As I have been watching the news about Ukraine, I find that I am in equal measures blown away by the fortitude and commitment of Ukrainians – who by all accounts had no chance in beating powerful Russia, and devastated by the suffering of Ukrainians – starving and trapped inside surrounded cities, attempting to protect children by writing the word “children” outside a safe house, only to have that safe space bombed, and even having maternity wards being fair game for destruction. As my heart ached the question, “Why?” this week, I was so grateful when I read today’s gospel and see those gathering around Jesus asking Jesus the same question.
In Luke’s gospel today, the people come with two concerns to Jesus. They want to know why Galilean Jews have suffered at the hand of Pilate, and why many were killed when the tower of Siloam collapsed. I feel a solidarity in their painful questions, and I have a hopeful longing when Jesus opens his mouth. But what comes next feels like Jesus has not heard us at all. In answer to their question of why there has been suffering, Jesus tells this story: Once upon a time, there was a fig tree that was not bearing fruit and had not borne fruit for three years. Fed up, the vineyard owner decided to cut down the unproductive tree. But before the vineyard owner could touch the tree, the gardener made one last plea. The gardener asked for one more year. In that year, the gardener would dig around the tree, spreading manure at the roots of the tree. If after a year of such care the tree still did not produce fruit, then the owner could chop down the tree.
Now maybe you hear Jesus’ parable today, and you can immediately see the correlation between the question why there is suffering in the world and the parable of the unproductive fig tree. I was not so lucky this week. In fact, I found myself staring blankly at this text for days. Certainly, I understand the question the people ask, since I have been asking that same question for weeks. And I think I somewhat understand the parable – I mean, what better parable for Lent than one about repentance. But what I did not understand was why Jesus told this parable to answer our question of why there is suffering in the world.
Fortunately, I stumbled on the work of a biblical scholar. She describes the idea by poet and healer Pádraig Ó Tuama of the “Buddhist concept of ‘mu,’ or un-asking. If someone asks a question that’s too small, flat, or confining, Ó Tuama writes, you can answer with this word mu, which means, ‘Un-ask the question, because there’s a better question to be asked.’ A wiser question, a deeper question, a truer question. A question that expands possibility, and resists fear.”[i] I think what the poet and the scholar are pointing to is a little like that movie The Karate Kid from the 1980s. In the movie, the main character wants an old man to teach him karate so he can stand up to the high school bully. And so, what are the first things the old teacher has him do? Paint a fence, wax a car, and sand a wooden walkway. This desperate teen asks for help, and at first glance, the wise teacher is responding in a totally disconnected way.
Of course, in the movie we learn that the teacher’s method is anything but disconnected. Painting, waxing, and sanding all incorporate the skills needed to master karate. Jesus is a similar sensei in his telling of this cryptic parable. In order to help us shift our work of repentance on this third week of Lent, when we ask why, Jesus says “mu.” As Debie Thomas argues, Jesus “…says “mu” because “why” is just plain not a life-giving question. Why hasn’t the fig tree produced fruit yet? Um, here’s the manure, and here’s a spade — get to work. Why do terrible, painful, completely unfair things happen in this world? Um, go weep with someone who’s weeping. Go fight for the justice you long to see. Go confront evil where it needs confronting. Go learn the art of patient, hope-filled tending. Go cultivate beautiful things. Go look your own sin in the eye and repent of it while you can. In short: imagine a deeper story. Ask a better question. Live a better answer.”[ii]
Jesus is not unfeeling about our angst about suffering in the world. I suspect Jesus is grateful for our empathetic hearts. But this cryptic parable this week is meant to shift us a quarter turn so that we move out of empathetic paralysis and into repentant productivity. We learn from the parable we will not do this work alone. We unproductive, rooted trees cannot exactly fertilize and aerate our own soil. God, the gardener, who graciously asks for more time, will do that work as we focus on moving from being empathetic fig trees with no sustaining fruit, to humble, repentant fig trees who work on improving our own sinful behavior before becoming overwhelmed with the rest of the sinful world. God will likely have to shovel a lot of manure to help transform our unproductive soil. But as we weep with others, grab our own spades, confront evil in our own life, and fight for justice through hope-filled tending, we begin the work of asking better questions and living better answers. Amen.
[i] Debie Thomas, “What Are You Asking?” March 13, 2022, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2944 on March 19, 2022.