Sunday, March 3, 2013

Dasein: Figs, Manure and Being

Luke 13: 1-10
“Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.”

Ray Davies of the Kinks used to sing, “I’m not like anybody else….I ‘m not like anybody else….”

This is what the people are thinking as they pepper Jesus with questions. What about the Galileans who had been slaughtered by Pilate? Or, the eighteen people who died when the Tower of Siloam collapsed on them? Was it because they were greater sinners than anyone else? Which is what the people want to believe. It’s what we all want to believe. There must be some significant difference between us and them. There must be some significant reason why they were killed. Which is all a way of saying, we are better than they are because we did not get killed. We were not destroyed by a similar tragedy.

Jesus says, in a word, “No. And unless you repent, you will end up like them.”  Only Jesus being a teacher in the great tradition of Jewish rabbis and Pharisees tells a story instead.  It’s a story about a fig tree with no figs. The owner wants it cut down and use it for firewood. The gardener suggests giving it one more chance. One more year. Dig around it, put some manure on it, and give it one more year. Then if there are no figs, cut it down.

So Jesus first pokes a hole in the thinking that we are different.  It turns out the kingdom of God is an equal opportunity destroyer of those who refuse to repent – a rather simple word in Hebrew: shuv, pronounced “shoove.”  It means to turn around. The idea seems to be that we are to walk in a particular way. Jesus would call this halakha, which means walking, but more particularly to walk in the way of Torah, or God’s law.

The idea of repentance asserts that we are walking in the wrong way, or some other way, any way but God’s way. One would think it is pretty self-evident. People being slaughtered by a tyrannical despot. Natural disasters. Or, in the case of the falling tower, perhaps corners were cut, the required permits obtained with bribes, the construction not exactly up to code. Fig trees with no figs.

John the baptizer had a quaint phrase: Bear fruit befitting of repentance. Begging the question: what kind of fruit am I bearing? Am I bearing any fruit at all? Just what is the connection between walking in God’s way and bearing fruit?

Leave it to the lectionary committee to stop the reading at verse nine before we get to the punch line: “Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.”

Some have said that Israel was made for the Sabbath. Others suggest that the Sabbath makes Israel. Israel is construed by some to be the people of God. And curiously Israel as a name, a new name for Jacob once upon a time, means “one who struggles with God.” And anyone who thinks he or she is not struggling with God is just fooling themselves.  So just for the sake of learning something about ourselves, let’s say we are all Israel – people of God who struggle with God.

Do we allow the Sabbath to make us?  I am thinking this is at the heart of all this talk about mass killings and toppling towers and fig-less fig trees. Do we allow the Sabbath to make us?

Keeping Sabbath is the one religious ritual that has been observed from the time of the Exodus to the present time. Sabbath is about time. It has been called a Cathedral of Time. We tend to think we do not have much time. We see time itself as tyrannical as Pontius Pilate.

But what if there is another kind of time? What if there is a kind of time that exists beyond the busyness of doing things, even Holy things? What if in his teachings in the synagogues Jesus calls us to recognize that there is a kind of time that is God’s time? Abraham Joshua Heschel in his tiny little book, The Sabbath (Shambhala, Boston:1951,1979), introduces us to this other realm of time: “There is a Realm of Time where the goal is not to have, but to be; not to own, but to give; not to control, but to share; not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”
Lately there is a new found fascination with the Ten Commandments. It is interesting to note that one-third of the language of the Ten Commandments is devoted to the command to Keep Sabbath. I would agree with those who observe that Sabbath is not so much a religious habit as it is an alternative economic practice: slaves got no time off in Egypt. Keeping Sabbath, the gift of the Sabbath, is a habit that calls for us to withdraw from the chronos (clock and calendar) time of our workaday world and enter into the eternal kairos time of God.

And yet.  And yet, how many of us cannot even take an hour out of the day, let alone a day out of the week, to just be?

With all this talk about falling towers, fig-less trees and all, Jesus is calling us to take a look at ourselves. He is convinced we will see, with all due respect to Ray Davies, that we are like everybody else in most fundamental ways of being a person – a person of God – a person created in the image of God.

When we do not take Sabbath time, we forget who we are and whose we are. When we do not take Sabbath time, we resort to having, owning, controlling and subduing. When we do not take Sabbath time is when we think we are somehow different and better than others – especially those who suffer at the hands of others or natural disasters.

When we do take Sabbath time we learn to say, “There by the grace of God go I,” instead of “there but by the grace of God go I.” The difference between the two makes all the difference in the world - a world that is waiting for us to make a difference.  To be the difference you want to see in the world, first you have “to be.” Sabbath time helps us “to be.” Sabbath is the manure that enables us to bear figs!

“Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.”

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