Last Thursday, after I don’t even know how long, I received the sacrament of reconciliation. This is the Anglican version of the rite of confession (yes, we have it!) It’s different from how it looks in the Catholic Church, though – less formal, more conversational, with a bit of ritual at either end. If you’re interested in exploring it during Lent, I can offer it to you, or you can ask any of the other priests here at the Cathedral or in the wider diocese.
The first couple of times I did reconciliation, it was with random clergy I happened to connect with. This time, I managed to find someone outside the diocese who was willing to be a regular confessor. He’s a beautiful soul.
I sat in my office on the Zoom call and he guided me through the rite. When we’d read the first few prescribed lines, we got to the part where I have the opportunity to name my sins, and the confessor may offer “words of comfort and counsel.” My confessor asked, “Do you recognize any patterns in the sins you named?”
I had, in a sense. The first couple of times I did this rite, my sins had mostly been directed toward myself. Lack of self-compassion, impatience, anger, shame. I did still have a bit of that, but after hard work my inner monologue has become more compassionate over the years. The sins that came up this time were things I don’t think I had the courage to name before: the spitefulness, impatience, and anger I’d felt toward others.
When my confessor asked me what had changed, I said I was maturing in my self-awareness. He agreed this was likely true, but added that it is only when we are able to feel compassion toward ourselves that we truly feel compassion and love toward others.
As humans, we’re story-makers, and we get into a groove, don’t we? We slip into a habit, and the habit becomes a narrative, and the groove gets deeper. The more we buy into the narrative, the more it reinforces itself. The wheels keep sinking into the ruts that are already there. The work of choosing a new narrative takes time. It’s one thing to watch your wheels carefully and make sure they only roll outside the ruts. That takes real skill and concentration. And it’s a whole other thing to decide to just pick a different road altogether!
Jesus is speaking to a crowd. Just before the passage we heard, he says, “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” He goes on to make a rather radical statement: that instead of participating in their current justice system, those listening should work out their problems among themselves before ever getting to court. Judging on the context of the previous chapter, this is not merely an encouragement to be nice to one another. It’s a deeply prophetic posture he’s encouraging. Don’t depend on the mechanisms of this world for justice or wholeness. You won’t find them in those systems. Work it out together. Choose a new narrative.
The very strange verses that follow make a bit more sense in that light. The people start to ask questions about divine justice. But Jesus heads them off at the pass. He doesn’t want them to accept that narrative either: the narrative of just-world theory, the notion that everything that happens is part of some divine plan and that all suffering is deserved. He pretty clearly shuts down that narrative. But then he goes on to say, “You still have to repent, or the same thing will happen to you.”
That word repent has a lot of baggage – talk about a narrative! But even that word deserves the new story treatment. The Greek word for ‘repent’ is metaoneo, and it means changing one’s mind or purpose. Change your mind – or you’ll die like them.
So…stuck in a narrative? You will make it happen, you will create it around you, because the more committed you are to it, the more you will interpret the world around you as fitting into it, and the more stubbornly you will cling to it. Anyone who drives into the same ruts as you will look normal. Anyone who drives outside of them will look like a complete weirdo. It’s not a sin to be a story-maker. Not all ruts are bad! But some ruts just clog up your wheels and grind you down. If your narrative is poisoning you, making you question your beloved-ness and the beloved-ness of the world around you, change the damned narrative – literally, change the damned narrative.
Then Jesus tells a parable. The classic understanding would be that the owner of the vineyard is God, and Jesus is the gardener, and God comes over and says, “Oh this cheeky vine never produces fruit! It’s been three whole years and not a one! I’ma cut the whole thing down!” And Jesus saves us from that mean old vineyard owner. Isn’t it always the case that our buddy Jesus saves us from mean old God who only wants us to get what we deserve?
You’re smart folks. We can tell just from hearing it that that’s a simplistic understanding. How does that narrative hold up when we learn the fact that fig trees don’t produce fruit until three to five years after being planted? And how does it hold up when the text is murky about who planted the tree? Both the English and the Greek suggest that the owner had the tree planted, and didn’t do it himself.
It’s therefore presumptuous to suggest that this owner, who may not have planted the tree and certainly doesn’t seem to understand how fig trees work, symbolizes God. And indeed, it’s presumptuous to think that the more patient gardener only stands in for Jesus. After all, humans were created in Genesis as gardeners.
So maybe Jesus is giving all of us a chance to disrupt this narrative. To drive out of the ruts, or even choose a whole different road. And maybe I’ll make use of some wisdom Omid Safi, one of my Sufi teachers, taught me, and invite us to see each of these characters as different aspects of ourselves.
So…who is the owner: the part of us who oversees the earth of our hearts and judges the fruit and flowering of what is planted there; the part of us that parachutes in and criticizes, without having contributed to the planting and nurturing; the part of us that’s impatient even when what’s planted is behaving as it should, and wants to enjoy the fruit without the labour and the waiting; the part of us that wants to get the best use out of that heart-earth, and urges us to only make space for the most productive plants?
Who is the gardener: the part of us skilled in the art of planting and nurturing; who has seen many growing seasons and knows the language of earth and crop; who encourages patience and is willing to get their hands dirty; who still recognizes the futility of the sunk cost fallacy and understands that things which do not produce good fruit despite hard work should sometimes be cleared for more productive things?
And what is the tree: the part of us which needs time and nourishment from human and divine sources; which might be cared for deeply and skillfully but might be struggling in a dry season, or flooded, or beset by pests – none of which is our fault; the part of us that needs time to ripen; the part of us that, if the circumstances are right, will go from merely receiving nourishment to giving it back?
Take the time to think deep. Fill the ruts with soil and plant some stuff in there!
Then, when you and your trees are ready, in the words of Debie Thomas:
“Go fight for the justice you long to see. Go confront evil where it needs confronting. Go learn the art of patient, hope-filled tending. Go cultivate beautiful things. Go look your own sin in the eye and repent of it while you can. In short: imagine a deeper story. Ask a better question. Live a better answer. Time is running short. The season to bear fruit has come. Repent. Do it now.”