"Holy Shit!" might have been my response to news that Jesus hears about in Luke 13: ‘Pilate massacred a group of Galileans while the were worshiping in the temple. It was so brutal that their own blood was mingled with the blood of the animals that they were sacrificing!’*
Instead, 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.'" (Luke 13:6-9)
What?! One might expect outrage from Jesus. Or at least astonishment. A rant, maybe, against the occupying government. But instead, when informed of the senseless deaths of Galileans at the hands of Pilate, he says, ‘Oh and that other instance of people being killed by the tower falling. I bet you think that they must have done something to deserve it.” But after he reminds his listeners that God does not punish us for our sins, he also reminds them - twice - that at any moment they too could be called before their Creator; repent in the time that is left, or perish as those others perished. And he goes on to tell the parable above.
From ‘holy shit!’ to holy shit. How does Jesus manage these remarkable transitions? This is a story about a gardener who, as the King James Version puts it, ‘digs and dungs’ the poor unproductive fruit tree. In almost the same breath as Jesus is demanding repentance or perish-ment from his bewildered audience, he is offering a reprieve. A way to use the time we have left to seek productivity. And we are not in it alone. The faithful gardener will be there digging around the roots, looking for what is rotten, packing in the stinky but vitamin-rich manure. Thank you, gardener!!
I have been wondering about the gardener’s final pronouncement to the tree’s owner: “If the tree bears fruit, well and good, but if not, you can cut it down.” My junior high Sunday school class pointed out to me that the gardener doesn’t say, “I’ll cut it down for you.” but “you can cut it down.” I don’t know whether the emphasis is my own wishful thinking or whether it was Jesus' intention, but I like to think that not only will the gardener bravely intervene on behalf of the tree, he will spread the holy shit and he will not have anything to do with the tree's destruction. The tree may still perish, but the gardener will have done everything in his power to protect and nurture it into health and fruitfulness.
The junior high class was pretty certain that the gardener was Jesus and I’m pretty certain as well, although I don’t necessarily think Jesus always lines up one-for-one with any given character in his stories. But in this case, I do think he’s inviting us to seek the holy shit. Look for opportunities that are being offered to be enriched. Sometime the enrichment and growth opportunities will not smell good or seem enticing. The best compost is filled with slimy and squirming worms and sometimes the digging around the roots will hurt. But we’re in it with the gardener! Thank you, God for holy shit.
* It is unclear whether this was an actual event, but Pilate’s recorded governance practices in other instances make it very plausible - eg. the massacre of a group of Samaritans while on pilgrimage up Mt. Gerizim, their most holy site.
** Thanks to Jonathan, my co-pastor, for the colorful and evocative inspiration that began these reflections!
*** After March 7, see the related sermon ‘One More Year’