Watch out, folks. Jesus is onto us. Jesus has got our number.
In the passage we hear from the Gospel of Luke today, some folks in a crowd have a juicy story to tell. It’s thrilling. It’s chilling. There’s blood and gore and sacrilege. Pilate has killed faithful Galileans and mixed their blood with holy sacrifices! These folks have a juicy story to tell, and they have found a good place to tell it. There’s a big audience of believers, and in the middle is Jesus, who will surely respond with righteous indignation. What a great stage for the show.
But Jesus is a step ahead of the game. He doesn’t take the bait. He doesn’t express outrage about Pilate or the Galileans. Instead, in a classic Jesus move, he turns a question on the storytellers. “Do you think that because these people suffered in this way they were worse sinners than anyone else? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Way to ruin a good gossip session, Jesus. Way to kill the vibe.
Jesus has no patience for scandal or gossip. Jesus is not interested in schadenfreude, that odd thrill we get when hearing about the misfortunes of others. Jesus is especially disdainful of our attempts to judge others from afar.
Don’t waste time reveling in the dirty details of someone else’s life, Jesus tells us. Put away the National Enquirer and worry about yourself. Life is short and life is precious and everyone’s a sinner. The time is now for you to get right with God.
This passage reminds me of a more famous saying from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? …You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:2-5)
We’re talking this season about forgiveness. And there is serious spiritual work to do in opening our hearts towards the possibility of forgiving those who have harmed us. But our exploration of the topic would be incomplete if we do not first stop to examine what harm we have done; if we do not first pause to repent of our own sins; if we do not first locate the log in our own eye.
This summer I heard about the book On Apology by Aaron Lazare. The author, who died last summer, was (among other things) the chancellor and dean and a professor of psychiatry at Umass Medical School in Worchester and a leading authority on the psychology of shame, humiliation, and apology.
Dr. Lazare is clearly passionate about his topic. He seems to have parsed every angle of the subject. His book is full of fascinating examples, from the interpersonal to the international. But I should warn you that, while fascinating, this book makes for uncomfortable reading. If you are anything like me, you may begin to realize that many of the apologies you have offered in the past are not what he would consider true or full or successful apologies at all. And, as he suggests, an unsuccessful apology is often worse than none at all. Ouch.
Every situation is different, and each apology is unique, but Lazare contends that the most important part of an apology occurs when we acknowledge our offense and its impact fully, taking direct responsibility for the harm we have caused.
This sounds straightforward enough, but Lazare gives persuasive proof of how often we miss the mark. We say, “I’m sorry if I have offended you,” unwilling to mention what specifically we have done, or whether we have done anything at all. We say, “I’m so sorry you were hurt” instead of “I’m sorry I hurt you,” avoiding responsibility.
Reading story after story, example after example, I am convinced that we have almost entirely lost the art of apologizing well. This is a skill we need to brush up on, a vital tool for us to use in our relationships with one another and our relationship with God. So, I’m providing a cheat sheet on this book for you to pick up, although I really hope you’ll consider reading the whole thing.
Why is apologizing so hard? Why do we avoid making a full or true apology, or any apology at all? Maybe it is because we fear the reaction to our apology, we fear coming to terms with those we have hurt. Maybe it is because we fear self-awareness, we fear coming to terms with ourselves. Coming to terms with those we have hurt, and with what we have done, and with who we have been, is painful. But consider the benefits. Not all relationships can be healed, it’s true, but we, ourselves, can be healed. We can reaffirm what we intend to value, and reclaim how we intend to live. We can release ourselves from our past.
After scolding the gossips who speak up in the crowd, Jesus tells this parable: “A man has a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he comes looking for fruit on it and finds none. So he says 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? The gardener replies: “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.”
Imagine that you are a fig tree. Imagine that we are a whole orchard of fig trees. Imagine that God is our gardener. We are not alone. Someone is tending to us, watching our growth. Someone is concerned for our welfare. Some of our branches may be broken. Some of our seasons may not be fruitful. But good gardeners are patient and forgiving. They loosen the dirt around the roots, they add manure to enrich the soil, they even take out their pruning shears when necessary to make room for new growth.
Watch out, folks. Jesus is onto us. Jesus has our number. That offense we think we have hidden, Jesus knows all about it already. Stop focusing on everyone else’s story, he says, and make sure you’re keeping up with your own. Make sure that you’re doing whatever you need to do to make your amends with God and neighbor. Time is so short. Life is so precious. God’s grace is so abundant.
Holy God, our gentle gardener, give us the courage to turn our attention inward, discovering or need to repent and apologize. Grant us the nourishment we need to risk honesty, responsibility, and remorse. Loosen the dirt around our roots; enrich the soil from which we grow; prune us and water us and shine on us until fruit grows ripe and heavy from our branches. Amen.