The Kingdom of God: Rhythms of Grace
February 9, 2020
Growing up, my parents made sure I did my fair share of chores. Most of my chores were related to taking care of the yards outside. While no kid would ever say they “enjoyed” doing chores, there were certainly some tasks I didn’t mind as much as others. It’s funny and quite stereotypical of a high school boy that the chores I most enjoyed – or at least didn’t complain about – all had to do with cutting, chopping or breaking things.
Mowing the lawn and weed whacking was at the top of my list. To be able to take a machine to an area of grass and weeds that has stubbornly grown out of control and to lop off the ugly surface to reveal a clean cut and uniform green – ah, that was marvelous!
In addition to mowing the lawn and weed whacking I loved to chop wood. There are few things that are more satisfying in life than taking an ax to a piece of wood and splitting it right down the middle. I remember one summer we had to cut down a few trees in our backyard, and it was my task to get rid of the stumps wielding only an ax. It took hours of just hacking away at the dead stump to break it apart, but when I finished it was so satisfying.
In such a short amount of time I could turn an ugly tree stump or an out-of-control lawn into something beautiful, quickly cutting away the ugly and unseemly parts. So it may not be a surprise that the chores I most disliked were the ones that required me to plant, water and help grow. And these were the chores most frequently given to me by the commanding officer – my mom. Helping something to grow is such tedious and time-consuming work compared to chopping something down.
One summer I had to plant new grass seed in our backyard. I helped lay down the new soil, and by hand tossed the grass seed into the soil and patted it down with a wooden board so it wouldn’t get blown away. To scatter seeds across the whole backyard took multiple days – and what did I have to show for it afterwards? A backyard of dirt. I didn’t have the time or the patience for things to grow. It was far more satisfying to chop something down or cut something short, because immediately the problem was solved. I felt like I had done something. But to plant and to wait – there’s little satisfaction in waiting, especially when there’s a possibility your hard work will never come to fruition.
It’s hard to wait. It’s much easier to act quickly and see the fruits of your labor. It’s much easier to cut down something that is dead, dying or unwieldy than it is to loosen our grip on the ax, and to instead wait to see what will become of it with a little more care and attention.
Today, Jesus invites us into yet another parable that opens a window for us to glimpse the kingdom of God. Most of Jesus’ parables, much like this one, make no explicit reference to God or the kingdom of God. They are stories about farmers, coins, and sheep; they are stories about seeds, yeast and wedding banquets. These stories remind us that we encounter God in the stuff of daily life and that we can catch glimpses of God’s kingdom in something even as plain and ordinary as a tree without fruit and some manure.
And so once again Jesus invites us into a story about a farmer, a gardener and a tree.
Jesus tells the parable like this: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Jesus tells this parable as he and his disciples are traveling on their way to Jerusalem from their home country in Galilee. The road they take passes through Samaria, and if you know your Jewish history, then you know Samaria was very hostile territory for Jews. There had been hundreds of years of bad blood between the Jews and the Samaritans.
After crossing into Samaria, Jesus and his disciples attempt to find a place to stay for the night, but the Samaritans refuse them, letting them know that they are not welcome there. Understandably outraged by this, James and John, two of the disciples nicknamed “the thunder brothers”, ask Jesus to call down supernatural fire from heaven to consume these inhospitable heathens. They have just rejected the Son of God, so burn them up! The thunder brothers want them dead on the spot. For them this is only a natural response. They have solid biblical precedent. Because it was this same Samaritan territory where the prophet Elijah called down fire from heaven to roast King Ahaziah’s minions a few hundred years earlier. “But Jesus is not Elijah. Jesus rebukes the brothers.” (Eugene Peterson).
The outrage of the thunder brothers and their cry for Jesus to rain down supernatural fire is not so different than the violent impatience of the farmer in Jesus’ parable, who commands that the fruitless tree be cut down. And the gardener’s response, “Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure” sounds very much like a response Jesus himself might make.
For most of us, we prefer a God like the farmer in Jesus’ parable. For most of us, we don’t mind the thunder brothers’ idea of justice. Because this god acts quickly and his justice is swift. We like that. We like a god who doesn’t dilly-dally, but who can get right to point and fix what is wrong.
