Monday, May 07, 2007

“Good Fruit”

Luke 13:1-9[1]

One of the most dangerous facets of religious faith is the tendency to assume that we’re right, we’re on God’s side, we’re the “good guys.” Of course, that often means that we assume the people who are different from us are wrong, they’re outside of God’s grace, they’re the “bad guys.” What makes this particularly toxic is when the “good guys” who think God is on their side presume that they can do what they like with the “bad guys”—and that they do so with God’s sanction.

For some reason, this aspect of religious faith is universal. It doesn’t matter what the faith, I would be willing to bet there have been fanatics who committed horrible acts of violence in the name of God. Of course, we’re not people who tend to go out and slaughter innocents in the name of God! But part of what makes this problem universal to religion is that most people of faith either think they are immune from any and all scrutiny or they are obsessed with the notion of divine scrutiny and go to the extreme to “please” a God for whom nothing is ever good enough.

I think that is the heart of what Jesus is addressing in this strange text. It’s strange to us in the first place, because Jesus says, “unless you repent you too will all perish.” I think talk about “repenting” and “perishing” sounds pretty foreign to our ears. I’m afraid it just doesn’t compute with us. After all, when we assume that we’re the “good guys,” why should we be concerned about repentance?

I’m not really sure how we got to this point, because much of the message of the Scriptures is concerned with calling the people of God back to obedience, back to faith, back to God. Prophets like John the Baptist continually called Israel to repentance and to produce “fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3:10). In this respect, Jesus wasn’t very different from the prophets of old. Much of his ministry was occupied with calling Israel to repentance. Jesus warned that a tree is known by its fruit—whether it bears good fruit or bad fruit (Lk. 6:43-44). The fruit Jesus was looking for was for those who consider themselves “God’s people” to renew their commitment to love the Lord their God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love their neighbors as themselves.

The crowd comes to Jesus to get answers from him about how God could allow the tragedy they reported to Jesus. They come to him questioning God’s justice, and Jesus reminds them that everyone must stand before a holy and just God someday, where God will do the questioning.

When John the Baptist told the people of his day they were to produce “fruit worthy of repentance,” he was quite specific about what that should look like. He told the crowds, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” He told the tax collectors to “collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” He told the soldiers not to threaten anyone for money. In a nutshell he was telling them to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Mic. 6:8).

I think it’s a good thing to be reminded of that. It is when we think we are exempt from scrutiny that we turn faith into something toxic, poisonous, harmful, exclusive, prideful, arrogant, selfish and even cruel and heartless. A good dose of repentance is essential to maintain a proper attitude of “walking humbly” with God.

This text is also strange because, just when it seems that he couldn’t be more demanding, Jesus turns around and tells a story about grace! The parable of fig tree in this context depicts God as patient gardener, always allowing people another chance to respond to him in faith and obedience. Of course, that too was not a new idea. The story of the Bible shows that God demonstrated his steadfast love time and time again by disciplining Israel and then restoring them after they returned to him. Even after he handed them over to exile, he did not abandon his disobedient people. God continued to love them fervently, to long for them to return to him, and to send his messengers to them to draw them back to their relationship.

I think this is Jesus’ answer to those who are obsessed with the idea of pleasing a merciless God. The heart of the Bible’s witness to God always has been and always will be: “the Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).

Like the prophets before him, Jesus called God’s people to bear the good fruit of loving the Lord their God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving their neighbors as themselves. But he also called them to live in relationship with a God who is all love, all grace, all mercy. That’s why we observe Lent: it reminds us that “we must all repent,” but it also reminds us that God always gives us one more chance.

[1] A sermon preached 3/11/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

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