Luke 13, 1-9
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
There are many apocryphal stories about Winston Churchill, some true and a large number, I suspect embroidered and our reading today reminded me of one of those. Churchill was, it seems, asked to address the students of his Alma Mater, Harrow School on October 29th 1941 at the height of the blitz. The apocryphal version of the tale has it that after a long and rambling introduction (presumably from the Headmaster), Churchill went to the podium and simply said “Never give up” and then sat down again.
Given that this led to a stunned silence, he got back up and said it again, “Never give up” and repeated this several times.
It’s a nice story but sadly, the truth is slightly different but, no less inspiring. Apparently what really happened was that he gave a rather longer and more normal speech but he included the following within it.
“But for everyone, surely, what we have gone through in this period – I am addressing myself to the school – surely from this period of ten months, this is the lesson: Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.
Whichever version you prefer, the message remains a clear call for perseverance – never give up, never give in. Our gospel reading today from Luke has a parable that reminds us of the worth of endurance. A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree and still I find none. Cut it down. Why should it be wasting the soil?” 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.”
So the gardener doesn’t want to give up on the fig tree, he wants to give it one more chance which is, of course, the central theme of this simple little parable. We all deserve another chance. We all have the opportunity for redemption. God will not turn his back on any of us – He gives us opportunity after opportunity to succeed. How many times within the bible do we see God providing opportunities for redemption?
Adam and Eve disobeyed the very first and only rule that they had been given by God – but God never gave up on them. Moses hid and shook with fear but God never gave up. David plotted against Uriah so he could have his way with Bathsheba but God never gave up on him. The Jewish people were sent into exile but God never gave up on them. John the Baptist, God’s messenger was murdered but God never gave up. We crucified God’s own Son but God never gave up on us.
This simple little parable has, at its heart one of the most powerful concepts in our Christian theology – the concept of redemption. Our God is a forgiving God. There is no evil so terrible that we cannot be saved if we turn to God and seek his forgiveness.
We are redeemed by God’s grace and by the sacrifice of Jesus’ blood. That is what we believe – our faith is distinguished by it’s capacity for redemption and it’s commitment to forgiveness. But is that really true today?
Filled with thoughts of redemption this week, I came across a fascinating article in the Daily Telegraph on Thursday (4th March 2010) that is so pertinent to our gospel that I wanted to share it with you today because there is an issue in the news this week that really tests our belief in redemption and really, for me, questions whether the society in which we live is capable of accepting the concept of redemption that sits at the heart of our faith.
I am referring to the James Bulger case and, more topically to the fate of one of the convicted youngsters Jon Venables. I’m sure you all remember the horrors of the Bulger case and the subsequent conviction of the 10 year olds Jon Venables and Robert Thompson for the murder of the two year old. You may be surprised to realise, as I was, that the murder took place 17 years ago and so Venables and Thompson are now grown men of 27.
The reason that this is in the news this week is because Jon Venables has been taken into custody for breaking the terms of his bail – in what way we don’t know. The fascinating issue is to see the way in which this has been covered by the media – particularly the tabloid media who have taken the opportunity to re open every gory detail of the case from 17 years ago and to use Venables imprisonment as vindication of their view that he should never have been released back into society and that we should, of course have locked up both of these 10 year old boys forever and thrown away the keys – such was the depravity of their crime.
Now on the basis that the media is some sort of reflection of society, it does suggest that there is not too much support for the concept of redemption which brings me to the article in the Telegraph by Brian Masters. Masters has written many books about serial killers and their aberrant behaviour and actually sat through the Bulger trial 17 years ago. His insights are fascinating. Let me read an extract.
The two boys were arrested, tried and convicted in an adult court, Mr Justice Morland declaring solemnly that they had been found guilty of an act of “unparalleled evil and barbarity”, words that were not in their vocabulary and could not be understood by them.
Of course he was not talking to them at all, but to us, the world. Adult ritual was much more satisfying than the difficult, messy business of understanding aberrant child psychology. Nobody suggested the boys made a decision after breakfast to kill somebody; they did not harbour hatred for the toddler nor for toddlers in general. The catastrophe fell unheralded, for motives that remain mysterious.
