Mrs. Bonita was always there. Whether we were going to or from school, running to a friend’s house, or picking up snacks from the corner store, Mrs. Bonita was always sitting on her porch, watching the comings and goings of our neighborhood. The porch was covered, so she was there, rain or shine, hot or cold. Of course, her complaints increased during the extremes, but they were just interspersed in the real attraction to Mrs. Bonita’s porch: gossip. Mrs. Bonita always knew everyone’s business, and she was not afraid to share that business – along with commentary. She was the one who taught us that a lot of bad things happen when you are “not right with the Lord.”
Invariably, we all found ourselves on Mrs. Bonita’s stoop. I suppose there was some lure to her commentary. After an afternoon popsicle on her porch, you could begin to think all the problems of the world were the fault of someone else – Mr. Smith’s smoking habit, Mrs. Jones’ drinking problem, or the Jacobs family’s divorce. But we all knew sitting on that stoop was a guilty pleasure to be avoided, because sooner or later, whether you wanted her to or not, you would be the topic of Mrs. Bonita’s gossip. Suddenly, what had felt like a guilty pleasure at other’s expense became a source of shame.
For a long time, I thought Mrs. Bonita teaching us a sense of shame was counter to that “Lord” with whom she was always suggesting we get in line. I thought shame was counter to what Jesus would have us feel. But this week I was listening to a podcast interview with Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and he argues quite the opposite. He suggests we need a lot more shame in our society. Stevenson argues, “I think the way human beings evolve, the way we get to a consciousness where we no longer do the things we shouldn’t be doing, is we develop a consciousness of shame.”[i] This shame is the same shame that motivates us to create laws that protect the most vulnerable instead of blaming the victim. As people of faith, we understand this reality more than anyone. We know that part of our faith identity is committing to the process of confessing whom we are and what we have done, or left undone, and then making a conscious, albeit imperfect, effort to change – to repent. As Stevenson says, “There is a role for shame, not as an end, but as a process.”
This is what Jesus is trying to capture in today’s gospel lesson. Those who have gathered around Jesus are a bit like those who gathered on Mrs. Bonita’s porch. They begin telling Jesus about the latest gossip in town. The Galileans who were slaughtered on their pilgrimage to the temple, whose blood was mingled with the blood of the holy sacrifices; or the thirteen who died when the tower of Siloam collapsed. Those gathered around Jesus were expecting the same verdict Mrs. Bonita often gave, “Those Galileans and those in that tower must not have been living right with God.” Perhaps they were looking to boost their own pride, or perhaps they were actually looking for a genuine explanation of why bad things happen to good people. But mostly, they were looking to redirect shame. And Jesus is not having it today.
Jesus does something in our gospel lesson that Mrs. Bonita never did. Jesus tells a parable about an unproductive fig tree the vineyard owner wants to cut down, and the gardener who pleads the tree’s case. His method is a little indirect, as parables often are, but the result is jarring. When those around Jesus want to gossip and cast shame, Jesus basically says, “I need you to redirect that shame to yourself – not as an end unto itself, but as a process to make yourselves whole before God.” In other words, Jesus ask those gathered to stop worrying about the big philosophical questions like why bad things happen to good people, and instead ask questions that matter.[ii] How can I change my own behaviors and patterns so that I not only reflect God’s glory, but I also begin to produce fruit?
The shift Jesus suggests today is both convicting and freeing. Instead of getting caught up in the business of others, instead of gossiping about the problems of those people, and instead of getting caught up in theological rabbit holes that, while fascinating, ultimately just leave us stuck in our heads, Jesus wants us to look inward – to do the work of repentance that might actually change the world. Instead of casting shame, Jesus wants us to harness shame, to raise our consciousness, so that we might bear fruit. The work of repentance is much more productive work than any kind of outward looking and judging. Besides, as scholar Fred Craddock suggests, “without repentance, all is lost anyway.”[iii]
As an adult looking back, I have often wondered how Mrs. Bonita’s stoop might have been transformed if she had helped fellow gossips turn to repentance. If after a good gossip session, she might have said, “And now what about you? I heard you have been up to some shameful stuff too. What are doing to change?” Of course, I am not sure Mrs. Bonita would have had as many guests on her porch had she asked those kinds of questions, but she certainly would have done a lot more to transform the neighborhood instead of indirectly hoping our own shame might help us “get right with God.”
The good news is that when we are terrible gardeners for one another, Christ is the gardener we all need. The gardener in Jesus’ parable tends this same unproductive fig tree for three years, to no avail. Even the vineyard owner is ready to rip the tree out of the ground and start over. But not the gardener. The gardener not only asks for mercy for the tree, the gardener commits to much, much more. The gardener begs for one more year to aerate the soil, to get his hands dirty with manure to help nourish the tree. The gardener does not give up on the unproductive tree, but instead offers to double down, to massage the environment in an effort create a total change in this tree. As one scholar suggests, “The manure around our roots is the very blood of the one who pleads for our justification before God, the one through whom we may offer up the fruits of the kingdom to our Creator.”[iv]
I know repentance is hard. I know our sins are so overwhelming that we would much prefer to look at someone else’s sins than our own. I know the temptation of front stoops is to wax about theological questions that really just distract us from our own sinfulness and the need to bear fruit. My invitation for you this week is to redirect your attention to the gardener, the one who is, at this very moment, aerating your soil, tirelessly fertilizing your roots so that you might let go of the “stuff” of life, and instead, through repentance, bear fruit worthy of our God. That kind of work will not be as fun or escapist as sitting on a front porch with the local gossip. But that kind of work will free you from needing to escape in the first place. Amen.
[i] Bryan Stevenson, “Cohen Testimony & Just Mercy (with Bryan Stevenson),” Stay Tuned with Preet, NPR, February 28, 2019, as found at https://www.npr.org/podcasts/551791730/stay-tuned-with-preet on March 20, 2019.
[iii] Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 169.
[iv] Daniel G. Deffenbaugh, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 96.