(Genesis 15:1-12; 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:1-9)
Our readings take us on a journey through time. From Abraham’s call; through the faith of his descendant David; to Jesus journeying to Jerusalem to face the cross, and finally; to Paul urging the people of Philppi to ‘stand firm in the Lord’. It amounts to a time-travelling testimony urging each of us to trust ever more deeply in God.
But this is not always an easy thing to do. Trust – if it is not to be blind and therefore foolish – does well to come to know the one to whom faith is given.
And so we have a series of witnesses to the character of God.
Abraham had no heir and found – after many years of waiting – God to be one willing to provide in unexpected ways; King David, pursued by armies found God to be a shelter, and late in his song, urges his readers to faithfully ‘wait for the YHWH’; Paul articulates it differently – but the sentiment is the same – ‘stand firm in the Lord’.
Each of these people went through times of uncertainty – and came out the other side urging others to trust increasingly in God as well. They had – in very human ways – discovered God to be good and faithful.
There are, in life, times when God is very difficult to see. None more so than when we are confronted with the fragility of life – both our lives and that of others.
And this is where our Gospel reading comes in.
There is something inevitably confronting about violent and unexpected death. In our time as much as any other the cheapness of life is all too confronting. It raises deep questions of justice and fairness. It raises unsettling questions of life and security.
And then, of course, if you believe in an all-powerful being it also raises significant questions about God.
Those approaching Jesus are recounting horror stories they probably have not been eye-witness to – but, the events and stories have, nonetheless, raised the age-old – and all too real – question of the apparent randomness of life and death. They are asking: Why?
The crowd wonders aloud if these apparently meaningless deaths are actually loaded with meaning: Do they reflect on the character of the people concerned? Was this an act of divine judgment? Were these citizens of Israel worse than the rest of us?
Perhaps surprisingly, Jesus is not indecisive at this point. His repeated: ‘No, I tell you’ is emphatic. There was nothing uniquely evil about these people.
But, alarmingly, Jesus still sees parallels between these victims and those gathered before him. Each account of disaster and its accompanying query causes Jesus to issue his own warning: ‘…but unless you repent, you will perish as they did.’ They too are in a similar danger.
But what is this danger?
Jesus’ telling of our parable continues the exchange. It too is about repentance and judgment. It also, however, argues for an extended period of grace.
The landowner’s call regarding his fruitless tree seems harsh: ‘Cut it down!’ He sees no future and is disappointed to – once again – find no olives.
But the one charged with this tree’s care argues for more time and resources. Only then should a decision be both made and carried out – not by the gardener – but by the owner. As the gardener says: ‘…you can cut it down.’
It is a challenging story – and not only because of the subject matter: Who does this vineyard owner represent? Who is this gardener?
The most natural interpretation would, I suggest, have God as the landowner and Jesus as the gardener. But then we have an unresolved argument within the Godhead with one having run out of patience and the other asking for more. This type of discussion within the Godhead sits awkwardly.
At the very least, it makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable. I am happier without any need to see such disagreement. I like my grace to be unchallenged by concerns for fruitfulness or justice.
But then again, perhaps, arguing with God is not without precedent.
Jacob was, after all, re-named Israel – meaning ‘strives or wrestles with God’ – after his all-night fight with the one who dislodged his hip. It became this nation’s name – a badge of honour and call – apparently given by God. And then there is the New Testament naming of Jesus as the ‘mediator between God and man’ (1 timothy 2:5. See also Hebrews 9:15 and 12:24). What is a mediator except one who argues a case between two parties? Is Jesus suggesting that he plays this role before God?
I am left with more questions: Could this courageous display be Jesus simply doing what God hoped Israel would do – be a mediator fearlessly arguing – even wrestling – with God on behalf of those in need of grace? Could it be something God would ask of us as people who would claim his name? Are we called, as followers of Jesus to argue with God – in prayer and action – for even more grace?
And what might this story tell us of the nature of prayer? After all, if God is the landowner, what is this gardener doing apart from offering intercessory prayer on behalf of another?
This gardener is trying to change the mind of the landowner.
I am left wanting more – as with a number of Jesus’ parables. There is so much untold: What happens in the end? Does the owner allow the extra year? Does he commit the needed resources? Does the requested time and care produce the long-desired fruit? Is the axe simply brought out and room made for another? We do not know – at least not yet.
But why does Jesus not answer these questions? Why does the parable stop so suddenly? Perhaps we can only answer these as we journey along with God and the gospel message – as we walk beside God and discover the character of our creator.
But what is clear is that we are called to be a fruitful people – a people of repentance imitating and trusting wholeheartedly in Jesus our heavenly advocate. Our passage is another call to faithful, active, and grace filled waiting.
And all this seems to me quite appropriate for Lent. The gospel accounts are leading us to Jerusalem where the Messiah will hang between God and us – forfeiting his life for this grace argument.
And then, of course, there will be his resurrection – God’s great tick of approval to Jesus’ action.
I am left with an ever deepening gratitude for the one who stood in the gap – holding this alarming tension between grace and justice.