The crime was very nasty indeed and the boys were justly punished for it. But the crowd wanted something more. They beat their fists upon the van that carried the boys to and from court, baying for vengeance. It seems the fists are still clenched, even today, and the desire for blood unquenched.
We cannot feel anger at this 27 year old man who has been detained this week, for we no longer know who he is. He may be a father. He may have a job. He may be kind and considerate. He may be rotten and deceitful. He may have shoplifted. He may have sold drugs.
It does not matter, for we are not interested in him; we are interested in the little boy who terrified us with his malice all those years ago, and we do not want to let that shudder evaporate and lose its power.
In some very unpleasant way, we cherish it still. We must never be suspected of any maturity that would allow us to spot the possibility of redemption. That, at least is the feeling that some newspapers appear to foster.
I attended the trial of Thompson and Venables throughout and heard all the evidence. Yet I did not feel the presence of wickedness. I felt the unfathomable mystery of human behaviour, the awe of ignorance, the chilling impossibility of knowing what this was really all about. The trial, which ought to have been a lesson in philosophy, was instead a performance, a parade of adult indignation hurled at two frightened little boys who knew they had done something terrible and did not know why.
Jon Venables is now a man who has made bold front page headlines for an undisclosed offence, which we are all invited to imagine must be heinous. At least we hope it is, or we shall be short changed. I have never met the man and never shall. I have no idea what he is now like, though I did know someone who spoke to him when he was in custody as a teenager and was impressed by his progress.
But I do know that he cannot be the warped and skewed child who shared in that dreadful crime all those years ago. It is just not possible. He is somebody else now. We all of us change and develop as we pass into adulthood and beyond and there is no reason to suppose that a child who murders should not be exempt from this inevitability.
Nobody would wish to belittle the ghastly fate that befell James Bulger. Letting his killers attempt to redeem themselves in peace does not do that. But we should be mindful of the fact that indignation is relatively easy to satisfy, and demands no sacrifice, no exposure to horrid experience, no damage to the soul. To continue feeding indignation against a 10 year old boy who glimpsed Hell, and who knew it, is at best unworthy and at worst, is itself a manifestation of wickedness.
So what do we think about that? If we listen to today’s gospel, the message of our faith is clear. Redemption is today’s message. Just as the gardener in the vineyard appeals for another chance for the fig tree, so should we be prepared to give Jon Venables and Robert Thompson another chance. They have to be given the chance of redemption because we know that our loving God will forgive them if they are truly repentant.
But as Brian Masters observes, it appears that much of our society does not believe in the concept of redemption. The issues here are deeply depressing and enormously difficult but they do go to the heart of our beliefs. There are no winners in this horrific catalogue – only losers. Jamie Bulger lost his life, his parents lost their lovely little boy and his mother must live with the guilt that a moments distraction on a shopping trip gave Venables and Thompson the chance to steal him away.
Venables and Thompson have lost their childhoods and any chance of normal life, forever looking over their shoulders for the baying of the lynch mob. One can hardly imagine how they could possibly live normal lives, form normal relationships and sustain them. Their families must be blighted by the shadow of their crime – ostracised and fearful of revenge. No there are no winners here – only losers.
So what are we to think of these child killers? Society almost seems to regard them as somehow worse than adult killers as more evil - but is that fair? Adult murderers are regularly released under license from their prison sentences but without the furore and sensationalist headlines and yet surely these adults were more aware, more culpable of their crimes, committed by an adult mind with the capability of mature and rational thought?
The issue for me, in all of this though, comes back to the central issue of redemption. What this week’s news events reveals is how difficult a concept redemption actually is. It sounds easy when we hear the parable of the fig tree – of course we should give people another chance. Of course everyone should have the opportunity for remorse and for forgiveness. And then we are confronted by the Bulger case and it all seems so much more complicated.
Christ died for our redemption. He died for everyone of us, rich and poor, good and evil, saint and sinner. The promise of redemption is there for all of us whether we realise it or not. It seems that there are an awful lot of people who don’t seem to realise it.
Let us pray
Lord we thank you for the gift of your beloved Son, given that we might be forgiven our sins and be redeemed. We pray for all who suffer in the world but today, we pray particularly for all those whose lives were blighted in 1993 when Jamie Bulger was murdered. We pray for your healing grace in all of their lives. Amen