Room for Forgiveness

Unhealthy thought processes can be difficult to identify—they require self-reflection because others don't always know our thoughts to be able to help us recognize them.

Someone else might be able to offer correction if they see my wrong attitude or hear my harsh words, but unhealthy thinking is more difficult to identify.

Although I don’t often go so far as to express them aloud, here are versions of my unhealthy thoughts. Maybe these sound familiar to you:

I didn't do it right this time. I must be incapable of doing it right.

We haven't had success in the past. We might as well give up.

I haven't found the right fit. I'll probably be stuck in my current situation forever.

These unhealthy thought processes all center around one attitude: Impatience. When I indulge these thoughts, I am impatient with myself, I am impatient with other, and I have a sense that outcomes are inevitable.

Sometimes if we were to give voice to these thoughts that are working below the surface, we could see them for how silly they are. Is it really the case that just because I had an awkward first interaction with someone that I'm incapable of building new relationships?

What I appreciate about the opening of the gospel text for the third Sunday of Lent is that Jesus is the one who exposes unhealthy thought processes for what they are. Everyone else allows these ways of thinking to hum below the surface, unarticulated. But Jesus brings them to light. 

“About this time Jesus was informed that Pilate had murdered some people from Galilee as they were offering sacrifices at the Temple.  Jesus asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?'” (Luke 13:1-2)

Notice also that Jesus doesn't address the obvious immorality of Pilate. Instead, he addresses the issue at hand, knowing that Pilate's time will come. In the mean time, here is an unhealthy thought process that needs correcting. =

Jesus apparently knows just how deep this line of thinking runs. Before anyone even says anything about sin being the cause of these tragedies, Jesus exposes it as false. The culture around Jesus assumes, "It had to be someone's sin!" Jesus answers, “Not at all! And you will perish, too, unless you repent of your sins and turn to God.”

Jesus goes further:

4 And what about the eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem? 

Is this tragedy the result of sin? Is this unforeseen disaster really God at work dispensing justice on the evil?

5 No, and I tell you again that unless you repent, you will perish, too” (Luke 13:4-5).

But Jesus doesn't stop here. He confronts what's at the root of these unhealthy thought processes by telling a parable:

6 Then Jesus told this story: “A man planted a fig tree in his garden and came again and again to see if there was any fruit on it, but he was always disappointed. 7 Finally, he said to his gardener, ‘I’ve waited three years, and there hasn’t been a single fig! Cut it down. It’s just taking up space in the garden.’

8 “The gardener answered, ‘Sir, give it one more chance. Leave it another year, and I’ll give it special attention and plenty of fertilizer. 9 If we get figs next year, fine. If not, then you can cut it down.’”

In this parable, Jesus is the Gardener who wins more time for us. Jesus makes room for forgiveness to bud and time for renewal to bloom.  Trying to find an answer for tragedies by scapegoating and speculating about others’ sin is its own form of impatience—an impatience that Jesus, the patient Gardner, rebukes!

I wonder, however, whether we are in danger of reading Jesus' commitment to patient forgiveness too quickly if we stop here. 

In Mark, we find another account involving a fig tree, only this time, instead of the Gardener saying, “Give the fig tree time and special attention,” Jesus is cursing a fig tree while his disciples watch with delight as it withers.

12 “The next morning as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 He noticed a fig tree in full leaf a little way off, so he went over to see if he could find any figs. But there were only leaves because it was too early in the season for fruit. 14 Then Jesus said to the tree, “May no one ever eat your fruit again!” And the disciples heard him say it” (Mark 11:12-14).

If that outburst weren't enough, Jesus moves on from cursing the fig tree to the temple, driving out moneychangers with a whip. The disciples might be thinking, What happened to the gardener in the parable of the fig tree? Shouldn't Jesus be the one fertilizing the fig tree instead of cursing it?

20 The next morning as they passed by the fig tree he had cursed, the disciples noticed it had withered from the roots up. 21 Peter remembered what Jesus had said to the tree on the previous day and exclaimed, “Look, Rabbi! The fig tree you cursed has withered and died!”

I can't help but read Peter as being thrilled that this incantation has worked.

22 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. 23 I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. 24 I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours. 

At this point, I imagine Peter's delight reaching a fever pitch. Teach me how to curse something and have it wither! Teach me the words to say to hurl the temple mount into the sea. But Jesus' next words snuff out this line of thinking and stop Peter dead in his tracks:

25 “But when you stand praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.”

Perhaps Peter is thinking, “What does forgiveness have to do with anything? If ever there's a case to be made for Jesus inviting me to take matters into my own hands, it's here. If ever there's a case to be made for Jesus giving me permission to hold a grudge or to conjure my own vengeance, it's now.”

And with the words, "First forgive," all of these assumptions wither away like the cursed fig tree in the parable.

And here we see Jesus the Gardener. When things seem to reach a fever pitch in this prophetic teaching moment, Jesus says, "First forgive. There's more than enough time for all the rest. Your job is to take time to repent, to forgive.

If there’s a coherent message in these seemingly contradictory stories that both involve a fig tree, it's this: be patient. Trust the patient Gardener, who makes room for forgiveness to bud and time for renewal to bloom.