3/24/2019: So Much Manure, Isaiah 55:1-11; Luke 13:1-9
So Much Manure
First Lesson: Isaiah 55:1-11
Second Lesson: Luke 13:1-9
Suffice to say this is not among the most beloved parables of Jesus, in Luke or any of the gospels. In fact, you’ll be forgiven if this is the first time you’ve heard this passage, let alone in the context of worship. This is one of those passages preachers see and say, Let’s see what the Old Testament text is for today. I’ll confess it’s been a full 6 years since you’ve heard it from this pulpit.
And usually when that’s the case with passages from the gospels, it means the church hasn’t known just what to do with them. Either they’re just downright confusing, or—and perhaps more likely—they point us to some uncomfortable truths, or even some truths that seem painfully current. And all of these seem to be in play with this passage from the 13th chapter of Luke.
Jesus is out preaching and teaching on his way to Jerusalem when someone from the crowd asks him to comment on what to us is an obscure historical reference but what at the time must have been the latest news of violence and tragedy coming down from Rome.
It seems Pilate has had a group of Galileans killed as they were making sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem. As far as we’re told, these were just some pilgrims come from lowly Galilee to the Holy City to make their sacrifices—not a small journey, one that would have come at considerable expense. We’re not told why Pilate had these pilgrims killed but that may be because with Rome, “reasons” for violence and intimidation weren’t always necessary.
Nor do we know just why they came told Jesus about this tragedy. Of course, it could have been because that’s just what we do when tragedies happen or when violence strikes. We talk about it.
Did you hear about the shooting in New Zealand? Just terrible.
Can you believe about the subway in the Netherlands?
The airplane crash in Ethiopia?
The storms in Mozambique?
We don’t always know what we’re saying or what to make of it and so we talk to try and figure it out.
And the questions behind these questions are always bigger and more universal:
Why do bad things happen?
Why does violence and evil always seem to win?
Why does tragedy strike?
How do we make sense of things—how do we respond to the darkness we see in the world?
No doubt these were the questions behind the news of this tragedy the crowd brought to Jesus that day—questions we know well and still ask today and seem to be asking at great frequency. But from the manner Jesus responds—which would seem a bit short if this news was brought in good faith—there seems to have been more going on here as well.
Do you think these Galileans got what they deserved? Jesus asks them. You see, Galilee is a rural region to the North of Jerusalem, viewed in those days as backwards and bumpkin by the people from the big city, and likely those in the suburbs where finds himself here. Not only that, but the Galileans also had a reputation for being wild and rebellious, always getting in trouble with Rome, making life more difficult for everyone. To put it plainly, the Galileans were embarrassing and thought of as something life second-class Jews. Do you think these Galileans got what was coming to them?, he asks them.
And to bring it a bit closer, he asks them about another tragedy lost to history, one that seems to have happened in their own backyard: What about the 18 who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell in Jerusalem—do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? Did they get what they deserved?
It’s not just the age old question of why tragedy happens that Jesus is addressing here, but the equally old impulse to wonder if somehow, someway, people get what they deserve, be it good or bad. That “what goes around comes around," or that suffering—be it our own or the suffering of others—must be a result of some mistake on the part of the victim, some infraction, and God—or common sense—is simply settling the score.
We know this isn’t universally true—that of course, our bad decisions often come with consequences, but not every suffering can be explained through cause and effect. A lifelong smoker who receives a lung cancer diagnoses is one thing, but what of all those kids in the cancer wards of children’s hospitals? No. God, no.
But that doesn’t stop their parents, I’m sure, in their desperation, to wonder what they did to deserve this, or what higher purpose this is meant to achieve? And despite what others in the church might say, we know this isn’t how it works—this isn’t how God works, that God doesn’t make kids sick to punish their parents or teach the rest of us a lesson. But there are times when we can’t help our imaginations from running, be it from prejudice or grief.
Jesus has more to say about the suffering of the innocent in other places, but here he hones in on the bigger issue, the deeper truth as he sees it. He simply tells them, Repent, or you’ll perish just as they did. Almost to say, Don’t you know that life is precious—that life is a gift? So enjoy it, and even more, use it well. And then to make his point, he tells them this story about a fig tree.
This fig tree hasn’t born fruit for three years, and the owner of the vineyard would like to do what would have been the reasonable thing to do, which is to cut it down and make room for another tree that will. But the gardener tells him, Let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put more manure on it. If it bears fruit then, great, but if not, we will cut it down.
And on the surface his point seems clear—he seems to say that each of us who lives does so by nothing more than the grace of God for the purposes of bearing fruit in the time we’re given—a truth that is so deceptive in it’s simplicity that it’s often not until we come face to face with just how fleeting and fragile life truly is that we’re able to see it. Death has a way of illuminating life—a truth that may be at the heart of this season of Lent and Easter that we celebrate. But more is going on underneath the soil of this parable.
