On Sunday I visited Armadale Baptist Church, which is in Melbourne’s inner east. I’m not posting my sermon notes here because I don’t think sermon notes make good blog posts. But I thought I might write something about what I said.
The lectionary reading (Luke 13:1-9) is about a fig tree. I was interested in this reading because during my time in the city I spent a lot of time reflecting on the story of Jesus cursing the fruitless fig tree in Mark’s gospel. I was also interested because we have a fig tree out the front of our unit. We didn’t plant it. It grew up on its own.
There are a lot of fig trees in our neighbourhood, and also a lot of bats that eat the fruit. So the odds are that it was planted by one of the bats. We haven’t done anything to look after the tree, but this year for the first time it has provided us a whole lot of fruit. For that reason it reminds me of the generosity of the earth and its Creator.
* * *
During the season of Lent we experience Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem, where we are constantly being warned he will be executed. We’ve already heard the story of Jesus meeting the ancestral figures Moses and Elijah on top of the mountain, and talking about Jesus’ coming execution. Now, while on the way from Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus and his Galilean friends meet some folks who tell them that some other Galileans who visited Jerusalem were murdered by Pilate (the Roman governor) in the Temple.
I think it is interesting to consider the intentions of the storytellers. At this time the Jewish people were occupied by the Romans, and there were many armed rebellions against the Romans. These rebellions were always squashed. Are these storytellers seeking to provoke a call for vengeance? Are they hoping that Jesus will lead them in another rebellion against the Romans?
Instead of getting worked up about the story, Jesus first calls the storytellers to see this story as a call to repentance instead of revenge. He says that the victims were not particularly bad people, but that if everyone doesn’t change their behaviour, everyone will die. Maybe he can forsee the three year rebellion, in which the city will be devastated and the Temple demolished?
* * *
It is interesting that the Jewish historian Josephus never mentions this atrocity of Pilate, even though it would certainly have been a very significant event. What if these storytellers are making the story up entirely? When we’re convinced that we are in the right it can be easy to justify making up a story or massaging the truth in order to get the result we think we know is right, whether that is getting rid of the Romans in 1st Century Judea or changing government policy in a democracy like our. What if, when we feel like our group is under attack, we could remember to take stock of our own behaviour, and check whether there is anything we need to modify about our own behaviour before we engage in conflict?
* * *
Jesus also calls the storytellers to consider the suffering of people beyond their group by inviting them to consider the tragedy which seems to be opposite in many ways to the fate of the Galilean martyrs. While the Galileans have been deliberately killed by Pilate, these people – presumably Jerusalem locals – have died in the collapse of a tower, which seems to have been an accident. We know barely anything about the tower accident, but if it were a imperial construction project it would have been overseen by Pilate. Could it be that Jesus is calling for the storytellers to empathise with those who have died working for Pilate as much as those who were killed by Pilate? Could it be that he is suggesting that people who work for the Romans aren’t particularly bad either?
* * *
Whatever the specific details of the story, I think Jesus is calling us to first examine ourselves when we feel like we are under attack. It is very easy at the moment to get caught up in the culture wars of our own society. A particular government-funded initiative (where it is the Safe Schools Coalition or the National School Chaplaincy Programme) may lead us to feel that our group is under attack. We
might hear horrible stories about what various groups in our society
are up to. Can we remember to take stock of our own behaviour,
consider our own need for change and seek to treat the other with
love? Before we respond to these stories, we might also need to take
time to find out how truthful they are.
society seems to be increasingly dividing into groups of people who
can’t empathise with those they disagree with. I often find it really
difficult to listen to people I disagree with on religious or
political topics, and I think that is particularly because of the way
we use online communication. It is now so easy to communicate
instantly, so an argument can escalate really quickly without much
time for reflection on what is being said. It is also really easy to
filter out the voices of people who disagree with me – so that I’m
only hearing what my like-minded friends are saying about the people
we don’t agree with. That means that when I do come across people I
disagree with (like at church!) it can be hard to have a loving
conversation about these things.
* * *
of the things I like about this story is that Jesus follows up
the stories of death and destruction (and the possible underlying
threats of retribution) with a story that has a completely different
pace and feel to it. He follows up some stories of death with a story
of gardening. It is hard to do gardening quickly or hastily. In
this story it’s taken three years to get the fig tree to the point
where it will grow fruit. It’s now at the point where it is should be
starting to fruit, but it still isn’t. Nevertheless, the gardener is
advocating for it, asking for another year, even though it is taking
up land and taking nutrients from the soil. (The fig tree should
be helping the vines grow.)
The gardener is offering to treat the tree extra lovingly, in the
hope that it might still bear fruit.
other gospel stories Jesus himself curses a fig tree that has no
fruit, but in Luke we see Jesus telling a story of exceptional
patience and generosity. This kind of exceptional patience and
generosity might serve as inspiration for us as we seek to live
alongside others whose opinions and beliefs we might struggle to see
as productive. It might also serve as a suggestion that our own
wellbeing has been the result of someone else’s loving patience with
little while ago I was part of a discussion on Facebook with a fellow
Christian. One of my friends started a discussion about sexuality and
I pretty quickly ended up in a heated conversation with a friend of a
friend. It can feel good being certain that I’m on the right and just
side of an argument, but I often find that if I stop and relook at
what I’ve said I can see that I haven’t spoken to my conversation
partner in a loving way. This means that if there actually is
something good I have to say they can’t receive it. It also means
that I’m not able to see any good contributions that I might receive
from the person I disagree with. In this situation the person I was
talking with was becoming pretty distressed and angry with me. When I
stopped and suggested that we slow the conversation down, take time
to pray together (not something that is obvious to do online) and
seek to listen to each other, we were able to have a much more loving