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Mon, Mar 18, 2019

The Hand That Stays the Ax

Duration:14 mins 42 secs

“The Hand That Stays the Ax”

Sermon on Luke 13: 1-9

            Two local stories from the Galilean news and a parable. Jesus uses the local stories not to explain why bad things happen to good people, but simply to say that they happen, and can happen to anyone. Life is precarious, your time may be short, so repent now. The parable of the unproductive fig tree, on the other hand, seems to suggest that there is plenty of time. It is typical of Luke to put contrasting ideas back to back, as he does here[i] – it is a storyteller’s way of pointing to the paradox of the gospel.

          The news stories were about events both willed and seemingly random. Pontius Pilate had apparently murdered a group of Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem, so their blood mingled with the blood of the animals sacrificed in the Temple. This was intentional, state-sanctioned violence, one of Pilate’s ways of letting the Jews of Jerusalem know who was boss. The fall of the tower of Siloam may have been due to an earthquake (or some other natural event that the insurance companies ironically call an “act of God”).

          In both cases, people would have been speculating: Why were these people the victims? What had they done to deserve this punishment? There would have been theories of divine retribution, like Pat Robertson pronouncing the wickedness of the city of New Orleans as the reason for Hurricane Katrina. For some people, that was a satisfying explanation. Others, with more justice, claimed the negligence of the city government in failing to shore up the levees. But why did some people survive and others didn’t? These are haunting questions.

          Jesus had encountered these kinds of questions before. People saw a blind man in the street and asked him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither.”

          To be fair, the connection people made between sin and suffering had a biblical foundation. In Deuteronomy, Moses gives the people a clear choice. They can choose life – abundant harvests, good health, children – by following the commandments; or they can choose death – crop failures, plagues, bad health, infertility – by disobeying the commandments. You have control over your future, so if things go badly for you, you have only yourself to blame.

          But Jesus rejects this neat theology of divine rewards and punishments. The people who were victims of state-sponsored murder were no worse than anyone else. They were unlucky. The same is true for the victims of the falling tower. They were at the wrong place at the wrong time. But they weren’t any more sinful than anyone else. They didn’t “deserve” this disaster.

          Life is uncertain, and we know not the day nor the hour when we may die. The tragedy of the Galilean victims was that they were unprepared for death. “You, though,” Jesus says to his listeners, “you have time to prepare, and what you do to prepare is repent. Change your thinking, change your ways. You still have time.”

          And then he tells the parable of the fig tree, which starts out as a

parable of judgment and ends on a note of grace. A landowner wants his gardener to cut down a fig tree that is producing no figs. That would be a reasonable thing to do: the tree is taking up soil and water that could be used by a tree or vine that actually produces something. But the gardener pleads with the landowner to give the tree some more time. He will tend it and give it some more fertilizer and then wait to see what happens. The landowner in the parable echoes the preaching of John the Baptist in the third chapter of Luke, when John is warning his followers of “the wrath to come.” “Even now,” John has said, “the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit” – every sinner that does not repent – “is cut down and thrown into the fire.” But look at what Jesus does with the image of the ax poised to strike at the root of the unproductive tree: the patient gardener stays his hand and the ax lies still.

          What is Jesus saying in these two horrifying news stories and the parable of the fig tree? Is he saying there will be no mercy for those who don’t repent and shape up? Or is he saying there’s a little mercy, but this is your last chance? How much mercy is there? Enough for a year, two years, ten years, until Christ returns? Eventually the mercy must run out. But where is that point? How far does God’s mercy extend?

          About three years ago there was a story on the “Moth Radio Hour” that caught my attention. It was told by a woman who served as chaplain to the game wardens in a small town in rural Maine. Mostly she was called to the scene of outdoor mishaps and tragedies, such as hunting accidents or wilderness search and rescue operations. But if something happened in town outside someone’s house, because the town’s resources were small, the game wardens might be called as the first available support units. One day there was a multiple murder in a front yard: a man had shot his ex-wife, their son and daughter, and then himself. So the game wardens brought the chaplain, whose name is Kate, to the scene to offer pastoral care.

          What pastoral care could she offer? All the victims were dead. The police and game wardens were wondering what justice they could bring to the situation. But what justice could there be? The murderer had killed himself. All that could be done, Kate realized, was to somehow try to “retrieve this moment from evil,” to redeem the unspeakable horror and loss of this time. Kate asked if she could say a prayer over the bodies and bless the victims. “OK, everyone, Kate’s gonna pray,” one of the wardens commanded. Everyone was still. She went to the closest body bag and raised her hand, preparing to place it on the part of the bag where the head would be. As her hand was descending, the medical examiner said, quite matter-of-factly, “That’s the shooter.”

          One of the wardens later told her that he saw her hand stop in mid-air. She said it was all she could do not to snatch her hand away.

          “Is this it, then?” she said. “Had we found the threshold at which God’s love stops?” Did God’s love, translated into human hands and voices, stop in mid-air where a chaplain’s hand was stayed from blessing a murderer? “When does love no longer make its absolute, implacable and holy demand?”

          It was easy to pray for the mom and the children, but what would she say for the shooter? The destination of his immortal soul was in question for everyone at the scene of the crime. He needed a blessing more than anyone, Kate decided, but that blessing would have to come from God. She lowered her hand and laid it on the bag and said, “O God, I am sorry.”

          Whether our sins are monstrous or relatively small, we will all be judged – in fact, we come under judgment every day, and every day offers us opportunities for repentance, change of mind and change of life, and Jesus’s cautionary tales tell us not to put it off. But our Judge is also our Redeemer. The one who judges us is also the one who has claimed us in the waters of baptism, the patient gardener who waits for us. The hand that stays the ax, the hand that blesses the enemy: signs of God’s patient, long-suffering love. That is the paradox of the gospel: God freely gives the gift of mercy to all, but mercy makes its demands. The love and mercy we have received call us to be merciful and generous in this one precarious, fleeting, and beautiful life we have received.

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

March 17, 2019


[i] Fred B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p. 167.

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