The Third Sunday in Lent (March 24, 2019)
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
One of the things that strikes me about the rapidly changing culture we live in is the abundance of apps that promise to make our lives easier. Apps (applications) on our smartphones can do all sorts of things for us: connect us to others through social media; take our pictures; play our music; manage our household budgets; map our runs; book our plane tickets… I could keep going, but there are over 2 million apps for Apple and Android phones.
Among those 2 million apps are those in the realm of spirituality. There are a gazillion (that’s an approximate number) apps designed to help us pray, meditate, be mindful, read Scripture, think positively, etc. I was reading an article in the Atlantic that mentioned the plethora of spirituality apps out there when I came across one that reminds the user that he/she/they are going to die.
“WeCroak,” that’s We and Croak cobbled together. WeCroak. As in “we are going to croak.” Five times per day, the app reminds the user at random intervals that death comes for us all. It was developed by a young adult named Ian Thomas who was in Brooklyn for a conference and rented a room in someone’s apartment (through an app, by the way, Airbnb) who shared with him a popular maxim from the Himalayan country of Bhutan: “to be a truly happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.”
The author of the article downloaded it, tried it for three months, and reflected on the experience:
WeCroak is a serious downer… WeCroak interrupts to warn that “the grave has no sunny corners…by the fourth week, I begin to enjoy its company. Trembling with nerves before giving a talk to a group of strangers, I get a ping: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” What’s a little public speaking next to the terrifying finality of my inevitable demise? Soon after, I’m at a friend’s wedding, sulking about an impending deadline, when WeCroak again reminds me, “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” I loosen up, finish my champagne, and opt to enjoy myself. With each day the app sounds less like a Hobbesian warning—“Life is short”—and more like an Oprah-esque affirmation: “Life’s too short!”
I’ve come to embrace WeCroak as the anti-app. Social-media platforms seduce by providing a distraction from the tedium of everyday life—the awkward silences, boring waits in line, and unpleasant thoughts, chief among them the fact that we, and everyone we love, will kick the bucket. WeCroak makes escapism feel futile: We’re all going to die. The phone buzzes for thee.
It’s a strange thing, isn’t it, that we need the assistance of technology to remind us of the inevitable? That same technology, mind you, in some ways numbs us to the inevitable. For some of us, we don’t need the reminder; we are, in the words of that old hymn, “Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail” and more than aware of it. The deaths of love ones, our own medical problems, the number of days, months, years crossed off the calendar, and the sheer weight of memories do that for us. But for others of us, the thought hasn’t crossed our minds in some time. We’re invincible. We’ve got nothing but time.
Jesus finds himself in the midst of such a crowd. Some people in that crowd want to pick his brain with meaty theological questions about the nature of God and perils of life. Now we call that topic “theodicy,” the galaxy of questions about why a good God allows evil or why a loving God permits her creation to suffer. Their questions were legitimate: Pilate, the Roman governor, renown for his cruelty, massacred people in a place near where Jesus grew up, so his fellow Galileans ask him, “Rabbi, tell us, did this gruesome thing happen to our neighbors because God was punishing them? Were they any worse than the rest of us? Basically, did they deserve it?”
And what does Jesus do? How does he respond? He tells a parable.
He’s always doing that. How irritating. I need an answer, not a story. An essay would really be helpful—a thesis, three points in support of that thesis, and a tight conclusion, please. But in his rabbinical wisdom he offers a parable. And the thing about parables is there are several doors through which to walk in and plenty of room to wiggle around once you’re inside.
The parable Jesus tells is about a fig tree that’s not growing fruit. It’s owner wants it chopped down. “It’s a waste of soil,” he says to the gardener. “A waste of soil.” That’s harsh. So the gardener pleads its case, “Give it some more time, please, and I’ll dig around it, and put some manure in the soil around the roots. A little more time, please. Give the tree just one more year. If it doesn’t bear fruit, do what you have to do.” As some people say, “Shape up or ship out.”
We can really get into the theological weeds with this parable if we start assigning roles. People do that, though: God as the owner of the land; Jesus as the caretaker, we are the fig trees. That’s problematic territory, to say the least. But here’s the thing: there’s a tension in the parable between judgement and grace, between accountability and mercy. There’s a creative tension between a God who loves us enough to hold our feet to the fire, raising the bar for us to be the people we were created to be, and a God who give us the slack when we don’t measure up.
But moreso, the move that Jesus makes here in response to crowd’s question isn’t giving a point-by-point explanation of the mysteries of God as the capriciousness of life but rather putting the question back on the askers. “You’re wondering about what happened to all these people who died,” Jesus effectively says, “But my question is, what are you doing with the life you have left. How are you bearing fruit?”
That’s quite insensitive of Jesus by our standards. Their neighbors have lost their lives and he has the nerve to the remind them of their mortality?
The Southern novelist Flannery O’Connor wrote:
“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
This large and startling figure of the Parable of the Fig Tree tells the harsh but necessary truth that our time is limited. It’s an inescapable fact. But it also shares some good news: there is time! There is still time, Jesus says, to repent.
Now, that word “repent” gets flattened sometimes to mean only “remorse,” but repentance, as Luke speaks of it, means so much more than that. It entails a change of mind, a new perspective, a new way of living and being in the world. It’s like when, earlier in Luke’s gospel (chapter 3) when John the Baptist said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” They asked him, “What then should we do?” And he said, “If you’ve got two coats, give one to somebody who’s cold. And if you’re a tax collector, quit cheating people. And if you’re a Roman soldier, don’t intimidate or extort people.”
In other words, change your life. Now. Live your life in such a way that it makes a difference to others around you, friend and stranger alike, especially the down-and-out, especially those who are cast aside. You don’t have to live only for yourself. You can turn around.
Lent reminds us of that. We begin it by smearing ashes on our foreheads, recalling our mortality, “dust to dust.” And it carves out 40+ days for reflecting on how we’re spending our time which is, in fact, finite. WeCroak—all of us, those who bear fruit and those who do not. And in God’s mercy, there is time to bear fruit, to be merciful. There is time.