Holy Merde!

Third Sunday of Lent

Cycle C

“Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live” says the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 55:3).  Could God really use this crap, our shame, and all we hate in ourselves and our enemies, to nurture lives that flourish and grow?

Sadly, today’s gospel has a tragic history of being used as a weapon against Jews who fail to accept Jesus — which has led to all sorts of anti-Semitic hatred and violence propagated by so-called “turn or burn” Christians. How tempting it is to embrace an interpretation of scripture that does not implicate nor incriminate ourselves?  But, of course, if this be the case then it cannot be the Christian gospel.

Our reading is ripped from ancient headlines. Pontius Pilate had Galilean pilgrims killed in the Temple courtyard, and their blood mixed (either figuratively or actually) with ritual sacrificial blood there, a shocking defilement of both those poor Jews and the Temple itself.  Hated Pilate was so brutal that the emperor Tiberius removed him from office and recalled him to Rome to be put on trial for a genocidal attack on a Samaritan village.

The second bit of breaking news, the tragic tower collapse which killed 18 people, might have been related to Pilate’s great public works project at the time — the construction of a new aqueduct. Pilate had pillaged Jerusalem’s treasury to build it and had (mostly likely) used slave labor to make it happen. The people in Jerusalem rioted against him. And some historians have suggested that the tower collapse may have been an act of sabotage either by Pilate (to keep the workers in line) or angry Jews attempting to stop the entire thing (in which case, it would have involved political suicide).  (Diana Butler Bass, “Graveyard or Vineyard,” Sunday Musings, 3/19/22)

Jesus addressed an audience wondering aloud about whether the victim’s suffering might have been deserved. Did they deserve to die? Was God punishing them for their misdeeds? Does God bang the faithful in the head with tragedies, but never more than they can handle? If God is good, then why do bad things happen to good people?

Such timeless questions find voice in us all at some point or other. It’s only natural when we are hurting to ask God why? The little child we always carry in us supposes the answer that explains every public event must be personal. Did I cause this because I was bad? No. No one is more or less of an offender than anyone else who dies tragically. “No one, in this sense, deserved to die. People just die, especially people held in thrall by violent kingdoms of this world. Because that’s what every Rome in human history always does — kills in order to survive. And Jesus surely doesn’t desire revenge.”

Jesus reframes the question. Poet and healer Pádraig Ó Tuama describes 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.” (Pádraig Ó Tuama, In the Shelter: Finding Welcome in the Here and Now). Stop. Take a beat. Catch your breath. Stop your mind, your prayers of endless words, and listen. “Mu.” There is a better question, bigger, broader, less afraid, more insightful. (Debi Thomas, “What Are You Asking?” Journey with Jesus, 3/13/22)

What could it mean to turn from, or “repent” from collaborating with the violence of empire?  “Could we repent of giving in to kingdoms built on injustice, repent of blaming victims for their suffering, and repent of believing that the murderous power of empire is the only power. But how? …Can we resist empire without giving into violence for violence?” (Butler Bass) Mu. Answering these bigger questions, Jesus told a story to contrast the murderous reign of Pilate with a garden containing a certain unfruitful fig tree. The owner orders the gardener to cut it down. But instead of taking an ax to the tree, the gardener begs, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down” (Luke 13:8-9).

Did you know that trees have legal rights in Judaism? That’s right — it is called orlah and it forbids eating the fruit of newly planted trees during their first three years of life. The book of Leviticus commands any fruit in the first three years is forbidden; any gleaned on the fourth year shall be a gift to God, and only in the fifth year may you eat the fruit of the tree (19:23-25). “The landowner isn’t an angry God. The landowner is Caesar. The landowner is Herod. The landowner is Pilate. The landowner is all these murderers — those who destroy people and trees — the breakers of the Law, profiteers at the expense of God’s creation. (Butler Bass)

Mu. Ask a better question. “In what ways am I like the absentee landowner, standing apart from where life and death actually happen?  How am I refusing to get my hands dirty? Where in my life — or in the lives of others — have I prematurely called it quits, saying, “There’s no life here worth cultivating.  Cut it down.” (Thomas)

In what ways am I like the gardener?  Where in my life am I willing to accept Jesus’s invitation to go elbow-deep into the muck and manure? Am I brave enough to sacrifice time, effort, love, and hope into this tree — this relationship, this cause, this tragedy, this injustice — with no guarantee of a fruitful outcome?  (Thomas)

In what ways am I like the fig tree?  Un-enlivened? Un-nourished? Unable or unwilling to nourish others?  Ignored or dismissed?  What kinds of tending would it take to bring me back to life?  Am I willing to receive such intimate, consequential care?  Will I consent to change?  Have I forgotten that the same patient God who gives me another year to thrive will also someday call me to account?” (Thomas)

Mu. Repent –turn around. See what I have shown you. Listen to what I am trying to tell you. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2). See, I have prepared for you a new mind, and a new heart, and new way to live with each other, the way of abundance to enjoy the fruit of the garden I have made for you.