Chaos and order: the fig tree and the gardener

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

I love the Hebrew tohuw webohuw, without form and void. There you have it, folks. The bible tells us that, before God got underway with the whole creation thing, everything was tohuw webohuw. Hardly a hospitable environment: nowhere to park the armchair and absolutely nothing in the fridge to drink. But wait! There’s more, and it’s all bad: “darkness covered the face of the deep”. No lights and it’s wet.


Actually, it’s worse than wet, much worse than merely wet. “The deep” in Hebrew understanding was chaos. The sea was the ultimate symbol and example of the chaos that waits to reach out and destroy; it’s unpredictable, ungovernable, unknowable.

The biblical story of creation – this lovely piece of Hebrew etiology – is all about what God does with chaos. What does God do? God brings order. Form out of emptiness, light out of darkness, earth out of the deep. Order out of chaos.

The Chosen people were not keen on chaos, but then neither are we. From the moment of our birth, our brains begin the extraordinary task of sorting things out so that we can make sense of our world. Out of the chaos of light and noise and touch and taste and smell, our brains begin to catalogue and analyse everything around us into some semblance of something we might call order. Without order, we would not survive at all.

One of the primary ways we learn about order is through cause and effect. “Don’t touch the stove,” we tell little children. “You will burn yourself.” Heat is the cause, pain is the effect. “Be nice to the pretty girl and she might smile at you. Work hard and you can provide for your family. Drive too fast and you’ll get a speeding ticket, or worse.” Cause and effect.

The bible itself is full of cause and effect stories: Abraham was faithful so God blessed him. Pharaoh was hard-hearted and God sent plagues upon Egypt. Samson let Delilah cut his locks and so he lost his strength. Lot’s wife looked back and the rest of her family never had to go without salt again (or something like that). Cause and effect.

And so we come to this morning’s gospel story:

there were some present who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.

What’s that about? It’s about cause and effect, it’s about trying to make sense out of something which appears to be senseless, chaotic. In Jesus’ time, sin lead to punishment. Are you sick? Then God must be punishing you for some undisclosed sin. Lepers were sinners. Blind Bartimaeus must have been wicked. The woman bent over with her haemorrhaging? Who knows what she must have done to deserve God’s punishment.

“So, Jesus, Pilate killed those Galileans. What was their sin?”

But the answer they get is not what they expect:

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you… Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you…”

Jesus refutes the cause and effect thinking. The Galileans weren’t killed because they were sinners; they were killed because Pilate was evil. Those killed in the building tragedy were no more sinful than anyone else. It was an accident.

Sometimes, lots of times, there is no order; it’s just random, it’s just chaos. And we don’t like it. We want order, we want things to make sense, we want easy answers.

But God is not just the God of order; God is also the God of chaos.

If, when God created the heavens and the earth, the waters of the deep already existed, chaos existed, where did that come from if not from God? From the incredibly ordered world of science, we have discovered that chaos exists, creation itself is not ordered. We throw an apple in the air and it comes right back down. Gravity, we say. What goes up must come down. Except that’s not true.

If we look deep into the heart of all created matter, we discover something extraordinary. At the tiniest of miniscule levels, way down smaller and smaller than we will ever see, at the sub-atomic level, much, much smaller than atoms, the particles that make up the universe are not bound by gravity in the way we expect them to be. What goes up does not necessarily come down.

Scientists observe particles at point A and suddenly they appear at point B, but they didn’t move there in a logical fashion. They just appeared there! That is not order. That is chaos. It can’t be explained; it can’t be understood.

It’s as if I said to you,
you that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
   Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price.

That’s not logical. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not the way that we order things around here.

But that is God for you. God’s ways are not our ways; God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.


Which is why Jesus immediately goes on to tell his listeners about the fig tree that doesn’t bear fruit. Three years it’s stood there, using up valuable water, taking up important real estate, not contributing in any way, shape or form to the economy of the family. It’s got to go. In a subsistence society, that is the only logical decision that can be made. That’s precisely the conclusion the man who owned the vineyard came to: cause and effect. No fruit, chop down.

That’s the man’s thinking. That’s human thinking. That’s ordered thinking.

Enter God. (Did you get that?)

[The gardener] replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’

God is the gardener; the gardener is God. God is the one who makes the illogical plea for one more year. One more year of fertilizer, one more year of watering, one more year of the gardener’s time and energy with absolutely no guarantees whatsoever that anything will change. That’s God’s thinking; those are God’s ways.

So we are left with our need for order directly challenged by God. Our need to be able to explain everything neatly and easily is disrupted by the chaos of that which we don’t understand. Why leave the fig tree? Because God is the God of the second chance, the third chance, the infinite chance. God’s ways are not our ways.

You that have no money, come, buy and eat!
   Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

Our way: we insist upon the market economy.
God’s way: God insists upon the free gift

you shall call nations that you do not know,
   and nations that do not know you shall run to you,

Our way: We insist upon dividing and excluding those who are different from us.
God’s way: God insists that we are all the same

   let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts;
   let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them,
   and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

Our way: We punish the wicked and the unrighteous
God’s way: God insists upon mercy and pardon

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
   For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

And we are called to accept the chaos of God’s ways because we too are the ones who receive abundant life. We too are the beneficiaries of God’s grace. Amen.

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