For Jesus, it seems it’s not enough to simply know that life is a gift. Jesus also seems to suggest to all these suburban Jerusalmites, turning up their noses as those poor Galileans, that all our apparent blessings and resources and advantages are not of our own making, or rewards for our faithfulness and hard work, but instead might be just the opposite.
As Justo González writes in his commentary on Luke that I just can’t put down, you can imagine this scene Jesus describes of a barren vineyard just after harvest, with all the vines, having yielded their fruit, being pruned back and browned—looking dead and dry but in fact having just had their fruit collected. All except this one fig tree, which having born no fruit, is still lush with leaves and superficial growth. To the causal observer it might seem that this fig tree is the sign of vibrant and productive life, when in fact it is anything but. The point is, it’s not the plants yielding fruit that get special attention. It’s this one tree that has yet to discover its true purpose, all the gifts it has to offer, that’s awarded the special care of the gardener.
I often think of a story I heard once of a seminary professor who at the graduation ceremony for all these new young ministers reminded them, Don’t think too highly of yourself and your calling. It could be that God has called you to the ministry because you couldn’t be trusted to be a good layperson! Something I think about every time I see those of you who drive 30 and 45 minutes to be with us here each Sunday and so many other times during the week.
Good trees don’t get extra attention from the gardener, trees who don’t produce get that. And so I wonder, too, if we scanned the landscape of our community, what signs of harvest and unrealized potential might we find?
González writes, powerfully, …we would like to think that we have comfortable houses when so many are homeless, or substantial income when so many are poor, or all kinds of food to eat when so many are hungry, or a relatively healthy body when so many are ill because we have somehow been particularly faithful…Could it be that the reason why some of us have been given all these advantages is that otherwise we would have great difficulty bearing fruit? Could it be that all these things of which we so pride ourselves are really so much manure, piled on us because otherwise we would be such lousy fruit trees? Could it be that our own abundance has been given to us in an effort to lead us to bear fruit, to share those resources, to share ourselves. And that we survive not because of our own doing, but simply because of this miraculous grace of the Owner of the vineyard who has decided to give us one more chance?
Those of you who have been with us here more Sundays than not since the beginning of Advent when we took on the Gospel of Luke may have sensed a pattern in Jesus’ teachings in the gospel. How he insists on lifting up the lowly and “casting down the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” as Mary put it in the first chapter of Luke when she sings praise to God for the coming birth of her son. Blessed are you who are poor and hungry, you will have your fill, but whoa to you who are rich and full now, you’ve already got what’s coming to you. And this, we’re told, is the good news—the great reversal of things, where those on the bottom will find themselves on top and those on top, well…
So for those of us who find ourselves squarely in the center of things, perhaps not on the top rung of the ladder but closer to the top than the bottom, it can be uncomfortable trying to figure out where and how we fit into all of this. I remember a Wednesday evening Bible study a while back when we were studying some of these passages from Luke and we had a good and hard and honest discussion, and I could tell one member of the group was struggling with this, even more than the rest of us. And afterward she came up to me and very said in a very heartfelt way, something like, I’m struggling with what I’m supposed to do with this. Is this good news for me?
That’s a question. That’s a Lenten question—a question we’re right to ask on our way to the cross. A question that if we don’t ask at some point along the way, we’ve missed something. And the answer we offered back in Advent when we began this journey still holds true here on the third Sunday in Lent. Which is that if news of God’s great reversal feels like something less than good news for us, then the only way available to us is to go and stand with those for whom it is. Solidarity is how we are saved, how this news becomes good for us.
It’s only by standing with others that we come to know them, come to understand them, their stories, their struggles, their gifts, their blessings. Dwelling with others, involving ourselves in the lives and especially the hardships of others. Laughing with those who laugh and weeping with those who weep, as Paul puts it. Isn’t this when we’re most the church of Jesus Christ, when we do these things?
And in our standing we may find ourselves giving of what we’ve been given, spreading around some of the manure that’s been piled on us. Or maybe to stick closer to our metaphor, we find there is fruit on our branches after all, if we push aside the leaves and branches and get closer to the stalk. And we’ll discover this is what all that manure was for: that we would give of our fruits.
This is our hope. And it’s a lot to take in, and there is still much for us to learn and come to understand, and so maybe our first response should be simply to give thanks for the patience of the gardener, who keeps giving us one more year to figure it all out.
 Justo L. González makes this point beautifully in his commentary from the Belief series
 Justo L. González, Luke, from the Belief series, 172-173
 González, 240