CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: The Gardener
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
When tragedies hit, after the initial shock in which one says, sighing, "Bless their heart," there lurks a terrible tendency to wonder what they might have done to deserve such a tragedy. The saying "you reap what you sow" may begin to suggest itself. Perhaps the victims were not as innocent as they seem. I see that in the way certain groups of people are blamed for their troubles when they seek refuge or asylum in other lands, just to name an example.
Such was the situation when people began to talk among themselves, in the presence of Jesus Christ, speculating about what those Galileans might have done to deserve their horrible deaths at the hands of Pilate, the Roman governor, who killed them while they were making sacrifices to God. That is why Jesus confronts them: And do you really think that they were worse people than all their kinfolk? Or that you, who are from here, are better than your compatriots who had that tower fall on them? There’s the issue: To make sense of the inconceivable, we blame the sufferers. Those people must be worse than us because here we are safe and sound, survivors who have triumphed over adversity.
Here we see how devastating gossip is, our loose tongues, when we see in the misfortune of others evidence that they were not good people. Rumors and speculations are acts of violence that treat others without dignity while, in fact, diminishing ourselves. And they destroy the community. There is no life in that, only more death.
We seem all too ready and willing to judge and reject, especially if, in the process of comparing ourselves, we stand in a better light than others. Comparisons are invidious. They bring others down to lift ourselves up.
The response of Jesus is blunt and direct: Everyone is a sinner; no one is better than anyone. We all fail. There are no exceptions. This reminds me of a story I was told about a colleague who had been my predecessor in a parish. He once chose to preach all of Lent on the Ten Commandments. At the end of the series of sermons, I am told that he paused in the pulpit to look at them all up and down and then said: "So stop looking so smug; you know you all have broken the commandments."
And what then is left for us to do? Jesus Christ is also very clear and direct about that: Repent! Change course. Straighten out your lives.
Jesus shows us another path, the path of the dedicated and patient gardener, the selfless one who labors to give the barren fig tree another chance. Any other farmer, aware of the lack of profit that it cost him to have a tree that does not produce for him, would make the sensible business decision to cut it down. But Jesus shows us the generosity, grace and dedication of the vinedresser who loves even the fruitless fig tree. He dedicates himself to moving and ventilating the earth, to fertilizing the tree, caring for it and loving it to give it the opportunity to flourish and bear fruit.
The patience of the gardener, who does not care about the cost of restoring the fig tree, shows us a God who is patient and compassionate with each and every one of us, with everyone--no exceptions. In full knowledge that we are sinners, knowing how we are, God gives us time and works in us to give us the opportunity to become the human beings and the community that is his most cherished dream.
Lent is a sublime blessing, a gift of God. Lent invites us to recognize that we have failed, that we have deviated from the path of love. With tongues that sink others, with hearts of stone that judge the unfortunate, in short, in so many ways, we are like the fig tree that only takes up space without bearing fruit. But Lent gives us the opportunity to get back on track, accepting the patient work of Christ, growing from root to branch, smiling in the sun to the wind, growing and bearing fruit. Which is to say that, having received grace and love from our gardener, Lent invites us to be God’s dedicated, patient and compassionate children, faithful followers of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Oh, that today we may harken to his voice!
The Rev. Daniel Robayo is the missioner for Latino/Hispanic ministries in the Diocese of North Carolina.
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