What is the difference between optimism and hope?  I asked this question recently in a sermon based, in part, on a parable about a landowner and a gardener (Luke 13:6-9).  There was a fig tree on the property that had not fruited for three years.  The owner wanted it removed.  The gardener instead asked for another year in which to cultivate the tree to see if it will bear fruit. 

The attitude of the owner is based on a rational analysis of the situation.  He wants a productive tree with fruit to enjoy or sell.  For three years, he had calculated the likelihood that the tree would bear fruit and waited, but now time was up for the tree.  The gardener makes another assessment.  For three years, the gardener had been mulching and cultivating the tree carefully, without success.  Yet, something holds him back from choosing the course the landowner commands.  A good gardener loves their garden.  The gardener hopes for a better outcome in another year. 

Another reading for that Sunday came from Isaiah 55.  The prophet was addressing people who had been living as forced refugees in a camp outside of Babylon for about 50 years.  In any rational assessment of the situation, their situation was unlikely to improve.  Yet, the prophet asserts that a change for the better is on the way, in part, because of God’s commitment to the relationship with God’s people.

What is the difference between optimism and hope?  Optimism, at its best, considers human capabilities.  It takes stock of assets and experience and extrapolates this into the future.  It is aware of the range of possible outcomes and their probabilities, and fixes on positive results that have a reasonable chance of success.  Optimism that does not engage in rational analysis is denigrated as unworthy, as “blind optimism.”

Hope, like optimism, also does its calculations.  However, hope tosses something else into the mix.  For the Christian faith, that extra is love, the core of the relationship between God and the world, and our relationship with others.  Hope, at its best, does not ignore rational evaluation of the situation but adds to it a commitment to care, regardless.  I have heard that some people talk to their plants to encourage them to grow.  I wonder if the gardener would spend the next year, not just digging and mulching around the tree, but touching and talking with it, reminding the tree that it is loved, part of a community of care.

This month sees the celebration of Easter, the celebration of the greatest example of the way of hope in our faith.  From a rational, human evaluation, the optimal course for Jesus to follow would have been a military one – to rally the faithful, call on the hosts of heaven, seize the city and start a popular uprising against the invaders and their puppet leaders.  History has plenty of examples of where such a course has been followed (England with Cromwell, the USA, Iran, Vietnam, China).  Equally, this had not worked previously for the Jews against the Romans, and would be tried later, unsuccessfully, in the Jewish War (66-73), though a 7 year resistance in such a small and poorly resourced country is impressive. (Compare this with ISIS, whose conquest of territory began in Iraq in 2014 but now it controls none.) 

Perhaps the entry to Jerusalem and the disruption of the Temple shows Jesus toying with this route.

In the end, Jesus did not take this course.  He took another way, one that exposed the rigourous brutality of those in power, at the same time demonstrating an alternative based on love and acceptance, not blame and division.  He hoped and trusted in love, rather than optimistically planning rebellion.  The message of Easter Sunday is the divine endorsement of that way of hope, and the seed for our hope in any situation.

We are living at a time that is very much in need of hope.  Several trends in Australia and around the world do not encourage optimism.  These include developments such as terrorism, lack of confidence in the democratic process and increase in political splintering, the global reach of nasty diseases, but the one of most concern is the degradation of the environment, where rational, scientific predictions are not encouraging.  The processes that have been carried out for the last half century may be out of human control.  Even the best scenarios are ominous.  The planet our grandchildren inherit may be very different from the one we enjoyed as children.  Now, more than ever, there is need to add hope to the mix, love for others and for the whole Earth community.  

This Easter, I encourage you to actively pursue a course of hope in your interactions with others, not just in what you say, but in what you do.

Rev Dr Peter Trudinger

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