The gospel for this third (mid-way) Sunday of Lent is Luke 13:1-9. It gives us a glimpse of the middle-eastern Jesus. Christians of a weak disposition should skip this because his teaching here is a hard saying. And non-Christians will have to read it carefully or they will find its either-or language intolerant. With such passages I always feel (but of course can’t prove) that it was those reporting the teaching or a fault in translation that were responsible for this harshness. I’m sure Jesus was not always easy to listen to and that his words could be cutting but the impression of rejection, exclusion and cruel punishment seems to me foreign to his personality though they were common in his time and culture.
He says ‘if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did’, referring to various groups who had been killed by the Romans or died in natural disasters. If we understand the meaning of repentance we can see what he is saying. There is death and disaster when the heart remains closed to the truth and hardened against others. The human person cannot survive and will self-destruct when we fail to turn round, to admit we are human, fallible and imperfect. When the public persona of perfection or attractiveness becomes our actual self-awareness we have lost our soul. So in this Jesus is simply putting a point he makes elsewhere in a graphic way. He is a great teacher and attracts our attention by his style.
And he also taught by parables, simple, elliptical sayings with a measure of wisdom adaptable to the diverse minds of his listeners. This one is about a fig tree that would not bear fruit and is condemned for merely exhausting the soil and taking up a space where a good tree could be planted. The owner tells the gardener to cut it down but the gardener successfully pleads for one more year to see if it can be saved. After all, one imagines, he had put a lot of work into it already. In the tradition Jesus is often described as (and was once mistaken for) a gardener. So here we could identify Jesus with the gardener winning time for the life-forms he loved. The landowner could be seen as karma, the unforgiving, coldly cosmic law, of cause and effect. It is, however, not the final judgement as it can be overruled and dissolved by the higher power of forgiveness.
As usual we don’t know the end of the story – did the gardener save the tree by making it fruitful? We aren’t told what happens next because it is we who give the ending to the story, provided we can understand its wisdom and act on it. Actually then the story is quite comforting. We have more time (three more weeks of Lent). Seeing the consequences of not repenting, not being fruitful, not growing as we should, is disturbing, even terrifying. But a power greater than fate, greater than what we feel we deserve, is working for us, on our side. Imagine what the gardener would be saying to the fig tree as he put more fertiliser around it and trimmed it lovingly.
So after all, maybe today’s gospel isn’t as R-rated as I had thought at first.