“Sir, let it alone for one more year.”
In considering the evils that have plagued this world in the past century and contrasting the great evils of our time with the relatively benevolent behaviour of everyday men and women, it would be easy for us to say we are free from sin. Most of us lead lives in which we do our best to love our families, be good citizens, and make a positive contribution to the world in which we live. For the most part, we are not criminals or hurtful people and when contrasted with those who stand trial for brutal crimes or against those who perpetrate holocausts and ethnic cleansing, we come off looking pretty good. Without a doubt, the goodness of ordinary people is often eclipsed by the all too real stories of human depravity and brutal disregard for the lives of others. Thus, we should celebrate goodness where we find it and allow goodness to cast a light on the darkness. It is worth remembering during this Lenten season, though, that as good as we might be, we all do things for which we are ashamed and of which we ought to repent. To recall the words of St. John, “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
I suspect that this is the thrust of the first part of the story found in Luke 13. Some people put a question to Jesus about those who suffered various horrible fates, namely some Galileans murdered by Pilate and those who were killed when a tower fell on them. In the ancient world, disaster was often considered to be a punishment for sin. Indeed, a disaster might have even been considered a display of God’s wrath and evidence of previously committed sins. Sadly, this archaic religion is not a thing of the past. A certain well-known televangelist recently claimed that the Haitian disaster was a consequence of sins committed by the Haitian people in the nineteenth century. Yet, one wonders if this well-known preacher has ever read Luke 13 in which Jesus rebukes the questioners with the words, “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
We are so quick to see the sin in another and to assume that their misfortune is a result of their faithlessness, but God forbid my own sins should be unmasked, for I am surely deserving of no better a fate. The truth is that be they large or small, our sins and our mistakes are all things for which God ought to be justly displeased. If our human brokenness were unmasked to the world there is not one of us that could stand unashamed. We all have things we hide. We all have things in our lives about which we are deeply ashamed. And truth be told, we are all likely afraid that if our brokenness were unveiled, we would be punished for it.
Jesus’ words are harsh, not because God is harsh, but because we belong to a harsh reality, that good and decent as we are, there is not one of us that is perfect, and there is not one of us that does not harbour some shameful secret. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. Lent is a time for us to stare the reality of our sinfulness in the face.
Jesus confronts us with a harsh reality but does not leave us without hope. As he so often does, he tells us a little story, a parable, to teach us something about God and the kingdom. Jesus tells the story of a man who plants a vineyard and this man’s encounter with the gardener who tends it. One particular tree in the vineyard has been without fruit for three seasons and the man, being the practical fellow that he is, commands the gardener to cut it down for it is simply wasting the soil in which it is planted. The gardener pleads with him though, “just one more year and a little more tending to the soil… if it doesn’t bear fruit at that time, then you can cut it down.”
“Give me one more chance, one more season.” We all deserve another chance, for we are all sinners. In spite of the fact that we think we ought to be punished, Jesus says, “Give me another go with him.” Maybe we need a little nourishment, a little cultivation, maybe just a little time. The truth is that maybe what we need is just a little help from our Lord. Left to our own devices we can be decent people, but we will always be flawed people. There will always be someone we offend or hurt, there will always be some way in which we have let ourselves down, let our loved ones down, let our God down. As Christian people, though, this need no dissuade us from pressing forward, for the Lord our God is good indeed. He does not visit disaster upon us for our sins, as some might suggest, rather his style is to say, “let’s give her another year,” or “I’m not finished with him yet.”
Most importantly, though, we are not left to our own devices to make things right, for God himself in Christ, tends the soil of our brokenness and sinfulness, and in doing so brings forth fruit in our lives. The whole Lenten journey is less about what we can do to make ourselves better people, and entirely about what God can do to bring forth fruit in our lives and for his kingdom. The triumph of the cross is the vanquishing of the shame of our sin and brokenness. The cross is at once Jesus’ cry to the Father, “give them one more year,” and at the same time his loving tending to the soil of our broken lives. When we are withering and dying under the shame of our guilt, Jesus stands for us, with us, and puts his hands into the dirt of our lives to cultivate within us the fruit of redemption.
Thus, to keep a holy Lent is not to work harder at something we can never attain on our own, but to offer the things we dare not share with other men and women directly to the Christ, hanging on the Cross, and he will bury them in a tomb from which no stone can be rolled away, and then give us living water that we might flourish and grow under the nourishment of his risen life.