The farmer sees a fruitless tree that’s taking up valuable space, so he wants it chopped down to make room for something more productive, something more beautiful. The farmer sees what we see: a dead tree, a tree that is unable to produce fruit. And if it can’t even produce fruit, then what is it good for? It’s taking up valuable space. So the farmer, impatient with the tree that has had three whole years to grow and bear fruit but has nothing to show for it, decides that the tree has got to go. It must be cut down. It’s run out of time.
As Americans we can appreciate the farmer’s swift action and his punctual decision to get rid of what cannot produce. It’s a drain on the system and so the farmer had to make the hard, but necessary choice to get rid of it. In America we’re all about efficiency and productivity, so we get it. The tree provided no benefit to the farm as a whole, so why continue to invest time, care and money into it?
Let’s not forget here that Jesus is talking about the kingdom of God. The tree is not just a drain or an impediment to some farm’s economy, but Jesus is referring to something that is a drain and an impediment to God’s economy. The tree is something that offends and is useless to the kingdom of God. It’s using up valuable space. This tree doesn’t seem to care about the fact that the farmer is trying to grow a beautiful farm that can produce enough food to feed the whole village. The tree continues not to produce, even after being given three years to produce something of value! And so the farmer, in a violent rage, orders that it be chopped down.
Now, let’s be honest here. We all know Jesus isn’t talking about trees. And neither am I. Like James and John, I’m talking about that person or group of people upon whom we want to call down the fire of God. I’m talking about that person or that group of people who we feel deserves to be cut down. I’m talking about those people who don’t seem to care about the fact that we’re trying to grow a beautiful kingdom that can produce enough food, hope and love to feed and care for the whole world. I’m talking about those people who don’t seem to get what’s at stake.
You know who I’m talking about; you know who pops into your head the moment the farmer commands: “cut it down”. Because like the farmer, we lose patience and want to either physically or verbally get rid of what stands in the way of God’s kingdom: “Chop him down…chop her down…chop it down.” We are simply doing God’s work. We are doing what is necessary for the kingdom of God to come quicker.
We are very skilled with the ax, and we like a God who is too. We prefer a God who is as impatient as we are. We prefer a God who acts quickly and cuts away the dead trees before they can do too much harm. We prefer a God who solves kingdom problems by amputation, because that’s our MO.
If you watched the State of the Union Address this week or if you haven’t lived under a rock for the past few years, you’ll know that our nation’s politics are full of angry people who wield big axes. And we join them on their crusades to cut down the people and the political parties who stand in the way of what we think is a better future. We like the ax. It’s a tool that’s quick, incisive and effective.
And as we continue to sharpen our axes and search out more dead wood to chop down, we hear this story from Jesus that at first appears to be about axes, but turns out to really be about manure. This story of manure stops us in our tracks. It’s all about being patient with God. God is not in a hurry.
“We are used to our spiritual leaders motivating and energizing us into action for God and God’s kingdom. But this manure story is just the opposite. There are occasions when not-doing is commanded, times when restraint is called for. Instead of goading us into action, the manure story takes us out of the action. The manure story interrupts our noisy, aggressive problem-solving mission” (Eugene Peterson); it interrupts our obsessive need to chop down what stands in our way or in the way of God’s kingdom. “In a quiet voice, Jesus (the gardener?) basically says, “Hold on. Not so fast. Wait a minute. Give me some more time. Let me put some manure on this tree.’ But for all his trouble, Jesus was killed. So Luke ensures that we pay attention to the response Jesus makes to strategies of impatience like ‘Chop it down’ by commanding ‘Let it alone’” (Peterson).
The thing about manure is that it is not a quick fix. Manure has no immediate result. It may take months or even years to see results. As Eugene Peterson writes on this passage, “If it’s quick results we are after, then chopping down a tree is just the thing: clear the ground and make it ready for a fresh start. We love beginnings: birthing a baby, christening a ship, the first day on a new job, starting a war. But spreading manure carries no such exhilaration.” Manure stinks and it is unglamorous. It is a slow solution. And when it comes to doing something about what is wrong in the world, “Jesus is best known for his fondness for the tiny, the invisible, the quiet, the slow: yeast, salt, seeds. And manure” (Peterson).
Manure. God is not in a hurry. We are told repeatedly throughout Scripture to “wait for the Lord,” but that is not counsel that is readily accepted by followers of Jesus who have been conditioned by American promises of instant gratification.
