By Dr. Jeffrey K. London God’s ways are not our ways. God speaks through the prophet Isaiah and tells us as much when He says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways… For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8). So it’s not just a matter of God’s ways, and thoughts, and actions being different than ours, but it’s that God’s ways, and thoughts, and actions are qualitatively superior to ours. And this is good news — No, this Great News! Because it means God’s grace and forgiveness are not tied to and encumbered by human understandings of judgment and justice. God’s “otherness” makes all things possible.
Even God’s name speaks to us of God’s otherness. Do you remember the story of Moses meeting God on Mount Horeb? Moses wants to know God’s name. God tells Moses His name is unlike any other name. God’s name is really unspeakable, unpronounceable. Y-H-W-H (transliterated from the Hebrew into English) is God’s name. Four consonants, no vowels. It is often referred to as the tetragram and is most widely translated simply as “I Am,” or as “I Am Who I am.” Incidentally, a quick read through the gospels and we’d discover the many times Jesus referred to Himself as “I Am” (I am the bread of life; I am the light of the world, I am the resurrection and the life.” But when scripture was read aloud in the temple or synagogue and the reader would come to God’s name, the reader would not try to pronounce the unpronounceable, but would instead use a title for God like “The Holy One of Israel,” or “The Most High” or any number of different titles. It was only later that Bible translators decided to add vowels thus creating the name “Yahweh.” All of this is to say that God’s ways are not our ways and this can be seen reflected in God’s own name.
We also why we need a faithful understanding of God’s “otherness” if we’re to wrap our heads around this morning’s gospel lesson in which Jesus challenges our limited comprehension (and even our mis-comprehension) of God’s judgment, sin, grace, and mercy.
You see, as strange as it sounds, we often find comfort in a significant theological misnomer. This theological misnomer tells us all suffering is the result of God’s judgment on our sin. Now, to one degree or another, we all have found ourselves thinking in terms of simple “reward and punishment”, i.e. God rewards us when we’re good, and punishes us when we’re bad. And we like the whole reward and punishment scenario because it eliminates randomness, it explains suffering once and for all, it makes judgment mechanical, and it offers us a way to avoid disaster — just be good boys and girls and nothing bad will ever happen to you. Good luck with that. But that is, after all, how we humans do it, that’s our way of imagining how things work. But remember, God is not mortal, and God’s ways are not our ways — God is other.
So if not our way, then what is Yahweh’s? How do we make sense of disaster? Why do bad things happen to good people? Does God punish us for our sin? These are age old questions that theologians and philosophers have struggled with and failed in coming up with a suitable answer. Yet we seem to keep running to the simple answer: Sin. We’ve all been there. Something really rotten happens and we wonder what sin we’ve committed that God would punish us so severely. It works on others too. We observe someone we’re not particularly fond of going through a difficult time and think quietly to ourselves, “Ahh, she’s suffering from God’s judgment!”
Well, Jesus tackles this issue boldly. Jesus addresses two situations. The first is the massacre of some Galileans by Pilate who than drained their blood in the temple. These poor people came to the temple simply to offer their sacrifices to God and Pilate’s soldiers slaughtered them in that holy place and profaned the altar with human blood. The people who bring this news to Jesus are hoping he can make sense out of this nonsensical event. And Jesus knows they want an explanation. Jesus also knows what these folks are thinking. They’re thinking these slaughtered Galileans died this way because of some unforgivable sin they must have committed.
Jesus’ response is straightforward and to the point. Jesus says, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way” (13:2-3).
Jesus then offers a second disastrous scenario. “Or those eighteen, on whom the tower in Siloam fell, and killed them; do you think that they were worse offenders than all the men who dwell in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but, unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way.” (13:4-5).
So what do we get out of this? Well, the good news is that Jesus’ response to a simple reward and punishment theology is, “No, it doesn’t work that way.” God’s ways are not our ways.” Nevertheless, Jesus does call for repentance, lest we end up dying like the massacred Galileans and the eighteen who had the tower fall on them. Now, I have to admit, that’s more than a little confusing. On the one hand, Jesus is saying that you cannot connect disaster to God’s judgment. Things happen. That’s just the way it is. But then on the other hand, Jesus seems to be saying we all need to repent or God’s judgment is going to fall on us like the tower of Siloam! Am I the only one who thinks this a bit contradictory?
Maybe what comes next will be of some help. Jesus offers a parable about a fig tree that hasn’t produced any fruit. The owner of the vineyard wants to cut it down. The gardener wants to give the tree one more chance, and he’s willing to nurture it and put some manure around it, cultivate it. The parable, like so many of Jesus’ parables, is left open-ended. We listeners are left to draw our own conclusions. But this parable comes in the context of Jesus’ speaking against a simple theology of divine reward and punishment. With that in mind, perhaps part of what the parable is suggesting to us is that Jesus is at work in our lives to lead us not only to repentance, but also to a time and place where we bear good fruit. I think that’s the good news of the parable. The bad news is that there is a limit to God’s patience and if the tree doesn’t bear good fruit in a year, it will be cut down.
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Now in this parable, I don’t think Jesus chose a “fig tree” just out of the blue. There’s meaning here. Fig trees take a long to grow and mature. It can take four to five years for a fig tree to begin producing good fruit. So to grow fig trees takes commitment, patience, perseverance, and active cultivation. The suggestion is that this is analogous to God’s commitment to growing us. In Jesus Christ we have a gardener who advocates for us, who seeks to nurture our growth and development that we might produce good fruit. Still, Jesus wants us to see that there is a limit to the vineyard owner’s patience, a limit to God’s patience. We can safely assume the tree has had the necessary time to produce fruit, four or five years, and yet nothing. We can also safely assume the vineyard owner knows all about fig trees. The reference to “three years” is most likely three years of growth on top of the four to five years it usually takes a fig tree to bear fruit. In other words, this fig tree has had more than enough time to grow fruit! The gardener asks the vineyard owner for yet one more year. And it will be a year in which the gardener will give this one fig tree special attention in an effort to get it to bear good fruit.
Put it all together and we come to see that God’s ways are not our ways. God does not enact judgement by having towers fall on people as punishment for their sin. “No,” says Jesus to such thinking. Yet, Jesus also says that if we don’t repent we too will die a death like those who died at the hands of Pilate’s soldiers, or those who had the tower fall on them. In light of the parable of the fig tree, I think what Jesus is saying here is that repentance leads to new life; repentance leads to a life of bearing good fruit. A lack of repentance leads to a lack of life, a lack of good fruit, an existence that is like death. I think Jesus is also saying that God is patient with us, that God has patience beyond human imagination, but that there is ultimately a limit to God’s patience. Still, in the person of the gardener, we have the Christ who comes into our non-fruit bearing, non-repentant lives and works with us, works around us, works in us to grow us into the people God wants us to be. That’s the heart of the good news!
In Christ we see that God intervenes in our histories for good, not for harm. Christ comes to save and rescue, not kill or cause towers to fall over on us. In Christ we see that God has chosen us that we might come to choose Yahweh over our ways. And we make this choice through repentance, through a conscious decision to cease those behaviors that lead to isolation, separation, and death and seek new ways of living that are God-directed and God-inspired.
To repent is to see God’s active love reaching out to tend and nurture our fig tree lives. To repent is to choose life over death. To repent is to trust our lives to the gardener. To repent is to live lives that bear good fruit, the fruits of repentance, the fruits of faithfulness that bring the holy assurance that whatever happens in life or in death our God will never forsake us. Amen.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2012, Jeffrey K. London. Used by permission.