God's Patience for an Unfruitful Tree - Luke 13:1-9 & Isaiah 55:1-12
An internet search reveals there are currently five major wars ongoing in the world. There is of course the war in Ukraine in which Russia, a nuclear power, invaded its smaller neighbor unprovoked. There are also ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Yemen, Myanmar, and a civil war in Ethiopia known as the Tigray War in which at least 100,000 people have died over the past year and a half. There are also 18 other wars and 21 smaller conflicts currently going on in the world. That’s not to mention all the pain and suffering brought on by other forms of violence like murder, rape, assault, domestic violence, or gang violence. Then there’s the pain and suffering of physical disease and mental illness. Of famines and natural disasters. There’s social and economic injustice, widespread poverty, personal and systemic racism, oppression, and prejudice of all kinds. There’s so much sin and suffering in this world. It’s hard to believe that this world is good when we look at all that’s going on here.
We all struggle with the question of evil and suffering. It’s an important question for people of faith. There’s no simple answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people. Why is there so much sin and suffering in the world? Why do evil and suffering exist in the first place? How can we reconcile a belief in a God who is both loving and powerful when there’s so much pain and suffering in the world?
A few weeks we explored the subject of theodicy, the subfield of theology which explores the questions of God, evil, and suffering. And now in the passage we heard this morning it comes up again. It’s the question Jesus is led to address when he’s told about Galileans who were killed by Pilate. It seems the people who asked him were hoping for a cut and dry answer that those people deserved what happened to them. Maybe they were more sinful and that’s why they were killed. Maybe they got what was coming to ‘em. Jesus responds, “No, that’s not the way things work.” Then he brings up another current event of his day: “Do you think that tower that recently fell on 18 people killed them because they were worse sinners too? No that’s the way things work.” In this passage, Jesus is clearing up the bad theology that was present in his day and continues to be present in our own.
The passage seems to set him up perfectly to explain his position on the problem of evil. We’re waiting for his answer and then, instead of answering the question, Jesus tells a parable. And a parable that apparently has little to do with what the question was in the first place. But if we look deeply at Jesus’ response, I think it does make sense why he responds this way to the question about the problem of evil. The point of the parable seems to be that God is willing to be patient with this tree that doesn’t bear fruit.
Bearing fruit in scripture is usually a metaphor for doing good in the world, for demonstrating evidence of spiritual growth and maturity. We are all called to bear good fruit in our lives. And a tree in scripture often represents a group of people—not just one individual but a whole group, often the people of Israel but perhaps all of humanity here. The human race is not bearing good fruit like God wants. In fact, we’re bearing bad fruit. But both the gardener and the landowner are willing to be patient and to nourish the tree so that it will flourish. Spreading manure and fertilizer and taking good care of this unfruitful tree. Giving it tender love and care, so that it will eventually do what it’s supposed to do and bear good fruit. So in a roundabout way, this is Jesus’ answer to the problem of evil. That God is patient with evil, and is at work to help humanity bear good fruit instead.
A few weeks ago we explored how Jesus didn’t answer why evil happens, but instead taught his disciples that the human response to evil should be forgiveness. In the same way now, in this parable, Jesus explains that God’s response to evil is patience. More forgiveness and more patience. More love, more nourishment, and more grace, so that this tree can truly flourish and reach its full potential.
God’s response to a tree that doesn’t bear fruit is to love it more, to give it more care, to give it the best manure and fertilizer God can find, so that this tree will bear good fruit. No matter what it takes, God is caring for this world so that we will in fact bear good fruit. God is totally committed to making this tree—which is humanity—bear good fruit.
Instead of answering the question of why evil exists directly, Jesus uses a parable to explain God’s response to it. God gives us all the time we need. God offers us tremendous patience and amazing grace. God commits to nourishing this tree so it may flourish.
And because of God’s strong commitment to humanity, because of the tender love and care our divine gardener gives us, I am convinced that this tree will bear fruit. Despite all the wars of human history and all the evil we still do to each other. Despite being so trapped in sin and selfishness. Despite our immaturity and immortality, God is absolutely committed to transforming humanity into reflections of the divine image. God is committed to helping God’s children grow up. And God’s dream for the world will most certainly be realized. God’s vision of shalom will come to fruition. God’s kingdom will shine on earth as it is in heaven.
The First Reading from Isaiah we heard this morning describes this vision of the world’s future. It’s a theme which appears throughout the Hebrew prophets, and it’s a theme we find throughout the New Testament as well. Under various names like the Peaceable Kingdom here in Isaiah, the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ teaching, the New Creation in Paul’s letters, and the concept of theosis in the letters of Peter and the early church. The reading from Isaiah shows what the world will look like when God’s dream for the world comes to fruition. When the tree that is humanity matures and bears good fruit. It’s a world where all are fed, even if they have no money. A world where the wicked forsake their ways and turn to God. A world where nations come together in peace. A world so wonderful that mountains burst into song and tress clap their hands. This is the world we can look forward to. This is the promise of the peaceable kingdom, the promise of the new creation, the promise of the world’s future.
Now you might be thinking “Well that’s nice pastor, but we’ll be long gone by the time that happens.” And you’re probably right, the human tree bearing this good fruit described by Isaiah seems a long way off. But still, this is an important, hopeful vision for the world’s future. And the way we understand the future affects how we live today. Simply understanding this vision can change our lives here and now. Rather than having a negative understanding of the world’s future, which became the norm only in the past few hundred years, Christians today need to recover the eternal optimism that the Hebrew prophets had, and that Jesus had and that the early church had. The understanding that God is tremendously patient with humanity and is nurturing us to grow into a tree in full bloom, a wonderful tree which bears good fruit.
It is our call as the church to live into this reality. To live into the Kingdom of God and be God’s hands and feet in the world—to be the manure that helps humanity grow. That’s our calling as the church. To align with God’s vision for the world and to be leaders of humanity’s spiritual evolution. Or as scripture puts it: to be ambassadors for Christ and participants in the ministry of reconciliation. It is our privilege to be laborers in the vineyard who help nourish this unfruitful tree.
So I invite you this week to pray for humanity’s growth into a tree which bears good fruit. And to be aware of how you are called to add a little fertilizer to the soil. God is transforming this world, gently inviting all to align with the divine will and to grow into the children of God we were created to be. So do not lose heart when you see the evils of the world. From God’s perspective, these are but the birth pangs, as Jesus says in the Gospels. While sin and suffering are very real, the promises we have from God describe a bright, optimistic future. God is tremendously patient and nurturing His creatures, as humanity grows into a tree which bears good fruit. Amen, thanks be to God.
Pastor Brian, 3/20/22