We see a dead tree, something or someone who offends us or is useless to the kingdom of God, and our solution is to grab the ax. But Jesus begs us to slow down. To loosen our grip on the ax. To wait. We see a dead tree without fruit. Jesus sees the potential for new life. On crusade for the kingdom of God, we pick up the ax, but Jesus picks up handfuls of manure. “Let it alone for now. Let’s lay down some manure, and wait and see,” Jesus says.
“Manure does not rank high in the world’s economies. It’s waste, garbage. We pay good money and organize efficient systems to haul it away, out of sight and out of smell. But if you know anything about manure, you know that this seemingly dead and despised waste is teeming with numerous microorganisms and the things needed for life: enzymes, minerals, nutrients, energy sources. It’s the stuff of resurrection” (Peterson).
There are many things we must not do, cannot do, if we are to be faithful to Jesus. Like taking things into our own hands, getting rid of the offender along with the offense.
In college I spent much of my time being opposed to some of the social justice movements on my campus at the time. I kept being told about my privilege as a white man, and how I was benefitting from a society that disproportionately harmed people of color. I didn’t want to believe it; it was too uncomfortable and didn’t ring true with my experience of the world. I spent a lot of time coming up with arguments against this movement that in my mind made race a bigger deal than it needed to be. I was ready with the ax.
But I had a few people around me, who were strong advocates of social justice, and they never took up their ax against me, though I bore little fruit. Instead, they just packed on handfuls of manure. They waited. They asked me insightful questions. They listened. And they waited for God to bring the growth.
It took time, but eventually the growth came. The manure did its work and I began to see how blind I was and that racism is in fact still a major issue that needs to be dealt with in America and in the church. If I had received the ax and was chopped down by those who were frustrated by my lack of fruit, I may have never come around. But God in his grace said, “Wait. Hold on. Give me some more time with him. I’m not done with him yet.”
This parable reveals what is at the heart of God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom is not driven by force, violence or production. God’s kingdom is driven by rhythms of grace. It makes no attempts to get rid of what is dead and fruitless; it seeks to resurrect and bring new life to what we long thought dead and fruitless. In our nation right now it is so much easier to cut down and destroy something we’re against than to take the time to spread some manure and wait to see what grows. It’s easier to criticize, harangue and gossip about someone, than it is to show restraint and instead hope for, pray for and forgive them.
A few days after this manure story took up residence in the imaginations of those who followed Jesus, he entered Jerusalem on a donkey. And before the week was finished, he was hanging on the Golgotha cross.
Jesus was a threat to the tenuous peace Rome sought to hold together. Jesus was a threat to the highly profitable business being run at the Jerusalem Temple. And so they killed him. Pilate, Caiaphas and their Sadducean henchmen took up their axes and eliminated Jesus and his kingdom from this earth. Or so they thought. But as Jesus hung limp on the cross, breathing his final breaths, he responded to their violence with a word out of the manure story, a story he had told just days earlier. As Jesus looked out upon his accusers and his executioners, his first words from the cross were “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:24).
Our English translations obscure the connection between Jesus’ dying prayer and his earlier word in the manure story. The farmer’s command to “cut it down” is echoed in the crowd’s angry call to “crucify him”. And Jesus’ prayer, “Father, forgive them” is a verbatim repetition of the gardener’s intervening “Let it alone.” The Greek word used by Jesus and the gardener is the same: aphes. It means “Hands off…Cool it…Leave it Alone…Forgive them.”
Most of us do not realize that we are up to our necks in manure, that is to say forgiveness. We worship a God who is unwilling to use the ax on us, though we know we don’t bear the fruit we should. Regardless of whether we bear fruit or not, God continues to pack on the manure. God continues to pour his grace upon us before any of us have any idea we even need it. Notice that on the cross Jesus forgives the crucifixion crowd before they made any confession, before they even realized that what they had done was wrong. This is amazing grace. It is unearned. Unmerited. And it will never be rescinded. Jesus will just keep packing on the manure until new life sprouts.
The kingdom of God is in our midst, friends, and it is found not in our busy problem-solving or in our anxious ax-chopping. God’s kingdom is present in the forgiveness we show others. It’s present in the grace we have for ourselves and for those who just don’t seem to get it yet.
Jesus calls us into the world, not with an ax, but with handfuls of manure. Manure is unglamorous; it can accomplish much less than an ax in a short amount of time. But it’s the stuff of resurrection. It is amazing grace.