There are two reasons why I love this short but compelling parable of Jesus that concludes our Gospel reading for today. The first reason is a bit amusing: I personally find it almost completely impossible to chop down or throw away any living thing that is part of the world with which God has surrounded me. If you doubt this, just look at all the Buckthorn trees that line our driveway, or the bizarre, towering, unidentified weeds in our back yard that resemble the beginnings of Jack’s beanstalk. I have no idea what they are, but I can’t cut them down. Finally I have found one respect in which I am like God, in which the image of God in me is not hopelessly marred: I cannot bear to throw out Gayle’s fig trees that have not borne fruit for two years, and I will give them at least one more chance before I succumb to her request to get rid of them. I will dig around them and add fertilizer. Don’t misunderstand me here: I definitely am not suggesting that I am more God-like than Gayle. It’s just that I can find a bit of myself in this little parable.
The second reason I love the parable is as intensely serious as my first reason is frivolous. The reason is this: I absolutely love what this parable tells us about God, what God is like and how God acts towards us. God’s actions are full of compassion, they are longsuffering, and they are bathed in chesed, God’s covenant grace that generally gets translated as “lovingkindness.” That’s Who God is, that’s how God is and that’s the basis on which God acts.
In our Psalm today David wrote, “Because Your lovingkindness is better than life, my lips will praise You” (Psalm 63:3). And in Psalm 103 he wrote, “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness. He will not always accuse us, neither will He keep His anger forever” (Ps. 103:8,9). Similarly in Psalm 148 the Psalmist writes, “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and great in lovingkindness” (Psalm 145:8).
These psalms are only echoing God’s self-revelation to Moses recorded in Exodus 34, when God gave Moses the replacement tablets of the Law and established His covenant with Moses and Israel. There we read, “The Lord passed by in front of [Moses], and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD God, (is) compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; Who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, Who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin.’” God is “abounding” in lovingkindness and, as we heard from Isaiah 55, in His compassion, “He will abundantly pardon” the one who returns to Him, regardless of his past iniquity, transgression and sin.
If that’s the way God is, we should not be surprised to discover that His Son is exactly the same. Yes, He could get angry, He could weep, He could rebuke, He could experience physical pain and emotional anguish. But according to His parable, He also wanted to give that fig tree one more chance. We know He was longsuffering with His sometimes clueless disciples. He showed compassion on those who suffered illness or loss. And He was divinely loving towards a wide variety of persons who on the surface were not all that lovable.
The book of Hebrews has a lot to say about Jesus as the incarnate God; and in that epistle, the author peers into the humanity of the God/Man Jesus Christ in terms of what His experiences mean for us. In chapter 2 of Hebrews we read, “We see Him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, Jesus, Who because of His suffering of death was crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting for God, for Whom are all things, and through Whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the Author of our salvation through His sufferings” (Heb. 2:9,10).
God is merciful and gracious and will show His lovingkindness to all who repent and seek His face. But what about the God that Jesus revealed in the first half of today’s Gospel reading: the One Who does not intervene to protect the Galileans who perished at Pilate’s hands or the ones on whom the tower of Siloam fell? Were they “worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? No [said Jesus], but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Does this sound a trifle arbitrary and out of character for a God Who defines Himself as compassionate, long-fused and abounding in lovingkindness? Why does God not prevent every form of misfortune or calamity that strikes humankind during this life? Isn’t that something He could do if only He were willing?
Some of you may have seen a clip that is posted on YouTube and other places where a young man asks the evangelist and apologist Ravi Zacharias why God does not intervene in the affairs of humankind to prevent the modern day equivalents of Pilate’s killings or the collapsing tower. Zacharias’ off the cuff answer is thoughtful, thought-provoking, even brilliant.
He says “the supreme ethic God has given us is the ethic of love. But you can never have love without intrinsically weaving into it the freedom of the will. If love is the supreme ethic and freedom is indispensable to love, and God’s supreme goal for you and for me is that we will love Him with all of our hearts and love our neighbors as ourselves, for Him to violate our free will would be to violate that which is a necessary component for love to flourish and for love to be expressed. When you have love as the supreme ethic and the freedom of the will to choose that love, all of the other contingencies can be explained. When you love Him, in spite of all of the contrary things that you see around us, you are trusting Him for having the supreme wisdom and knowledge ultimately to bring a pattern out of it all. When you stand before God face to face you will find out there were reasons why He didn’t prevent every misfortune: so that you will see the heinousness of evil and see the majesty of love and good.” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1B2NukcMYM)
There may be other ways of expressing these truths that work better for some of us as we continue to see dimly through an opaque looking glass. But there is a bottom line that has everything to do with what we have been seeing this morning: God is compassionate, long-fused and full of lovingkindness. That’s Who He is, that’s how He is and that’s the basis on which He acts. From our perspective, He may be writing straight with crooked lines. From His perspective, it’s all about “the majesty of love and good.”
Looking again at Jesus and the descriptions of Him in Hebrews, we find these words in chapter 4:“We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15,16). This is the basis on which the Apostle Paul could write to the Corinthians in our epistle reading this morning, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but will with the temptation also provide the way of escape, so that you will be able to endure it.” If Jesus was indeed “tempted in all things as we are,” then it is no surprise that God is able to provide the “way of escape” when trials and temptations assail us, as they often do. It is in this context that Jesus, when teaching His disciples how to pray, included “lead us not into temptation,” or, in other words, “Do not bring us under trial, but deliver us from the evil one.”
In a while we will sing together a favorite gospel hymn that is based on the verses we have shared from Hebrews and I Corinthians: “What a Friend we have in Jesus.” The second verse reads,
Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer.
This is precisely what the author of Hebrews wrote: we do in fact have a High Priest Who can sympathize with our weaknesses and Who has been tempted as we are, and it is on this basis that we may “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace.” In our daily Morning and Evening Prayer, when we come to the words of the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer book says, “Trusting in the compassion of God, let us pray with confidence as our Savior has taught us.”
There you have it: our God is compassionate, long-fused and full of lovingkindness. And in the Person of His Son He knows our every weakness, trial and temptation, and invites us to draw near to the throne of grace with confidence. He does not ask us to wait until we feel worthy or until we have found just the right words or until we feel more articulate in our God-speak. The sole ground for our assaulting the throne of grace is “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
There is a fourth verse of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” that appears in very few hymnals and not once have I ever heard it sung. It reads:
Blessèd Savior, You have promised You will all our burdens bear.
May we ever, Lord, be bringing all to You in earnest prayer.
Soon in glory bright, unclouded, there will be no need for prayer:
Rapture, praise and endless worship will be our sweet portion there.
I can’t know what needs or trials and temptations you may have brought with you this morning or what trials you may face in the week ahead. But you may be fairly certain that some needs and trials will present themselves and that, above all, you will need the assurance that “Jesus understands our every weakness,” that He Who was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief… surely has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Is. 53). And our longsuffering and compassionate God is waiting for us: to return to Him from our wayward iniquity, transgression and sin, confidently believing His promises and trusting in His faithful care.
“Ho! Everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters; seek the LORD while He may be found; call on Him while He is near, and He will have compassion, and He will abundantly pardon” (from Is. 55).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit