A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., February 28, 2016.
Gospel: Luke 13:1–9
It’s 30 AD, give or take. Galilee is abuzz with the news of yet another atrocity of the despised Roman governor Pontius Pilate—one not related by other historians but perfectly in keeping with what we know about Pilate’s character. The best guess is that a band of Galilean zealots who acknowledged no lord but God and refused to pay tribute to Rome had run afoul of Pilate and been ruthlessly repressed. Pilate has, as we hear, “mingled their blood with their sacrifices” in the Temple. Jesus hears the chatter about this incident—maybe someone tried to trap him into taking a position, as people often did to get him into trouble, into either sympathizing with or condemning the zealots—and instead of commenting on the case at hand, let alone the politics of it, he says, “Do you think they were worse sinners than you? Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
If that doesn’t cheer everybody straight up, Jesus tells a parable. A man plants a fig tree, and for three years running it bears no fruit. He wants to cut it down because it’s a waste of good soil. The gardener says no, no—let’s fertilize it again and wait another year. Maybe it will bear fruit next year.
And if it doesn’t, then we’ll cut it down.
Doesn’t sound like good news.
I mean, you were probably hoping to hear something about God’s infinite goodness and mercy, and here he goes setting deadlines.
It is valuable, I think, to remember that while God’s grace and mercy may be without limit in scope and magnitude, they do seem to have an expiration date: we’re all going to die. Maybe there’s hope after that, but the Bible doesn’t say so. Best not to risk it. You have another year. Make the most of it.
There’s also value in remembering that whatever the quality of God’s grace and mercy, our fellow humans with whom we have relationships may not be so patient. You have today. Make the most of it.
If that’s all we took away from this story, that would be something. It would be a pretty good lesson for Lent. Don’t wait. Repent now. Start atoning today. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
But I think we need a little more than that from this story. I need more from this story, anyway. Jesus was, after all, responding to a discussion about politics—about the terrors of oppressive regime and the foolishness of the zealots who were trying to overthrow it. People were upset, legitimately upset and fearful, and Jesus seems to be frankly dismissive of their fears. I don’t think he was: I think he was answering them—albeit a little sideways.
Israel in the first century A.D. was not a happy, stable place, and it seemed to be growing less so. The short-lived independent Jewish state the Maccabees had established a couple of centuries earlier had fallen and been replaced with direct rule by the idolatrous Romans. Rome permitted the Jews their worship, but its governors were openly disrespectful when they weren’t outright repressive. The soldiers charged with keeping order abused their power without consequence. Flanked by those soldiers, tax collectors demanded exorbitant surcharges to enrich themselves. Out in the country, small farms had been consolidated into large landholdings and their former owners and workers, in many cases, pushed off the land. In the cities, unemployment rose. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Meanwhile the local leadership cooperated with Roman officials who curried their favor, and large segments of the population considered them illegitimate.1
In this context it seemed to many in Israel that, surely, the end times must be drawing near. The search for the Messiah was on—the one who would throw off the shackles of empire, restore the throne of David, and usher in an era of peace and prosperity. Some were hiding out in the hills, arming themselves for a revolt that would bring the curtain crashing down on the present era with or without the Messiah. At least one of these “zealots,” as they were known, a man named Simon, became one of Jesus’ disciples, and some of the others may well have sympathized. The feeling was growing, in short, that the world was falling apart, events were spinning out of control, the end was near—and that somebody needed to do something about it. And fast.
If you’ve been reading the news lately or following your friends’ rants on Facebook or even, bless your hearts, watching presidential debates on television, this may sound familiar. I suspect that each of us has some issue that keeps us up at night—some cancer we perceive in the world and fear that, if left unchecked, will bring things crashing down around us. There are plenty of candidates: the government, the economy, and the environment; immigration, unemployment, poverty, racism, drugs, pornography; filthy water in Flint, topsoil erosion in Kansas, or rising ocean levels in Micronesia; broken communities, failing schools, dwindling churches. We could argue about the details, but the mood of the time is such that I suspect each of us sees signs somewhere. And we’re not being unreasonable. We may well be right.
Although of course people who see different signs than we do are crazy zealots hiding out in the hills.2
Which only adds to our anxiety.
We may start to feel as though we face an emergency. And so we want answers. We want to know what we can do to fix this mess—or who’s going to do something to fix this mess for us. Meanwhile, these vast and seemingly insoluble problems have us torn between panic and despair, between frenetic engagement and disillusioned withdrawal.
I suspect that the people crowding around Jesus two thousand years ago may have been in a similar state of mind.
