The parable of the fig tree


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Luke 13.1-9

A long, long time ago in a church far, far away – well, in Clapham actually – I used as a basis for my talk on Christmas Day morning the well-known slogan from the charity The Dogs Trust:
A dog is for life, not just for Christmas

And I used that to go on to talk about Jesus is for life, not just for Christmas.

My talk went down really well with one young man. After the service he came rushing up to me.

“I really enjoyed your talk,” he said. Every preacher, of course, is really please when a sermon has had an effect. But before I had time to ask him what exactly about my talk had really spoken to him, he went on, “It was my advertising agency that came up with that phrase!”

Every advertising executive’s dream, of course, to come up with a phrase that becomes as embedded in the public consciousness as that one.

I thought then, and since, that lots of well-known advertising slogans could form the basis of a sermon by adapting them as necessary:

Does what it says on the tin – a sermon about the Bible perhaps.
Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach – for a sermon on the Holy Spirit.
Because you’re worth it – for a sermon on why Jesus loves you.

Which brings me to a slogan for this morning’s sermon: Where there’s blame there’s a claim.  This famous slogan was coined by The Accident Group, whose founder failed to see the irony of sacking two and a half thousand workers by text message when it went bust the day before pay day and then disappearing to Spain with millions, that came up with the slogan in their adverts: Where there’s blame, there’s a claim. It’s a phrase that people still use.

And we’ve all heard or seen those kinds of adverts. Accidents happen – and yet someone must be to blame, we are told, and must pay the price. We find it hard to cope any more with the concept of ‘accident’ or ‘human error’. And we end up assuming that when something bad happens someone is always to blame!

Simply human fallibility, or acts of nature, are no longer seen as allowable options. People think: Where there’s blame there’s a claim. Because someone must be to blame.

It seems from today’s gospel reading that people haven’t changed all that much over the last two thousand years.

People, then, as now, avidly discussed the latest news of death and destruction and tried to understand its significance. We do not know precisely what tragedy some people told Jesus about on the day that our reading originally took place. All we know for sure is that several Galileans were killed in or near the temple by Pilate’s soldiers as they prepared to offer their sacrifices to God.

Nor do we have a record of the tragedy involving the collapse of the tower in Siloam that killed eighteen people. All we know for sure is that then, as now, tragedy struck and people died and still other people talked about it, and tried to make sense of it.

And they thought that someone must be to blame – most probably the people themselves, or their parents. At the time it was a common belief that if tragedy struck it wasn’t somebody else who was to blame – it must be your own fault or that of your parents, and therefore God had punished you.

And as we all know – we even do it ourselves – even today people will look for someone to blame.  Whenever bad things happen, whenever senseless things happen, human instinct is to try to make sense of it. And so often people end up blaming God or other people. People want to have someone to blame! Even in the church people are not allowed to be fallible or make mistakes, and when something goes wrong however small someone – and it’s usually made clear it should be me – is expected to go and tell them off. Someone must be to blame and they need to pay for it!

We all want to make sense of the senseless, we want to know why bad things occur, and that is often a good thing. Because if we can prevent such things happening again that’s good. For example – when buildings collapse, like the tower in Siloam that collapsed, investigations are done to find out why so that, just perhaps, such a similar tragedy can be prevented from happening.

But a culture that seeks to blame someone for almost every bad thing that happens is not a good thing. It leads us into assigning blame and guilt to people that do not deserve it, or who at least do not deserve it any more or less than do we. Even, as at the time of Jesus, blaming people for their own misfortune.

Let me tell you a story.

In a previous parish I, along with the other clergy, used to take communion into a local hostel for those dying with AIDS. This was in the 80s when AIDS was still relatively new and threatened to be an epidemic in the UK. It was very much feared and still erroneously seen as a gay disease. 

The volunteer cook in the hostel was a member of a local church – not an Anglican one. She told me how fellow members of her church had said to her: “How can you work in such a place – it’s their own fault those people are in there!” What an appalling attitude! And yet such attitudes – that people must deserve their own suffering, that they must be responsible for their own misfortune or that they should even be punished for it, are all too prevalent today. If anything the use of social media has made the problem far, far worse than it has ever been.

But as followers of Jesus we are called to be different. And such attitudes in our culture where someone must be to blame, and where so often people are blamed for their own misfortune, have to be challenged – just as Jesus challenged them in his day.

We are called, not to criticise others for not bearing fruit, but to look to ourselves and ensure that we bear fruit for Jesus.

Why else would Jesus have replied “Because those Galileans were killed in that way, do you think it proves that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  What about the eighteen people killed when the tower fell on them in Siloam?  Do you suppose this proves that they were worse than all the other people living in Jerusalem. No indeed, and I tell you that if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they did.”

Jesus suggests that we make sense of the senseless, not by condemning the victims of tragedy for their complicity in their own deaths – but by considering our own mortality, and our own sinfulness, and working to produce fruit befitting our salvation before we are called to account for our lives before his eternal throne. For as the parable of the unfruitful fig tree in today’s gospel reading tells us – God expects us to be fruitful for him. He expects us to produce that which is pleasing to him, lest we be cut down and perish like those we think have somehow deserved their suffering.

The question isn’t whether or not other people’s suffering makes sense, or whether or not they have deserved their suffering – but whether or not our lives make sense, whether or not we are fruitful for God, whether or not we are ready to reach out to care for people, ready to fight for justice for anyone who suffers no matter the cause, ready to live out for others the love Jesus has shown to us, and whether or not we are ready to meet our maker.

The reality is that suffering happens – to good people and bad people alike. And instead of blaming people for their own misfortune Jesus reminds us today that far from pointing the finger we need to extend hands of compassion.

It’s time for us to bear fruit for Jesus.