Reflection on 3rd Sunday in Lent: 20th March 2022

Ask a Better Question

The poet, theologian and conflict mediator Pádraig Ó Tuama describes the Buddhist concept of “mu,” or un-asking.  If someone asks a question that’s too small, too confining, Ó Tuama writes, you can answer with this word mu, which means, “Un-ask the question, because there’s a better question to be asked:  a wiser question, a deeper question, a truer question,  a question that expands possibility and resists fear.

In today’s gospel some people come to Jesus with headline news of horror and tragedy. They are longing to make sense of the senseless. They are looking for formulas to eradicate the mystery because mystery unnerves us. Yet they already have an answer in mind. They show up hoping to confirm what they already believe. They come expecting Jesus to verify their deeply held assumption that people suffer because they’re sinful: that folks get what they deserve, that bad things happen to bad people. How different are the beliefs we hold about human suffering?  When the unspeakable happens, what default settings do we revert to?  Jesus typically responds by inviting the people to engage in a story. Theories don’t heal.  Formulas can be reductive.  Platitudes are flat.  And questions that call for shallow answers aren’t worth asking in the face of tragedy. But stories?  Stories open up possibility. Stories include, unmake, and transform us. The parable Jesus tells invites questions in several directions at once: 

In what ways am I like the absentee landowner, standing apart from where life and death actually happen?  Where in my life – or in the lives of others – have I prematurely called it quits, saying, “There’s no life here worth cultivating.  Cut it down”  

In what ways am I like the fig tree:  un-enlivened,  un-nourished,  unable or unwilling to nourish others?  In what ways do I feel helpless or hopeless,  ignored or dismissed?  What kinds of tending would it take to bring me back to life?  Am I willing to receive such care?  Will I consent to change?  Might I dare to flourish in a world where I have thus far been invisible?

In what ways am I like the gardener?  Where in my life am I willing to accept Jesus’ invitation to go elbow-deep into the muck and manure?  Where do I see life where others see death?   Am I brave enough to sacrifice time, effort, love, and hope into this tree — this relationship, this cause, this tragedy, this injustice — with no guarantee of a fruitful outcome?  

 Jesus asks us to repent, to change our minds and hearts. Imagine a deeper story.  Ask a better question.  Live a better answer.                     

Debie Thomas.

Gospel: Luke 13:1-9

Some people arrived and told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with that of their sacrifices. At this he said to them, ‘Do you suppose these Galileans who suffered like that were greater sinners than any other Galileans? They were not, I tell you. No; but unless you repent you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen on whom the tower at Siloam fell and killed them? Do you suppose that they were more guilty than all the other people living in Jerusalem? They were not, I tell you. No; but unless you repent you will all perish as they did.’

He told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard and he came looking for fruit on it but found none. He said to the man who looked after the vineyard, “Look here, for three years now I have been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and finding none. Cut it down: why should it be taking up the ground?” “Sir”, the man replied “leave it one more year and give me time to dig round it and manure it: it may bear fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.”