One of the charms of Democracy is the barren privilege of our belief that we can bargain with an incredibly powerful being – our government – that knows almost nothing about us. We have a vote, and we hang on the words of candidates, hoping to hear a promise that we can bind with our vote. Those that draw upon other resources (whether the free market or faith) to garner security tend to wish to limit the role of government. Those looking at success from the outside often wish to draw upon governmental power to avert personal calamity. In most of the electorate, those two impulses join in incoherent combination. Witness, for example, the Floridian retiree who pronounces that entitlements must be cut to reduce the federal deficit, but insists that Medicare and Social Security are sacrosanct.
Entitlements for the elderly were established as a “New Deal” during the Great Depression. At that time, the elderly were the most impoverished segment of society. Since that time, the elderly have become the wealthiest segment of the population, being replaced on the lowest tier by our children.
The challenge of loving people unconditionally – of saying that you will invest in the survival of others without regards to merit – is to create conditions in which the loved ones may choose to use their power to hurt themselves and others. In our modern democracy, the elderly – the community with the most time for political organization – have used that opportunity to steal power from those without a political voice – children. That hasn’t happened directly, and any specific senior citizen would be angered by my characterization. But governments are aggregates, and my statement, in aggregate, is irrefutable.
The Bible, of course, is the story of Unconditional Love’s attempt to enter into and glorify the world. It celebrates episodes of human grace, but for the most part it is a record of iniquity – of the rejection of unconditional love in favor of material possessions (land, wealth or political alliance) that provide security. Inevitably, the strategies of material possession create competition between individuals and communities, often culminating in violence.
How does God deal with this problem? Well, in the Old Testament, generally by disassembling the nation. In the record we have Noah’s Flood, the subjugation of Egypt, the culling of the Golden Calf, the jealous threats of Exodus and the exile to Babylon. So we have this paradox: the gifts of Unconditional Love are showered on the people, but when they abuse them, they suffer terrible punishment.
Unfortunately, the power of this rebuke was projected onto individuals. If the nation should suffer as a whole for sin, so must the individual. Personal misfortune was interpreted as a consequence of personal sin, when in most cases it occurs as a result of sins committed by others. The hungry child sleeps at her desk while the septuagenarian on social security tees up on the golf course.
Jesus rails against such hypocrisy in the opening verses of Luke 13. He speaks of Galileans whose blood was added to the Hebrew sacrifices, and the people killed by the collapse of a tower, and warns that they were not alone in their sin. To the audience, he proclaims twice:
Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
But then Jesus tells a strange little story about a landowner that planted a fig tree in his vineyard. When it bears no fruit, he orders his gardener to cut it down as it was “wasting the soil.” To this, the gardener replies [ESV Luke 13:8-9]:
Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put manure on. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.
In many other parables, Jesus speaks of himself as a landowner, prince or bridegroom, but in this case, I see him renewing his role as a tender of life, most familiarly through the parables of the shepherd. To those familiar with the story of the Golden Calf, it might come to mind that God threatened to destroy the entire Hebrew nation, and relented only when Moses assumed responsibility for their future conduct.
Here Jesus says that the problem is not with the Hebrew people (the tree) but with the ground they are planted in. He vows to spread his loving spirit on them, and counsels that they will flower and bear fruit under his care.
And if not, then God may destroy them. Note that: the landowner orders the gardener to cut down the tree, and the gardener offers to care for it another year, building a bond of caring that means that the landowner must do the work of clearing the ground.
In disobeying the owner the following year, will the gardener himself by cut down? Is Jesus offering this assurance to his disciples: “I will care for you as Moses did, and if you fall, I will fall with you.” Recognizing both that sin must not be allowed to take root in the land, but also committing himself without reservation to preservation of the tree of human spirit that will eventually spread Divine Love over the entire world?
Ultimately, the only stable security is in knowing that we are loved. God is the only perfect source of that love, but his restless seeking to heal the world means that we cannot take that love and hide from the world. We cannot “retire” in comfort. We must go into the dark places where people hunger and live in fearful ignorance and bring them love. If we do not, love will pass round us seeking another way, and the sins of others will overwhelm us.
God’s purpose is pure, and embraces everything. It can serve us only if we serve others.
God loves us, but he cannot be bargained with like we can bargain with a government.
But why would we want to?