When the God who declares from a burning bush, âI AM who I AM. â¦ Tell them I AM sent you!â becomes flesh and dwells among us, life gets very interesting. Pilate slaughters a group of Galileans. A tower in Siloam kills eighteen others. Do you think they are worse sinners than anyone else, asks The Word made Flesh?
We might think the blame game is some kind of ancient mindset, but we may as well admit that we all get into it at one time or another.
Jesus, as I AM made flesh, can hardly believe people think this way. After all, didnât God make it perfectly clear that the sun shines and the rain comes down on the good and the bad? As Timothy Shapiro explains in his book New Proclamation, Jesus is, in effect, announcing, âThe sin is found in those who think the sin is found in those who have misfortune fall on them.â
So Jesus says to repent of this kind of thinking; he says to turn away from the blame game altogether, and show some mercy â the kind of mercy that God, a.k.a. âI AM,â likes to show for everyone, everywhere. See for yourself in the Book of Jonah.
To repent means to turn around or turn back. The idea is that we are walking with God, or walking with Jesus, and then suddenly we find ourselves distracted by, say, the 3,000 commercial messages that bombard us each day. Or by some personal crisis. Or by the day-to-day routine of dropping kids off, picking them up, driving them somewhere else, and then picking them up again. We find ourselves walking in circles at best, rather than walking with or at least toward God.
To repent means to come to our right mind about the way in which we are walking, and to turn, or re-turn, to walking in the Way with Jesus, the Great I AM in the flesh. Or we will get crushed by the weight of our sin. Notice, by the way, it is always our choice â we can walk with God or be crushed by the weight of our sin. Repentance seems, all in all, a very good idea for all of us.
Included in all that is the grace God shows for all people, at all times, everywhere â especially when they choose to repent. Again, just go back and read the Book of Jonah one more time!
Then comes the parable in todayâs gospel reading â an enigmatic little agricultural metaphor just dripping with judgment and grace. It seems there is a joke in the Greek. The word for âmanureâ is, in fact, not so refined; it is street slang, or what we in some more innocent era called a âswear word.â So think of the harshest possible word for manure, and then imagine the gardener â or tenant farmer â saying it to the wealthy absentee landowner, followed by âand if in a year you are still not happy, YOU cut it down!â There would be serious snickering among the tenant farmers and servants in the crowd who only dreamed of ever talking back at their superiors in such a fashion.
And what the story means to convey in part is that the absentee owner does not get his hands dirty, knows little of how to tend fig trees, and is trying to tell someone who knows the tree, the soil, and the kind of care necessary how to do his job.
And it is the gardener who introduces the notion of grace. âSir, let it alone,â he says, in essence. âDonât blame the tree, donât order me to cut it down â give it another chance. Give it a moment of Amazing Grace. Give it a chance, and it will bear fruit in its own time.â
When we finish laughing, do we get that we are the landowner blaming the tree for its lack of fruitfulness? And that we are also the tree, standing in need of Godâs Amazing Grace?
Every day when we wake up and get out of bed, God is bestowing upon us a great deal of Amazing Grace, whether we deserve it or not. Another way to put this is that, through what we do or donât do, we are all complicit in contributing to the misery of others and the devastation of the very planet God created and calls âgoodâ â and if you remember in the first chapter of Genesis, He calls it not just âgood,â but âvery good.â
Lent is a season that means to remind us that we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Godâs table. But it is Godâs primary attribute to have mercy upon us as long as we keep on repenting of our various sins â most especially the sin of playing the blame game.
The Good News is that God does not want to blame us; God wants to save us. And so God came to live among us as one of us to teach us about sin, repentance, and grace. So it is that the Great I AM became flesh and dwells among us to this day!
Here is a take on the subject from William Countrymanâs little book, The Good News of Jesus:
The new life of the good news is like this: There was a woman who lived in Sonoma County, near Sebastapol. She had no relatives there â not even any close neighbors. The nearest was an elderly man who lived a half-mile away. Behind her house she had a garden, and at the foot of the garden, two apple trees that were her pride and joy. Once she was called away to care for her only living relative, who was sick and lived very far away. She gave a key to the elderly man, who promised to look in on her house every week or so; but he was too infirm to care for her garden. She thought she would be away a few months, but she was gone two years. From far away, she heard about drought and storms. When at last the woman came home, she found her house had lost some shingles, and there was a little water damage inside. Then she went through the house and out into the garden. It was overgrown with tall grass and nettles. At the foot of the garden were her two apple trees. They were in bloom â at the height of their bloom, when apple trees look like white clouds with a touch of pink and the petals are just beginning to fall and carpet the ground with white as well. She stood awhile and drank it all in, and her heart filled with delight and thanks. Then she unlocked the tool-shed, took out her pruners and, wading through the weeds, went down to the apple trees and began cutting out the dead-wood. And she thought of the day when she would have apples for herself and her neighbor.