As it turns out, if they thought the end was coming, they were right—or that belief turned out to be self-fulfilling. Just a few decades after Jesus’ death, the zealots revolted against the Roman Empire. They lost. Jerusalem was sacked, the temple was destroyed, and the Jews were scattered and persecuted. To Jews of the time, it seemed like the end of the world. Two thousand years later, its tragic quality is somewhat abstract… particularly since it is no longer by any means the worst thing ever to happen to the Jewish people. At the time, it was unimaginably devastating.
Jesus himself prophesied the destruction of the Temple and the downfall of Jerusalem. “Not one stone here will be left upon another,” he told his disciples [Mt 24:2]. We could read the parable of the fig tree as an echo of that prophecy, as a warning about collective guilt. We could see Israel as the fig tree—or our own country, our own civilization. Y’all need to get y’all’s act together, or y’all are going to get it. And don’t think that just because you kept quiet and tried to be nice that you’ll be spared. Do you think you’re better than those guys whose blood Pilate mingled with the sacrifices? When the end comes, everybody’s going to suffer.
That would be true, certainly: we all suffer for one another’s sins. Some more than others. But saying so doesn’t help much. It’s a little callous, frankly. It leaves us still oscillating between panic and despair. It doesn’t leave us much to do except tune out, chill out, and wait for the Kingdom of God.
But if we’re not supposed to care that things are going to come crashing down around us, why does God keep sending prophets to warn us about it?
When given the opportunity to encourage revolution or even disrespect the authorities, Jesus didn’t take the bait, but I don’t think he was calling for withdrawal and quietism, either. I don’t think he was saying “You can’t solve the problems of the world, so repent and save your own soul.” I think, rather, he was saying that repenting of our sins is how we begin solving the problems of the world. Repentance is what we can “do” about those problems.
I note that on a number of occasions, when people worried about the big picture, about abstractions and ideologies and events beyond their control, Jesus drew their attention back to the small, the concrete, to matters where they could have an impact—often, specifically, to individual relationships.
Extortionate taxes paid for idols and armies and funded abuse and exploitation, but when asked if it was right to pay them, Jesus said simply, “Give unto God that which is God’s.” Let Caesar worry about his own problems. You help the poor. You feed the hungry.
Roman soldiers on the march could draft people going about their business and force them to carry their gear for a mile, but Jesus said, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” Turn systemic oppression into an act of personal charity. Turn abuse into a chance for a conversation and maybe even respect.
In other words: Love your neighbor.
This is not the advice most of us are looking for. We’re crying out that society is falling apart at the seams. We want solutions! Being told merely to love your neighbor may feel rather like waking up to find the building on fire, rushing to the sign that says “In case of emergency break glass,” breaking the glass and finding only a little slip of paper like the fortune in a fortune cookie, and on it the words, “Don’t play with matches.”
You may have been hoping for an axe or a firehose.
But after all, if we can’t love our neighbors, even just a little bit, “the system” is going to stay broken no matter who’s in charge—Romans or Jews, Pharisees or Saducees, Democrats or Republicans. It’s easy enough to destroy something—to stage a coup, overthrow a government, blow up an economy, undermine trust, shred a community. You can do that very quickly. It’s a whole lot harder to build it up again. You can only do that one day, one brick, one relationship at a time.
Jesus isn’t telling us to chill out and wait for the Kingdom of God: He’s giving us instructions for how to build it.
We may well face an emergency. And yet we have to be patient. Somehow, to borrow a phrase from Wendell Berry, we have to learn to be patient in an emergency.
I used to have a trail through a patch of woods that I walked every day, and in the late summer and early fall orb weavers would built great webs across the trail every night. They were magnificent things, a yard or more across with six- and eight-foot guide lines. And brilliantly placed, of course, to catch the moths and other insects that used my trail as a thruway.
I tried to avoid those webs, either by ducking or by going around them. But I didn’t always see them in time, and sometimes I bumbled into them. In an instant, the web that spider had taken all night to spin was torn to shreds.
Now, what’s that spider going to do? Sometimes they waggled at me a little bit, trying to threaten me, but that wasn’t very effective. I suppose you could imagine all those spiders ganging up, electing a great big wolf spider to jump out and scare me bad enough to keep me out of those woods for good. They might feel better for a little while. But it wouldn’t get their webs rebuilt. They’d still be hungry.
There’s nothing to do but rebuild the web—and soon, because if that spider doesn’t catch anything to eat, it will starve. It has to hurry. And yet if it hurries, it will do bad work, and the web will break again.
There’s only one thing to do, and that’s start slowly, patiently, rebuilding. Even while the wind is picking up and the storm is rising, even when that dumb human’s footsteps are reverberating through the woods as he’s making another loop around the trail. Even while the doomsday clock is ticking and that spider has every reason to panic. All she can do is rebuild her web, carefully, thoughtfully, one thread at a time.
It’s all we can do. One thread at a time.
And have faith that if we don’t finish that web, with God’s help, another generation will.