or others may need is a good and caring gardener who will help us along the way. Sometimes we need a gardener, one who will dig down around our roots and cultivate us, one who will water and fertilize us and enable us to be the people God created us to be.
And maybe, just maybe, next year will be better. With God there is always hope for you and for me.
That may sound like madness to a harsh and unforgiving, competitive world. But nevertheless, it is the way of God.
The parable of the fig tree is an encouraging note for those of us who have friends and loved ones whom we want desperately to come to know the Lord.
Maybe we are like the landowner. Maybe we have given up on them.
But maybe we should be more like the gardener. We should keep trying, keep digging down a little deeper, giving a little more water, a little more nourishment with our words, our prayers and our actions. Because maybe next year our friends and loved ones will find the peace and eternal life
that only faith in Christ can bring.
Because people can change and things can get better. God often works in wonderful and unexpected ways in the lives of the men, women and children whom he created in his image That is our hope. That is our prayer.
Thanks be to God, Amen.
[i] New York Times Sunday Review, 3/16/19
[ii] The Christian Century, 2/27/19, p. 19.