I still remember my first day at St. Martin’s Hospitality Center—the day shelter where I spend my days. They put me in a little office towards the back of the shelter. It was really cramped. There was barely enough room for two chairs. I was suffocating. Finally I got up, stepped outside the office door, and just stood there. I don’t know what I expected to happen. I just knew I couldn’t spend one more minute in that office.
Then someone spoke to me. I don’t remember what he said, but I’ll never forget what I said back to him. “I just had to get out of that office. It felt like a cell.” And then I stopped. I began to hear what I was saying. I began to hear with the ears of those around me. I began to hear with the ears of people who had spent time—some of them a long time—in jail.
I learned some powerful lessons that day. I learned that context matters—big time! And I learned the power of a wince.
Jesus had set his face towards Jerusalem. He knew what he had to do. What he had to say. He was already saying it again and again and again. To the crowd gathered before him, Jesus said, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Jesus was out to change the world in which he lived—a world in which those who held power exercised it in an arbitrary, capricious and brutal way—a way designed to intimidate folks into submission. A world of bullies with all the power of the Roman Empire standing behind them.
Sometimes, as in the case of those Galileans killed as they were praying at the Temple, that bully power took the form of state-sanctioned violence. And sometimes, as in the case of those hapless victims of the tower of Siloam, bully power took the form of shoddy construction and indifference to the suffering it might produce.
Like the prophets who went before him, Jesus railed against bully power in whatever shape or form it took. Jesus railed against those who abused the people of Israel. Jesus railed against those who bullied the lowly.
And yet here, on the road to Jerusalem, the center of bully power in Israel, Jesus is talking not to the bullies but to the bullied. Twice he says, “…unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” He’s saying that to the crowd—the crowd of landless peasants and women overlooked and cast aside; the crowd of children left to fend for themselves; the crowd of day laborers and lepers and those considered unclean.
“Repent”—he says it twice. What do those day laborers and lepers, those women and kids have to be sorry about? What’s repentance got to do with things?
I find it hard to hear this Jesus. But then again, I’m listening with 21st Century ears. I’m hearing those words and in the background I’m hearing my mother say, “Are you sorry? Tell your brother you’re sorry.”
I suspect that the folks in the crowd that day found this Jesus hard to hear as well—though I doubt they heard repentance and thought “sorry”. I suspect Jesus’ call to repentance was met with some very puzzled looks that day. No wonder he told that parable. As the folks in the Congregation of St. Martin’s might say, “He needed to bring it home.”
Jesus says to the crowd gathered before him, “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, “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.’” There the story ends leaving us scratching our heads.
Until we remember just where and when this story was first told. To a people who daily witnessed Roman soldiers criss-crossing their land Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will perish as they did.” To slaves and day-laborers and tenant farmers and gardeners too who found themselves at the mercy of absentee landlords, Jesus tells the story of the gardener who speaks out, the gardener who lovingly digs around the tree and tenderly fills the hole with the nutrients the tree needs to bear fruit. He’s talking about speaking out; he’s talking about providing what’s needed for something to bear fruit.
That call to repentance. I wonder if those in the crowds that followed Jesus heard it with ears tuned to the words of the prophets. I wonder if they heard in Jesus’ call to repentance echoes of Jeremiah’s repeated calls to the people of Israel to return to the law of God—a law that demanded of them that they love their neighbor and welcome the strangers in their midst.
I wonder if in the story of the gardener those within earshot of Jesus heard a call to speak out, a call to care for one another, a invitation to repentance.
To this day, I still wince when I remember the words that rolled so easily off my tongue my first day at St. Martin’s. To this day, I wish that I could somehow call them back.
But that’s not possible.
Could a wince be a call to repentance? To the repentance Jesus calls us to? Could a wince be a call to action? I wonder.