In Luke 13:1-9, the passage appointed for Lent 3, Jesus counters the insecurity of a group of people that approach him about God's wrath upon sinners with a parable about God giving the tree that fails to bear fruit another season to grow. The individuals come to Jesus' hoping that he will confirm that they are not as bad as others who have died under horrible circumstances, apparently the wrath of God poured out upon their faithlessness. Jesus, of course, rebukes them for their own sinfulness and warns them of a similar fate if they do not repent.
At this point, we might shudder at that time honoured tactic of "evangelism by fear." But, Jesus does not leave things with this admonition, rather, he engages in his favourite passtime of storytelling. He tells them a parable about a man who is quick to cut down a tree in his vineyard that bears no fruit. But this man has a gardener who knows the virtue of patience and of careful tending of the plants in his charge. The gardener begs his employer for another year to give the tree another chance before he cuts it down. We are not told if the gardener gets his wish. The sympathic listener will hope he does, for he or she will realize that the story is not about the tree, but rather about giving us another chance. I wrote about this aspect of the parable in my homily this week. However, I wish to consider another aspect here.
Quick decision-making is seen as a virtue to most people. Decisiveness is a mark of strength. When there is a problem we must deal with it swiftly, purosefully, and with finality. How often have we hear such words trotted out by politicians. I suppose that at the root of this rhetoric is the realization that we want our problems to go away quickly, to disappear. Conflict makes us uncomfortable. We long for homeostasis in our communities. When a there is tension in a workplace, in a family, or in a society, we demand action. Those who are in leadership positions are expected to solve the problem swiftlly, without delay.
Yet, sometimes swift and decisive action is destructive and unforgiving. Sometimes, we need to stop, take a deep breath, and consider our options, as unpopular as they may be. I have been in workplace situations in which the homeostasis of the system has been upset and I have wished that some decisive leader would make things right. Conversely, I have been in several management situations when I was expected to take decisive action. There are times when swift decisions need to be made, but I believe that there are many more times when strength and integrity are best exercised by by careful, measured thought, and a resistance of decisive action. Sometimes swift decision-making is simply an act of cowardice.
I recall reading Rowan Williams' book, Writing in the Dust, a reflection on the events of Sept 11, 2001, written very shortly after the tragedy of that day. Williams was deeply worried that the response would be decisive (but thoughtless) action, simply to demontrate that in the midst of anarchy, the American government was strong and in control. Of course, his fears were realized and we are still living with the results of a thoughtless, swift reponse to those events. It has been a mark of Rowan Williams' episcopate and leadership as Archbishop of Canterbury that he proceeds slowly and thoughtfully in any matter of contention, taking plenty of time to discern the Spirit of God. He is now roundly criticized as indecisive. Slowing down seems to have become the sin of his episcopacy.
However, I still think he offers a prophetic voice in the wilderness of thoughtlessness and decisive shows of brute force. In this, I believe him to be a faithful disciple of the Lord who comes not swinging the axes but tending carefully tending the root of the tree. The temptation ever remains for us to take the axe to the tree that seems withered and bearing little fruit. After all, the land is being wasted where a new tree could be planted. Take the axe and swing it, we demand of our politicians and employers and bishops and leaders. However, I say give me the leader that is slow to anger and great with loving kindness, patience and compassion. Give me the leader that stops, and thinks, and carefully consider her task. Give me the leader that will give the tree another season. Give me the leader that will tend the soil around the failing plant. Give me the leader that will offer nourishment and care over swings of the axe. This is the leader I pray for, lest the axe fall on me.
c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves