February 28, 2016
Jesus tells that story about the apple tree and he really leaves us hanging. What happens the next year? Did the tree begin producing fruit? Did the landowner have it chopped down? There are a variety of ways the story could end, or continue. What do you imagine could have happened a year later?
We may get back to this story before we end. But now I want us to take a look at the beginning of today’s passage and another very familiar story.
Right before this story, Jesus is with a crowd of folk and they got to talking about what CNN and MSNBC would call breaking news. Pilate had executed some revolutionaries, though I am sure he called them terrorists. He had even mixed their spilled blood with the blood of the sacrificial animals being burnt on the altar. That sacrilege was to emphasize that Pilate was going to not only punish individuals for their revolutionary actions, but the whole nation, as well.
Then there was the Tower of Siloam that collapsed. If it had been CNN or MSNBC covering these stories they would have had a variety of commentators and reporters arguing about what Pilate was actually doing. Some of them, for sure, would have reported the speculation that the tower didn’t exactly fall, but that it had been sabotaged by Pilate. That tower was attached to the wall of the first Temple and had become a place of protest by those who were opposed to the Roman occupation.
The discussion between Jesus and the people, though, took a different direction. It was the theological implications of these two tragic events, not the political, that was primary for them, though the political and theological were never much separated in first century Jerusalem. If your belief was that God protects the righteous from harm and punishes the wicked, then were Pilate’s victims somehow to blame for their demise? It’s almost like Pilate’s sin is not the issue, but the victims.
Jesus turned the tragedies from the news of the day to something much more personal. “Do you actually think,” he said, “that the people who died were any worse sinners than anybody else? Of course not.” Instead of speculating about the sins of others, Jesus quickly suggested they spend less time with the headlines and more time thinking about themselves. He told the people that the real issue was that they needed to repent.
What we think of repentance and what the Bible thinks of repentance may well be different things. A bit later in Luke’s gospel, we hear another story. You are probably familiar with the story of the man who has two sons and the younger one decides he doesn’t want to wait until his father shuffles off this mortal coil and demands his share of the inheritance immediately. He takes the money and goes off to lead what in the old days they quite wonderfully called a dissolute life, squandering all the inheritance on wine, women, and song. He ends up broke and becomes a hired hand for some farmer and realizes that he not only has been reduced to taking care of pigs, but the pigs are eating better than he is. Lying there in the mud and manure we are told that, “he comes to his senses.” So he goes crawling, literally and figuratively, back to his father to beg forgiveness and to suggest that he would rather work for his dad as a hired hand than the guy he had been working for.
What he doesn’t know is that his father has been waiting at the end of the driveway every day watching and waiting and hoping for his son to come home. And when the son arrives, and before he is able to ask his father’s forgiveness and propose he be hired on as just another farmhand, the father calls for his workers and servants to stop what they were doing and prepare a welcome home party for his son. And what a party, evidently, it was. The father was so happy and relieved to have his son back. The only one more flabbergasted by this turn of events than the younger son was the older son. He was the good kid. While his younger brother had treated their father with such disrespect and gone off and quickly run through the money the older brother shouldered his responsibilities to their father. When the older brother heard all the noise and laughter and was told about the party for his younger brother, he wasn’t going to have anything to do with it. They could party all they wanted, but he wouldn’t join them. His father came out and tried to help him see that this wasn’t an issue of who was the responsible one and who wasn’t, but that his brother was actually alive and back home.
The younger son had what we would think of nowadays as a great repentance story. He had strayed far, far away from the straight and narrow. He could bring tears to your eyes at the testimony meetings. The only problem is that repentance isn’t really about morality. Max Skinner from Luther Seminary puts it this way. “Repentance becomes less interesting when people mistake it to mean moral uprightness, expressions of regret, or a ‘180-degree turn around.’ Rather, in the Bible, it refers to a changed mind, to a new way of seeing things, to being persuaded to adopt a different perspective.”
So I am not really convinced that what the younger son was doing is what could be understood as repentance in the Bible. You could call it penitence, which interestingly enough, is the topic you are directed to when you look up repentance in the topical index of hymns in our hymnal. And it’s not that penitence isn’t a worthy pursuit. But there is a difference between the two. And, who knows, the younger son might have been repentant as well as penitent. But it could be the older son was being invited by his father to be the one who could show his younger brother what repentance really means by welcoming his brother home.
This week in study group we read the chapters in the book where the authors wrote about generosity, hospitality, and compassion. Those three words speak to me more about repentance than the younger son turning from wine, women, and song. Now I know there are people who don’t like it when it is suggested that there is something wrong with the older son. It’s true he was the responsible one who didn’t run off and play the prodigal himself. But, he is also unhappy. And his father is giving him the opportunity to adopt the different perspective that repentance brings, including the joy of compassion, hospitality, and generosity. It could truly be life changing for the older son.
Let’s get back to the apple tree. The gardener is so very patient, so willing to seemingly give every tree more nurture and care and time than makes sense. Now, it usually is not a good idea to make allegories out of the stories Jesus tells, trying to figure out which character represents who, or what the apple tree, for example, stands for. In the older translations, this tree is rightly identified as a fig tree. And since the fig tree was seen as a symbol for Israel, lots of commentators make this story all about Israel and how God’s patience with Israel won’t last forever.
I like it, though, that The Message Bible makes it an apple tree because it gets us going in a different direction. When people look at the fig tree as a sign for Israel, that leads them to say the landowner who wants the tree cut down is God, and the gardener is Jesus trying to make a deal with God on Israel’s behalf. Or some people take out the Israel part of the story and say that Jesus is trying his best to keep God’s wrath from being poured down on us. ‘Just give them more time, God. I’ll do my best to convince them. If they don’t repent, then you can destroy them.’
Think, though, about Jesus using this story to simply tell us something about God. Which character do you think Jesus thought was like God? The landowner or the gardener? Whether we see God as the landowner or the gardener makes a big difference to our spirituality and our lives. Jesus was all about God as the gardener.
That doesn’t seem like the way Jesus understood God, though. What makes much more sense to me is that God is the gardener in this story. Kind of like that father Jesus talked about in the other story who was so loving and patient with both of his sons.
Maybe the way Jesus ended the story about the apple tree is exactly the way it should have ended. And we don’t know how that other story he told about the two sons ended either. Did the older son finally attend the party and welcome his brother home? We’re they reconciled? Did the younger brother’s new found appreciation for home and family last or did he take off again? But Jesus was content to end that story, too, right where he did.
Most of our stories don’t really have tidy endings, whether good or bad. Our stories tend to keep on going. Jesus is telling us that the love and mercy and patience of God keeps on going, too. And we have this Gardener who is willing to whatever it takes to help us bear the fruit of righteousness. Bushels and bushels of it.