As was the case last week, again Jesus is teaching on his way to Jerusalem. Today’s Scripture is part of an on-going lesson for His disciples and other followers. Just prior, Jesus had a few lessons on waiting and being prepared for God’s coming Kingdom. He told them a parable about storing up riches. He tells His followers that they are able to read the signs to predict the weather will greater success than reading the signs of the times.
That reprimand causes the crowd to bring up a case of unjust suffering as a sign of their times hoping He could interpret its meaning. The crowd told Him about a number of Galileans whose blood Pontius Pilate had mixed with their holy sacrifices to the Lord. It is not explicitly asked, but the crowd wants to know why. Was Pilate exacting Divine justice? Did the Galileans’ sins deserve such punishment?
Since the beginning of time, it has been part of human nature to try to trace someone’s suffering, our suffering, back to something someone did wrong. When something bad happens, even amidst a few little things on a bad day, we are quick to ask ourselves, “What did I do to deserve this” When someone we love faces a terrible life situation or illness, we bargain with God that this is a good person and shouldn’t have to go through these things.
We want a cause and effect relationship between sin and suffering. It is Biblical, cited in a number of cases, where punishment is threatened and exacted for sin against God. On the other hand, the Biblical book of Job sets us on another train of thought. Job suffered severe losses for no reason. The Disciples, familiar with the Jewish Scriptures, including the book of Job, on another occasion asked Jesus who had sinned that a man had been born blind. The Disciples and Jesus’ followers were still trying to make sense of suffering.
Jesus knows what they are thinking. He asks, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?” He goes on to say that they were no more sinners than any others. He reminds them of another recent event when the tower of Siloam fell and killed 18. They too were no more sinners than others. These accidents and events were random. Bad things happen to anyone who is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Yes, in some cases, there is a simple line to draw between cause and effect. Risky behavior can cause any number of consequences. Then, it is easy to say this caused that. But, not all suffering can easily be reconciled to sin. Suffering and sin is not always an open and shut case.
Somehow it could provide us some assurance of justice if sin and God’s punishment could be blamed for suffering. It is too difficult for us to bare that there may be no cause for suffering. Life is random. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. That is difficult for us to believe when we believe in an Almighty God. This world is meaningless and chaotic but our God is good and just.
Jesus uses the stories of the Galileans’ blood and the tower of Siloam as a teaching moment. Jesus takes the moment to dispel their belief that these people’s sins deserved punishment more than others, but he also took the moment to tell His followers about what is ahead for all. Jesus warns them to repent before they too perish. Jesus breaks the connection between suffering and punishment, but doesn’t deny the need for repentance.
Jesus carries on His teaching by telling the parable of the Barren Fig Tree about judgment and grace. A land owner goes through his vineyard and finds a fig tree that has not grown fruit for three years. The land owner tells his gardener to cut it down. The land owner is sure that the soil could be used to grow a plant that will bear fruit.
The gardener pleads for the land owner’s patience and asks that it be allowed to grow for one more year. The gardener promises to dig around it and fertilize it. Then, if it still does not grow fruit, they will cut it down next year and replace it with a new year.
When researching what scholars think about this parable, I came across 2 very different schools of thought. Either God is the land owner and Jesus is the gardener or God is the gardener with no thought to who the land owner is. What the 2 schools of thought believe are based squarely on their understanding of God. It might seem a matter of splitting hairs, but to me, the theology nerd, it is significant.
On the one hand, God is ready to cut down trees that Jesus is willing to save. This interpretation believes that God, the land owner, is one who punishes trees for not bearing fruit. That is, they are judged for not doing what they are supposed to do and are cut down for their failure. However, Jesus, as the gardener, intervenes and offers to till the soil and spread some manure around and help it grow so it can bear fruit as God intended. I don’t think this reconciles with what Jesus just taught about God in the previous conversation about suffering. Jesus did not say that God punishes sinners.
On the other hand, the world is willing to cut down trees that God is willing to save. I think this school of thought best fits this Scripture. The world is willing to cut down life, even if for no reason at all, let alone for not being fruitful. However, God, the gardener, spares some from being cut down. Other Scriptures depict God as a gardener and Jesus the vine. God is willing to give us another chance. God is willing to till the soil around us and spread some manure around in hopes that we will soon bear fruit.
Either way, God’s grace to save the tree is greater than any judgment against the tree. Grace is the tree’s salvation and another chance at life. Jesus offers the crowd the warning to repent because there may be no more time than the present to accept God’s second chance. But, if God is the One offering grace, we must be the barren fig tree.
We are all sinners. All of us deserve punishment for our sins. No one is a greater sinner than the other or more deserving of punishment than the other. No one is in greater need of grace than the other. We all deserve death as punishment for our sin.
Luckily, there is grace in our Savior Jesus Christ. Every day is a day of grace for the barren fig tree. We are not capable of growing figs apart from the gardener who cares for us.
Are you praying the Lord’s prayer every day? I admit I’m not doing a very good job of it. I say it on the days I am working on my sermon when I’m trying to think about how our Scripture reflects something of the Lord’s prayer. I believe we can think of the phrase, “Give us this day our daily bread.”
In order for any living thing to grow, it needs nutrients. Humans need food to eat, water to drink, and air to breathe. All of these God provides daily that we may live.
In the case of the fig tree, it is not enough that the tree is alive. The gardener wants the tree to bear fruit. The tree has been getting the water and nutrients it needs to stay alive, but something has stunted its fruit production. It is intended to bear fruit and God is going to care for it until it does. The parable says the gardener will dig up the soil and fertilize it. It is tempting to think that when bad things happen to us it is God spreading manure on our life – we already know that’s not the case.
Daily bread keeps us alive. Grace is what helps us bear fruit. According to Galatians 5: 22 – 23, the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. By grace, our lives should bear the fruits of the Spirit.
Let me leave you with questions to ponder. Are you receiving grace as part of your daily nourishment? Are you allowing the gardener to care for you so that you may have deep roots, a sturdy trunk, and strong branches? Are you just alive or does your life bear fruit?
 John 9:2