It is one of the most popular theologies around and has been so for thousands of years. More popular even than the purpose-driven life, Church, and marriage. There is no particular book to encapsulate the belief, but it is pervasive nonetheless and today we hear that Jesus does not believe in it. Bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people. It is a belief that is a vehicle for control and comfort. It is a belief that we use to help us to construct meaning in the face of random events.
If I can believe that God thunders against the wicked, causing them to be massacred and have towers fall on them, and God hasn’t killed me yet, then I must be all right. So, if I can just maintain my current level of wickedness and not get any worse, I can avoid the bolt from the blue and spend my time pitying the poor sinners who have just been smote.
Jesus’ statement, you will all perish as they did, is both a heavenly warning for repentance and a statement of absolute fact. Those listening to Jesus’ words had avoided thus far death by Pilate and death by tower, but they had not avoided death forever. Nor had they, in fact, discovered what it truly means to live in the first place, to live in wholeness and charity, something that Jesus was in the process of teaching them. And is in the process of teaching us.
I was at the national convention of the ELCA in Minneapolis in 2009 as part of a special group called the young rostered leaders gathering, a gathering for which I no longer qualify but did then. It was a trip fraught with bad luck for me. I was confused about when my plane took off from Wichita, and having discovered my error only just in time, took in tow with me a suitcase full of dirty laundry that I hadn’t had time to clean. My thought was that perhaps I could find a laundry or perhaps the hotel had one and that I could rectify the situation upon my arrival. But my plane was late in landing; I was late to the gathering; we had a full schedule and an early morning; and I found myself wearing the same clothes from the previous day. We went to a baseball game where I was given a free t-shirt, which became my only clean article of clothing. So it was that I found myself with a few friends in the finest seafood restaurant in downtown Minneapolis, a place so nice that we were given an amuse-bouche by a waiter wearing a three-piece suit, while I sat wearing a t-shirt that said ‘don’t let a fly ball hit you in the eye ball.’
It was the same year that the Church-wide assembly voted to adopt the social statement, human sexuality, gift and trust. And just as I had had some bad luck getting there, the assembly itself had some bad luck. We had rough weather at that assembly. In fact, the convention center and the Church across the street, which was used as a base for the assembly, sustained some damage from a tornado that briefly touched down one afternoon.
Some members of the media had a field day with the event, saying that God sent the tornado as a judgment against the decision that the assembly was making, an interpretation still talked about in some circles. If that had been the only tornado that had ever happened, and we the only gathering of the Church that had ever convened, one would be tempted to think in that direction. However, I am also tempted to think of all the other times tornados have touched down and all the other damage that has ever been done, usually not because God was mad at someone for updating a job description.
But the best proof I have against the thought is some research I did some time later. While we were being struck by the tornado in Minneapolis, in Topeka—where Westboro Baptist Church is—it was 72, mild, and clear. Therefore, I am fairly confident that God’s justice is not meted out by the weather. If I am ever struck by lightening, pretend I never said any of this.
Were we the worse sinners in all of Minneapolis or all of the Church that day that the course of things was altered for us? Some would like to believe that, because it makes the universe seem very orderly to so believe.
To his negation on the simple belief of cause and effect when it comes to sin and disaster, goodness and safety, Jesus adds the parable of the fig tree. According to Jewish law, a tree’s fruit was considered unclean for the first three years it produced, and so since the vine grower had been looking for fruit for three years, that means that the tree had produced no fruit in six years. There was therefore very little to debate about the worth of the tree. It would have been considered absolutely and hopelessly barren. To give another year would have been considered by any wise gardener to be a completely wasteful endeavor, a fool’s decision and yet, so says Jesus, is the love and grace of God for those who are called to repent. We, as the trees, which time and again have refused to produce the fruits of righteousness, are living now in time earned only by the sheer grace of our loving Father. Given opportunities that we do not deserve because we are loved by him.
It should also be noted that it was not that the fig tree did anything wrong. It just didn’t do anything. For things done and left undone was ask for God’s forgiveness before his altar, and by his grace are given another day to produce the fruits of the Kingdom. Each day, each moment, is a gift from God and understanding all our moments thusly urges us to use them well, in the exercise of love, compassion, justice, and wholeness.
And this image of the fig tree also helps us to understand Jesus’ urge toward repentance in the right light. Not as an if/then statement. Not as the cruel demand of a harsh God threatening us with disaster and doom if we are disobedient. But the urgent demand and plea of a loving God to do what is truly natural to us. Fig trees make figs. For us to try to live lives of apathy, cut off from God and from each other; lives of selfishness, caring only about what we can get for ourselves; lives of pride, where we will step on anyone to see our ideas triumph; lives of judgment, where our opinion is king and we don’t care who gets hurt; lives of dissipation, fixated on things which finally do not matter; to live a life like that is to do what is unnatural for us to do.
Fig trees produce figs; children of God reflect the heart of God. Why do you spend your labor for that which does not satisfy, says our first reading from Isaiah. Why in the face of the glorious imprint of God on your heart and soul to teach you what is good to do and what satisfies, do you waste your time and energy to produce fruits that are not native to the precious design by which you are fashioned? The blessing of repentance is not just to be found in the sweet by and by, but in a life here and now, lived according the sweet truths we find in our innermost selves. Put there by our loving creator.
Why do we labor for that which does not satisfy when God has given us the time and the strength and the vision to live in the joy of doing the things we were made to do? The things that reflect that we are sons and daughters of God. The things that, beneath all apathy and temptation otherwise, we truly want to do.
Thanks be to God for time to change our minds, and our hearts, and to turn around. Let the unrighteous forsake their thoughts, Isaiah tells us, because when we do so, we find our lives as they were meant to be lived.