March 3, 2013
The first nine verses of the thirteenth chapter of Luke are either sweet or sour, depending on how you look at them. On the one hand, it's sour news that all human beings are sinners who will perish unless they repent. On the other hand, it's sweet news that accidents and tragedies are not punishments for sin. And it's heartening that, in the parable of the barren fig tree, the owner of the vineyard allows the gardener one more year to get the tree to bear fruit. But the parable ends on a sour note: if it doesn't bear fruit, it gets cut down.
We'd expect to find it in Matthew; one of his favorite themes is judgment and that those who are not obedient will end up "weeping and gnashing their teeth." Why is it here in Luke? Luke's gospel is the joyful gospel! Luke's gospel introduces us to a God who is merciful and gracious and wants more than anything to repair our relationship with God, whose heart leaps with joy when we turn Godward. Why does Luke include this grim, urgent little parable about a barren tree that doesn't have forever to bear fruit?
Sadie, the English Prayer Beagle
Every student who enters Perkins School of Theology, where I teach, takes a year-long Spiritual Formation Class. These are groups of six to ten students who meet every Thursday afternoon for nine months and study the disciplines of Christian prayer and then practice them all week. Each group has a faculty member who volunteers to work with them.
Several years ago there was a student in my Spiritual Formation group named David. David was a seminary student in his late twenties working as a social worker and attending Perkins part-time. Over Christmas break each member of the class chose a book of the Bible and pledged to spend fifteen minutes a day reading through it out loud and then praying about its connection to their lives. We were to report back to one another when the spring semester began in January.
David chose the Gospel of John. His wife, a banker, went out of town for two weeks to Austin to visit family and to work with some clients, leaving David home with Sadie, the couple's two-year-old English beagle. David decided it was a good time to start his prayer routine. So after work, he'd come home, eat dinner, feed and walk Sadie, do paperwork, and watch the news. Then at 10:30 p.m., he'd click off the TV and move to the loveseat where there was better light for reading. He would open the Bible to the Gospel of John and read aloud the passage for that day and then pray quietly from 10:30 to 11:00 every night. Sadie decided that if there was some spiritual growth going on, she was not going to be left out. And she got into the habit of curling up on the other end of the loveseat during the nightly proceedings.
When David's wife came home after her trip, he was very glad to have her back. But the routine was less rigid with another person at home. One night David forgot and didn't turn off the TV at 10:30. Sadie came and nudged his legs, pulled on his trouser leg—like Lassie used to do to Timmy's dad when Timmy was trapped in the abandoned mine again. Sadie pulled on his pants as if to say, "You're on the wrong couch. Come over here. Turn off the TV. It's time to pray!"
Another night, David was exhausted and decided to go to bed before 10:30. Except that it's hard to go to sleep when there's an irate beagle pacing up and down beside your bed and pulling at your covers.
There are many different kinds of dogs, bred for different functions. There are sheep dogs bred to herd sheep. There are guard dogs bred to guard premises. There are seeing-eye dogs trained to lead people through life. But I didn't know, until I heard about Sadie, that there was such a thing as a prayer dog. This brief parable about the importance of bearing fruit serves as our prayer dog.
A Parable of Urgency
This grim little parable from the thirteenth chapter of Luke sinks its teeth in and drags us toward a sober truth: that there are consequences for those who never repent, never turn toward God through practices of daily prayer, and never bring forth the fruit of repentance. It only occurs in Luke, the gospel that—more than any other—depicts Jesus and discipleship as joyful.
If this parable were in Matthew, he would use it to make the point: Repent, or this is the negative thing that will happen to you. In Luke, the message is more: Repent, or this is the joy you'll miss! This grim little parable could become our path toward grace, nudging us, as if to say, "Mercy is still available to those who repent." It asks us, "What is it about the word urgent that you do not understand?"
Do We Really Understand What Urgent Means?
Urgent is April 14. Urgent is 11:30 p.m. the night before the school project you've known about since the beginning of the marking period is due—and you still have to get graphics off the internet, glue them without lumps onto the presentation board, and do ten math problems.