Figs and Fruit
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
I heard this story the other day on the podcast called Hidden Brain. The episode is called You Can’t Unsend. The story featured a young man named William. William is from Central Pennsylvania and he is twenty years old. He is an incredibly gifted young man. He excelled at violin. By 9th grade his violin instructor was letting him pick his own music, he memorizes everything. He now plays in a professional symphony. He has won awards for physics and economics. He plays competitive golf. But he also made a mistake that nearly cost him everything. In the fall of 2016, he was starting his senior year of high school thinking hard about college. He wanted to go to a school that valued learning for learning’s sake. He decided he would try and get into Harvard. He didn’t really think he had a shot at it, while he was incredibly gifted, he had not been doing a lot of things needed to get into a school like Harvard. He applied for early admission and one mid-December day at 5:05 pm he received an email telling him he would be attending Harvard that fall. The letter even included a financial aid package that he would not acquire any debt. For William, this was like hitting the lottery. More Nobel Prize winners are associated with Harvard than any other university in the world and every supreme court justice has either attended Yale or Harvard.
Later in the week, he received an invitation to a Facebook page for the graduating class of 2021. He began to get to know students on the page and make some friends. This led to a private Facebook group about meme culture. If you don’t know what a meme it is an image with a caption, but they are often unrelated concepts. Like a picture of a volcano in the context of a family gathering. Memes often point to a larger commentary on power or society. At times memes can be edgy or even offensive. Often, they are meant to shock people, it is kind of dark humor. People in the group began posting edgier and edgier memes. William went along with it posting some really terrible things. In April he was contacted by Harvard telling William they were investigating this meme group and that he needed to respond to the admissions committee. William wrote an apology and explained in detail what he did including photos of the memes he sent. The committee responded by telling him his application was under review. Nine days later he was told Harvard was withdrawing their offer of admission.
Word got out, people avoided him, his prom date told him his mom wouldn’t let her go with someone who got kicked out of college. Because he applied early action and didn’t apply anywhere else, he suddenly had no plans for the next year. The scandal made the news, the BBC, CNN, Fox News, NPR. William got a job, played in the local symphony, enrolled in math and physics courses in the local community college. When he applied to colleges he told every single one what he had done and what he had learned from his mistakes and he received rejection after rejection from Princeton, MIT, Johns Hopkins, University of Chicago, Stanford, Yale, Columbia, Brown. Eventually, he was waitlisted at three schools, eventually attending one of them. While William regrets what he did, he doesn’t regret the lessons he learned and how things turned out. 
When we read our text, at first, it can be a little bit difficult to understand. But it fits nicely with our readings over the last several weeks. If you remember, two weeks ago, we looked at how Jesus was tempted with the empire of bread, power, and protection. Last week Jesus was told Herod was out to get him, and he dismissed the threat. The text today features Pilate, a governor so brutal that Emperor Tiberius at one point recalled him to Rome and put him on trial for genocide against the Samaritan people.
Jesus is preaching to a crowd and it almost feels as if someone starts reading headlines from a paper. The first is an act of state sanction violence in the Temple courtyard, where 18 people were killed. The second event is some disaster. This tower may be part of Pilate’s new aqueduct that he had built during this time. This construction project mainly used slave labor and caused a riot when Pilate pillaged the treasury of Jerusalem to make it. According to Diana Butler Bass, some scholars have suggested that this tower may have been collapsed on purpose either by Pilate to keep the people in line or by the workers attempting to stop it. 
The crowd is asking whether these people deserved their fate. Essentially, they ask, “why do bad things happen to some people? Is it because some people are evil?” In both examples, Jesus’ response is “No” and he then moves onto the central theme of Luke, repent and do deeds consistent with the life of faith. Jesus, throughout the gospel of Luke, points to two outward signs of repentance, care for the poor and radical inclusion.
But before that, Jesus tells another story of a tree that bears no fruit. The owner wants the tree cut down. The Gardener begs to let it alone for one more year so he can show it some care, put some manure on it and see what happens. One of the interesting things in Judaism is that trees had rights. According to Leviticus, the tree’s fruit can’t be eaten for several years; the first three years, the fruit is forbidden, the fourth year, it is set aside for rejoicing, and the fifth year the fruit may be eaten. When we hear this parable, I think most of us believe God is the landowner, and it is a plea for divine patience. But God can’t break God’s command. The landowner in this case isn’t an angry God. The landowner is Caesar, Herod, Pilate. Murderers who destroyed people and land. Murderers who pillaged the land flowing with milk and honey. The Gardener is standing in contrast to the impatient landowner, knowing that things need patience, tending, and care. The mischievous side of me wonders if the Gardener was collecting the fruit and hiding it in order to fulfill the law of Leviticus. Either way, it points to the idea that violence can’t be met with violence. Empire only leads to violence and the Kingdom of God is a slow work that takes patience and care.
That is the invitation of repentance, that every single day we are given a new opportunity to show the signs of the repentance that leads to life. To show the world care for the poor and radical inclusion. We are given the opportunity to change our behavior and align it with the Kingdom of God.