Second Chances

Like the fig tree, we aren't expected to bear fruit on our own. There's a gardener helps us, too.

Lent 3c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Moses asked, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God answered, “I will be with you...”

I am sure you are all aware of the old saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” It is probably so familiar that it is easy to miss the repetition of the word try — it’s not just, “if at first you don’t succeed, try again” but “try, try again.” So given that first failure, this old saying actually seems to be urging at least two more tries, for three all together.

On that basis alone, this poor unfruitful fig tree in the parable that Jesus told has already used up its three chances. The owner of the vineyard tells the gardener that he’s been looking for fruit on the tree for three years and still has found none. He is ready to cut it down and plant something else, but the gardener intercedes. He suggests one more chance for this unfruitful tree, one more chance after additional cultivation and fertilizer, to see if it can be coaxed into bearing fruit — one more year, one more chance, and then, if it still bears no fruit, it will get the ax — literally.

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Now, of course, as with all the parables, this isn’t really about gardening or the care of fruit trees. Jesus tells this story in response to news of a terrible incident: Pilate had ordered a bloody attack on some Galileans who were in the very process of offering sacrifice in the temple. Jesus immediately challenges the unspoken suggestion that they suffered because they were sinners, and adds an incident concerning another terrible accident in which a tower fell on people — in both cases he says that those who suffered these things were no worse than anyone else, but he also adds that anyone else needs to repent; they may not have been worse sinners, but they were sinners, just like everybody; and that this should be taken as a warning — in particular a warning to those who have not perished. This introduction tells us that this parable is about repentance, and the fact that opportunity for repentance is available to you while you still live — it is too late to repent after you’re dead. Everyone, like the tree, both stands in need of repentance, and, also like the tree, receives a second and a third and — as the gardener mentions — even a fourth chance to do so.

But there is more good news in this than simply the old adage of trying and trying again, and second chances. There is another old saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. So this is not just about unaided trying — as if you could bash your head against the wall just one more time and finally break through, rather than breaking your head. No, there is something else in this parable that we miss at our peril: and that is the gardener.

The gardener intercedes — he asks the owner to let the tree alone for a year, but he is himself going to get to work on it — this is not just about standing back and expecting the tree to produce even though it has not produced for three years running. The gardener helps — it is not just about some unaided chance for the tree, but an investment of effort and support by the gardener. The gardener will cultivate: digging around the roots to make sure they aren’t being cramped by soil that is too hard or clayey, and he will add manure — the best natural fertilizer — to give the tree more than a chance, on its own. In short, the gardener will give it help, help that it so desperately needs and so obviously needs.

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Ultimately all of us sinners need both the chance and the help — both the opportunity and the aid — to come to repentance, and both of these come from God. Saint Paul assures us both that there is universal need for such help and that the help is there. As he said to the Corinthians, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” But he quickly goes on to add, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” So it is God who is, as the wonderful old hymn says, “Our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.”

Our Scripture readings today provide us with one more example of this need both to try and try again but also to rely upon the help of God to succeed in the effort. Moses, as you recall, had to hightail it out of Egypt because he murdered an Egyptian who was mistreating an Israelite slave; and in spite of his place in Pharaoh’s household, the law was the law and he was in danger of the death sentence. He ends up keeping sheep near the mountain of God, and has that amazing, transcendent encounter with the God of his fathers — appearing to him in the flames of a bush that burns but is not consumed. And to make a long story short, God tells him to go back to Egypt, and not just back to Egypt but to Pharaoh himself, to liberate the people of God from their captivity. It’s as if God is saying, “Out of the frying pan, and into the fire” with you!

Moses complains that he is not adequate to this task — “Who am I,” he asks, “to go to Pharaoh?” And just as with the tree that is not expected to bear fruit on its own, so too God makes clear to Moses that he will not be doing this on his own, for God will be with him.

It is worth noting that Moses asks, “Who am I?” But very shortly thereafter God says that his own name is “I am” and instructs Moses to tell the people that I am has sent him. This is, of course, more than God simply saying, “The buck stops here,” as the sign on President Harry Truman’s desk used to say. God is more than a celestial Harry Truman, but also and definitely not less. There is an ultimate truth to the fact that the buck stops with God — God is the source of all power we have to act; even our act of repentance — our ability to pick ourselves up after we have failed — has to rely on the strength of God at work in us, working in us to accomplish God’s good purposes for us and through us. God — Emmanuel — I am — both is and is with us.

When we feel weak or incapable — like Moses, like that fig tree — when we have tried and tried again and still not succeeded, and we cry out, “Who is there to help me?” the voice of God responds, “I am.” When we may make our sour assessments of ourselves, or when others are ready to cut us down because we have failed to accomplish what they expected of us, or we of ourselves, and we wonder who there could be who might be willing to give us help and one more chance, the voice of God responds, “I am.”

God is always more willing to help than we are to ask. He has his shovel and hoe ready to get to work cultivating our tangled roots, and he has a store of spiritual fertilizer to nourish us and help us bear fruit. God is a good gardener who knows how to care for all that is planted in his garden.

Remember, after all, who the gardener is... over there in that stained glass window: Mary Magdalene literally mistook him for the gardener on that morning of his resurrection. He is the gardener who will care for us who are planted in his garden. Jesus is our helper, our aid and support, in trying once, and again, and again. You might well say that the incarnation itself is God’s great gift of a second chance to all of humankind. So let us, this Lenten season, be willing and ready to receive his help and let him make of us that which we cannot make of ourselves without his help — and bear fruit accordingly, the fruit of repentance and the fruit of service, to his honor and glory.+