A garden requires patient labour and attention. Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or to fulfill good intentions. They thrive because someone expended effort on them.
~Liberty Hyde Baileyr
If you found the two stories that began our reading from Lukes gospel rather unintelligible, then you are not alone. The references to the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices and the eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them have been lost in the annals of time.
In many ways they are used to highlight the response of Jesus to the claim that calamity came upon these people because their actions provoked the God of creation to punish them. It is a common theme in the ancient world and, might I say, is present even in the modern world today. What is most significant about those two stories is the short and sharp answer that Jesus gives to those who ask the question. No! he says, "This is not the action of a vengeful God". And then he adds a sting in the tail, "Ah! But unless you repent you will perish just like they did".
Now I want to get this clear before we move on to the focus of what I want to say today. First, lets give up the notion that the source of life in the universe will intervene and punish you through some physical act, like a tower falling on you, or to use a more contemporary illustration, a bush fire or a flood, because you have missed the mark in the way you have lived your life: the story we have read says no, God doesnt work like that.
Ah! But what follows the No? "That unless you repent you too will perish." Now that is something that I do believe in. Let me explain. The word repent is too archaic to have much meaning today. It is a caricature for the man carrying a sign "Repent, the world is about to end." But repent in its original form meant to turn around, look at life from a different perspective. I think that is a healthy thing to do often and, as mentioned before, particularly in this season of Lent.
My interpretation of this aphorism of Jesus, "Repent or else you also will perish", is a clear statement that there are many things within our lives that are not life-giving but are in fact life-denying and these activities, actions, attitudes are corrosive to the healthy life; and so our wellbeing, our possibility of life in all its fullness, perishes. I see it every day; when we worship the financial bottom line; when we harden our hearts to the beaten and broken people in our world; when compassion becomes something that we measure in thimbles rather that in buckets full. So we perish little by little until there is not much left of our soul or of ourselves. "REPENT!", turn around and see that there is another life-giving way.
The Fig Tree Story
It has taken a little time to get to the story about the fig tree but I think these stories help each of us see the way we can live lives that are rich and free. But these stories are not separate. We need to begin with the clearing that comes with a new and open view of growing and living in this world.
"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."
First Comes Compassion
OK, lets be clear that we are not just talking about a fig tree. This is a metaphor for those on the spiritual journey. This story falls on the third Sunday of Lent and it is meant for us to reflect on the dry and barren times of life. This fig tree is not up to scratch. It is not doing what it should do, what it was designed to do, and that is produce fruit. The clear, efficient and rationalist approach is to cut it down and make room for another plant that will do the necessary job. The gardener who has cared for the tree stands against this. Give it another year, he says.
Preachers love to tell stories about themselves. When I was in grade 3 at Upper Mt Gravatt primary school, it was recommended that I repeat the year because I was a year younger than most in the class. I repeated grade 3 and this "brilliant" scholar now stands before you!! Compassion always calls us to see the potential in the person rather than just where they are at that moment.
But it is more than that. I believe that, for whatever reasons, the gardener loved the tree. He wanted to nurture it at least for another year, even though it had not performed to its potential. This is where I think the most important thing we can ever do is to nurture our souls, our inner being, and that means loving the great gift of life that has been given to us. Sadly, the history of the Christian faith has over-emphasised love of the other and under-emphasised love of the self, the life that has been gifted to you. Of course this is not to condone selfishness, greed or self-aggrandizement, but rather to say that the greatest - and you could say the primary - gift you have been given by the source of life in the universe is you, your life, and what it can be in this world.
Nurturing Your Soul by Loving Yourself
I think the gardener who is going to nurture this tree for the next 12 months is saying a lot about how we nurture our own souls. This week I came across this article written by the great silent actor and comedian Charlie Chaplin on his seventieth birthday. This is what he wrote, and it may sound strange to some:
As I Began to Love Myself by Charlie Chaplin
Our souls are a garden that needs to be nurtured. Yes, there are aspects of our lives that need trimming; but it is love and nurture that is the most important thing to grow what we need to live full and fulfilling lives.