The Israelites were coming home after a 50 or 60 year exile in Babylon. The bad guys had sacked the city of Jerusalem, and the people who weren’t killed were rounded up and herded off to Babylon where they lived as slaves or second class citizens for three generations. Now, with Cyrus, the new King taking over, they were released and allowed to go back home to Jerusalem.
But the city was still in ruins. Three generations later, the people who were left probably didn’t even recognize anyone anymore. They all had to start their lives over again, and they were refugees. Later, in the fifth century, Nehemiah, (the governor who helped rebuild Jerusalem, and who wrote the book of Nehemiah) reported that farming families had to borrow money and grain to pay their taxes, and some had to sell their children into slavery to pay their debts. (Nehemiah 5:1-12).
What would it feel like then, to hear these words? “Hey, everyone who thirsts, come!..., you that have no money, come eat. Come, have wine and milk for free! This is how God will take care of you, this is what your life could be like! This is what God wants for you! This is what God is like!”
In contrast to that is the story from Luke. After another tragedy, when Pilate had apparently killed Jesus’ countrymen in the Temple, so that their blood mingled with the blood of animal sacrifices, Jesus’ friends made sure he knew about it. ‘Look what Pilate did! Look what Rome did to us now, and to make it worse, it was in church! ‘
Jesus’ friends wanted to place the blame and stir up trouble. Did you see how they killed them? Right in the temple! And they were probably doing something that made it their fault. That kind of blaming still continues. Muslims. Jews. Blacks. The list goes on. Blaming victims of terrible crimes, and of course blaming the perpetrators who did it. Fan the flames of blame, hatred, suspicion, profiling, righteous indignation, and violence.
And rather than feed the frenzy of hatred, Jesus turned it backwards. ‘Do you think these poor Galileans were any worse than anyone else? Or that others who are killed in terrible tragedies did something to deserve it? No, but watch the amount of time you have left! Do what you need to do, because no one knows how much time they have left.’
And then he told them the story of the fig tree. The owner was blaming it because it hadn’t done anything good in three years. The owner said, “Dig it up and kill it off, it deserves to die.” But, the gardener said, “Let me try again. I’ll give it extra care, and let’s see if I can coax it back to life.” He doesn’t want to find fault, he or she just wants to save it. Even though it is almost dead, the gardener wants to give it another shot. God is the head-gardener! Even when everything looks bad, God doesn’t give up. God sees the little life that is still left, and God wants to give it extra care, so that it can come back all the way.
God is calling everyone who is poor, dried out, hungry, giving up, and almost dead. “I will give you what you need, and more! I give it generously, abundantly, and all of it is free!” God wants to bring back the almost-dead.
Then to the others who want to blame them, Jesus says, ‘Look to yourselves and the time You have left, and what You need to do. Repent!’ ‘Repent’ literally means, “Turn around. “Focus on what’s important.”
I was at a funeral for a friend’s sister this week. Janet. She was a very ordinary person, with short straight grey hair and a big gap between her two front teeth. But she greeted everyone and made sure they knew she was glad to see them. She made everyone feel welcome. The last year or so, she lived in a nursing home and everyone knew her because she greeted them in the hallway with big gap-toothed smile and joy. I officiated at a wedding for my friend’s son this summer and I probably hadn’t seen Janet in 10 or 15 years. She called to me from her wheelchair, “Kathy! How you doing?” She and her buddies started a group of older people having adventures. They called themselves ‘Aging and Dangerous.” Every morning she and her mother drank Bloody Marys after church. A few years ago, her mother died, so she and her friend drank Bloody Marys after church. Then the friend died, so Janet just enjoyed them by herself. She loved life.
That’s what God does. God is the one who says, “Come in, I’m glad to see you, have some food, - help yourself!” God is not the one who blames, looks at people with burning anger, or tries to find fault with everyone.
God is the party, not the judgement.
To these Israelites, returning home to Jerusalem after 50 years of exile, God was the God of welcome, of good food and drink in times of poverty, of forgiveness for all debts. God was the homecoming. God was the relaxation after 50 years in a foreign land, God was the party.
For Jesus, God isn’t the one who condemns the victims or perpetrators, God is the one who takes the no-good tree that is just taking up space and saves it. God wants to care for it more kindly and generously, and give it another chance.
Janet was like that. We can be like that. We can be the welcome, the homecoming. We can be the sanctuary.. When others are blamed and judged, hurt and tired, we can be their place of rest. We can be the ones who offer safety and tender kindness. We rarely need to be ones that stand in judgement. Usually, we get to be the place of safety. Like God, we can be comfort. We can be the party. Amen.