Rev. Elder Lillie Brock
In many marginalized communities, the notion of “repentance” may have become a dirty word since it has often been used as a spiritual whipping post. After all, there does exist the tendency of any dominant culture to demand repentance from those who they deem have behaved in a way that is not in alignment with their interpretation of “God’s will.” As such, GLB people have been told to repent of their sexual behavior; homeless people have been told that they should repent because their circumstances are their own fault; transgender people have been told to repent of their turn from the gender that God gave them; women who have had abortions have been forced to repent of their killing of a child; and on and on we could go. But as usual, in this parable, Jesus invites us to turn this whole idea on its head.
The vineyard owner in the parable seems pretty annoyed that after three years, a particular fig tree has not produced fruit. As a result, the owner commanded the gardener to cut it down. But the gardener appealed to the owner to allow the fig tree one more year. The gardener seemed to hold out hope that if tended properly and with great care, the fig tree could, indeed, bear fruit.
This story seems to invite us into relationship with the God of second and third and fourth chances. Taken literally, we might be guilty of saying that we are given four chances and no more when something we are doing compromises our ability to “bear fruit” or be all that we are called to be. But if taken through the lens of grace, we might see the God who has limitless capacity to believe in our goodness, talent, and ability to bear fruit. And when we experience the compassion of this God of many chances, we are forever changed in ways that make who we are called to be, blossom.
The season of Lent embraces the idea of repentance in a big way. At every turn, we are invited to say out loud to God and to others that we have behaved in such a way that has compromised our ability to bear fruit. All the traditions of faith in the world have placed some kind of importance on the idea of repentance. Many emotional and physical healing strategies include the idea of repentance and confession. So the invitation of Lent to repent is worthy of our practice, not as a whipping post, but as a sincere exploration of the behaviors that compromise our ability to bear fruit and see our own worthiness.
In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, says: “We need to understand when and why we hustle for worthiness rather than claim it; and we have to understand the things that get in the way.” The gardener in the vineyard says, let me tend to the tree for another year so that nothing is in the way of it bearing fruit. God reaches out to us and invites us to speak of those things that get in our way, acknowledge those things that have wronged others or ourselves, and in so doing, be forever changed.
Repentance, then, is an invitation to claim our worthiness to bear fruit in God’s vineyard through the simple (though not to be confused with easy) practice of speaking out loud about what behaviors get in our way, compromise our ability to produce fruit, and often harm others.
P.S. And as the community of fig trees in the vineyard, may we learn to see each other’s worthiness, even when we have need of repentance.