The lectionary gospel reading today is a strange little passage. Sometimes, this kind of text makes one wonder whether simply to ignore it and turn to the Epistle. I must confess I considered doing just that, but decided to remain with the gospel. I want to do what theologian Phylis Trible suggests, shake the text until it yields a blessing.
The first part of the reading talks about a couple of incidents where people are killed horribly. Although the stories lack in-depth detail, it seems one group dies at the hands of another and the other group died when a tower fell on them. The dialogue is not very uplifting so I’m not going to expand on it (Luke 13: 1-5). I think, maybe the only positive thought to take away is that these horrible events weren’t a punishment from God. The author of the Gospel concludes that these people were no worse than anyone else even though these bad things happened to them.
The short passage then moves to a parable purportedly told by Jesus. Parables are always interesting so I’m going to focus there. First, I am going to talk about how I understand parables. I know I’ve talked about it before but I think it is important. A parable is a story to illustrate a point, usually just a single idea. The details tell the story, they make it exciting for the former listeners or present day readers, yet they are often not so important.
So, I think it is a mistake to try to read too much into the detail. What often happens is that each character in the story is assigned a role — this person represents God, or Jesus, or the gentiles etc. If one takes the parable in such a way there often follows a torturous and often wordy explanation of it. The problem with using this approach is that the character assigned acts or speaks in a way that is, well, out of character. One clear example is the parable of the talents (Matt 25) where the man handing out talents before going on a journey is often interpreted (or assigned) as God. Yet, the character is described as a harsh man. Not really a good description of God. I have read several accounts of why the person is described that way, none of them really satisfy me.
Therefore, I prefer to read parables as stories, characters don’t need to represent God or any other person or nation. The main point is the important thing. That is the message of the parable.
Today’s short parable (Luke 13: 6-9) talks about a man who had a fig tree which bore no fruit. He approached the gardener asking him to cut it down. The gardener persuaded the owner to allow him to give the tree some extra care and see what happened. The owner agreed.
As I read this several times, I thought of second chances. I think that may be the main point. This was the blessing I could get as I shook this text — there are second chances. I think that is applicable both in my own life but also in how I treat others. Give second chances, apply some loving care and wait to see what blooms.
(Photo: Great Falls, Washington DC, February 2019)