The agricultural theme continues in the sayings of the psalmist for this week’s readings and the prophets. Both texts open with a longing for water, a basic necessity for all living things to survive. We in New South Wales Australia have seen the suffering caused by the lack of water bought about by the Climate Change we continue to bring on ourselves. Cotton and Rice Growers us up so much water there is little left and we see the massive kill of fish in our rivers which are now but a series of ponds.
We see it in the contamination of our water table and supply by greedy miners who don't care what happens in the future unless there is quick profit in it. Like the fig tree, the psalmist is feeling dried up and deteriorated, like a “dry and tired land.” Yet, both the prophet and psalmist are able to claim joy because they see in God a chance at new life and grace. Isaiah attests to the higher ways of God that transcend the conventional wisdom of our broken world.
We might question the nature of suffering and be challenged by other deep questions for which there are no easy answers. But God’s ways and plans are higher than ours, and that promise can give us hope. Likewise, the psalmist expresses confidence in God’s strength, which enables the psalmist to speak praise with joy, and to cling to God with his whole being. The question for us is where we can make personal connections to both texts here.
Consider how at times you feel like a dry and tired land, or how you feel thirsty and hungry, or how your behaviour might be that of the one whom God is calling to abandon such ways, lifestyle and schemes. Reflect on what you do individually to the land you have care for and stewardship over. Think about how you use this worlds limited resources to the detriment of us all.
Christians are called to see Lent as a time for us to consider a sober assessment of our spiritual state and how we choose to live our lives. Both these texts prompt such introspection. But they both also offer redemption in God’s grace. There is an invitation here to consider how we might like to assess our lives, assess our actions and see where we have experienced God’s love as “the richest of feasts” or a “rich dinner.” However, we also need to asses where we in our greed have pillaged God's creation and given wise stewardship. The celebration of the Holy Communion is a natural connection to this imagery, inviting people to join together in the heavenly banquet that God has prepared for us in Christ.
Further I think as human beings we can admit that we are uneasy with the connection that both Jesus and St Paul appear to be making in this week’s Lectionary Readings, between sin (wrong behaviour or the turning away from God) and suffering. In the Luke 13 reading, people asked Jesus to theologically explain why people had to suffer. They used as case studies two groups: the murder victims of Pilate and the victims of the destruction of a tower.
In both instances, the questioners pondered a connection between their sin and their fate: “Did their sin cause their suffering?” It is a conclusion that we would rather not consider, for obvious pastoral reasons. That’s why Jesus’s answer to the question is so disturbing. “Unless you change your hearts and lives,” Jesus told them, “you will die just as they did.” Does Jesus really believe that such suffering is caused by our sinfulness, our bad behaviour? Fortunately, there is an answer to our uneasiness, in the parable of the fig tree. When the owner of the fig tree sees that the tree is bearing no fruit, he proceeds to do what any rational vineyard owner would do: cut it down and start over. That would be a reasonable cause and effect to assume.
Sinfulness beckons consequences which can be viewed as punishment, just as fruitlessness beckons pruning. But the gardener intercedes. The Gardener pleads with the owner to give the tree one more chance, appealing to the owner’s heart of compassion to give the tree another opportunity for fruitfulness. He offers to provide extra care and nurture: digging around it to remove competing plant life and preserve water, and giving it nourishing fertiliser to give it the nutrition that it needs. Jesus is the gardener in this story who steps into that gap between sinfulness and suffering in order to offer an irrational, unlikely second chance at life.
If the stories of Pilate and the tower reinforce the natural consequences of our negative behaviour patterns, then the story of the fig tree reinforces the certainty of God’s grace. And in the end, it is God’s grace and love, not the causality of sin that rules the day.