Luke 13 is an uncomfortable chapter. Jesus starts out addressing one of the perennial questions posed to religion: Why do bad things happen? The Roman governor, Pilate, had killed some Jews while they were worshiping in the Temple and their blood got mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. To an observant Jew in that day, this was an in-your-face indictment of God not watching out for his faithful people. How could this happen? Jesus' response goes far beyond the specific example. "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." This is not the answer his questioners are looking for! Instead of giving them a theological concept, Jesus gives them a warning. Then he adds another example -- this time, instead of the issue of the abuse of power, Jesus throws in random tragedy. How could a good God allow a tower to collapse on eighteen innocent people? Like Thornton Wilder in his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey we go looking for meaning in tragedy, hoping to find an orderly universe in which the good prosper and the wicked suffer. But that is not what we find. We find a world in which bridges collapse, towers fall, tsunamis devastate seaside villages, seemingly strong marriages collapse, churches decline and die. Life is precarious, and there are no guarantees of safety.
Jesus is not just speaking of the random danger of life, however. He is also directly confronting a nationalistic attitude in his own people, in his own context, and warning that if his Jewish people continue on their course and miss what God is doing, they will be destroyed as surely as those on whom the tower fell. What is God doing? Look at me, Jesus says over and over. Here I am. God has sent me. Repent and recognize that I am bringing you good news of who God really is, who you really are, and what the truth is about the world around you. Instead of bowing to his authority, the authorities in Jesus' world choose to continue living with their assumptions, their moralistic structures, their systems of shame and control, intact.
Jesus goes on to tell a simple parable: an unfruitful fig tree (a standard Old Testament metaphor for the nation of Israel) is not bearing fruit, so the landowner demands that it be cut down. The gardener asks for a temporary stay -- one more year of digging around it and applying manure to see if it will become fruitful.
I have been pondering this parable for many months. It has helped me make sense of the cataclysmic changes that have happened in my own life, some that happened to me and others that I chose. Though this last year has been a time of healing and restoration and relative peace, the years previous swept my life away like an avalanche. I see now that drastic changes were needed long before that time -- changes in me, changes in the people closest to me, changes in the church I served at the time -- and none of us were able to make the changes that could allow God to pour his abundant life into us. We held onto our structures, our systems of fear and shame and control. In his love and mercy, God created an avalanche that swept the tree away.
In my current work at Decision Hills, I've had the opportunity to take down many, many trees. A chainsaw has become one of my regularly used tools. I know firsthand that removing a tree is a messy process. It seems so terribly destructive. Similarly, the avalanche I've experienced over the last couple years has been a very messy process. But I see good reason for hope as the dust clears and the underbrush gets hauled, little by little, away. God is faithful, and he is working for his glory and our good. We all want to be perfect, fruitful trees; these are the dreams we imagine for ourselves. That vision takes time -- and a lot of manure -- to be accomplished. A tree takes time to bear fruit. A bird takes time to learn to fly. The fawns in my yard are just beginning to lose their spots these days. Life is poured into us ever so slowly.
When rapid changes happen, they may seem like an avalanche. They may feel painfully destructive. At times we can choose change; other times we get caught up in difficult shifts that terrify us. But God is at work. The key, Jesus seems to be saying, is to know God for who he truly is, to know his character accurately, not just to allow ourselves to maintain our structures of fear and shame and control in order to avoid risk. We need to recognize both who God is and what he is up to, and be willing to make the hard changes that make abundant life possible. It's a humbling thing, and may require us to face our fears and our weaknesses in ways we never wanted to. The only reason to choose such risk is if we believe that God is, as Jesus says, love, and that God's love is the ultimate reality, and that he will sweep away structures and churches and relationships that don't reflect his love into the world. Have no fear, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.