Rev. Michelle Wahila
PLEASE READ: Isaiah 55:1-9 and Luke 13:1-9
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 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; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
Then he told this parable: ‘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?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
Today’s lesson begins with a phrase that highlights the importance of the moment. The text reads, “At that very time.” The first words of the pericope point us to the importance of what will follow. The story itself is a part of Luke’s “travel accounts.” There is a crowd gathered, listening to Jesus’ teachings. Luke aptly positions this narrative immediately after Jesus’ remarks on reconciliation with one’s opponent, bringing the episode a certain poignancy.
The crowd comes running to Jesus with tabloids in hand, “Did you hear about the tragedy?” The shocking nature of the headline runs like a news ticker at the bottom of the television screen, but it hardly would have been shocking to anyone who knew (or knew of Pilate). Nevertheless, it was an atrocity, a religious abomination, and pure human evil to pour out human blood with that of a sacrifice. The crowd brings the “news story” to Jesus’ attention with the goal of “getting a rise” out of him, and perhaps to evoke some kind of fury or pronouncement.
The people, coming from a tradition in which suffering equated to sinful living, were “apparently inclined to think that the victims of these atrocities… must have been guilty of extraordinary sins which up to this point might have been kept secret, but were now exposed by the special sufferings which God had allowed to come upon them as a punishment for those sins. Christ said their interpretation was wrong.” Their horrible deaths didn’t mean they were some sort of super-sinners. To prove this point, Jesus gives his own news headline.
Jesus plays one-upmanship with the crowd, matching the first major headline: the story of the deliberate, gruesome death of the Galileans, with that of a second major headline: the accidental death of eighteen Jerusalemites killed by the sudden collapse of a tower in the old wall of the city. The people killed in Jerusalem may have been no more guilty than the Galileans, or than any others in Jerusalem, yet they too met a sudden death. With the second news headline, Jesus asserts that death may face anyone as rapidly as it faced the Galileans and the Jerusalemites...
At this point, you might expect some sort of moral interpretation from Jesus, comparing and contrasting the day’s headlines or categorizing natural evils and human evils. You do expect a judgment on this one – like an interview with a “religious expert” to explain the headlines in detail, and to give logical judgment about which atrocity of the day demonstrated the “greater sin.” Yet, this is not the moral Jesus draws from the stories of the day.
Instead, Jesus insists that those Galileans did not suffer that particular fate because they were greater sinners than others in Galilee. In fact, the fate of the Jerusalemites could befall anyone in the crowd. Jesus uses the “sudden death” headline to challenge those still alive to a reformation of life...
His point was not that if they could manage to repent of their sins, they wouldn’t die: “the way the Gospel works out, even being sinless can’t guarantee that. In fact, it guarantees just the opposite: a still more horrible death on the cross. Maybe what [Jesus] was telling them to repent of was actually their rejection of death – a rejection compensated for by… telling horror stories.”
“Maybe they were supposed to stop pretending death was something God sent only to bad guys and realize it was his chosen way of saving even people with lives as carefully lived as theirs. ‘You’re all going to die,’ Jesus tells them in effect. ‘But since I’m going to die for you and with you, maybe you should strop trying to keep death at arm’s length. You have nothing to lose but your horror [and your headlines].’”
With the realization that no one can procrastinate death, Jesus offers the crowd an alternative to merely running to “avoid death.” In typical Lukan style, the hearers of Jesus’ parable are offered an opportunity to embrace and be embraced by God’s grace. The vinedresser invites the owner into a rubrics of forbearance and forgiveness that the barren fig tree continues to live by grace. The Greek word is “Aphes,” which the vinedresser says to his lord, meaning: “let it be.” The vinedresser advocates for the institution of a “grace period” for that tree.
It is just that word that makes the vinedresser one of the clearest pictures of Christ. For on the cross, at the brink of death, Jesus himself says, “Aphes,” also meaning “to forgive.” The world lives, as the fig tree lives, under the rubric of forgiveness. The world, of course, thinks otherwise. In its folly, it believes it lives on its own.
One commentator puts it this way:
“The world likes to imagine that salvation is essentially a pat on the back from God who either thinks we are good eggs, or, if he knows how rotten we actually are, considers our repentance sufficient to make up for our unsuitability. But by the foolishness of God, that is not the way it works. By the folly of the cross, Jesus becomes sin for us…. He is relegated to the dump for us, and he becomes [dirt]… for us. And then he comes to us. The Vinedresser who on the cross said, “aphes” to his Lord and Father comes to us with his own body dug deep by nails and spears… and he sends our roots resurrection.
He does not come to see if we are good: he comes to disturb the caked conventions by which we pretend to be good. He does not come to see if we are sorry: he knows our repentance isn’t worth the hot air we put into it. He does not come to count anything. He comes only to forgive. For free. For nothing. On no basis, because like the fig tree we are too far gone to have a basis. On no conditions, because like the dung of death he digs into our roots, he is too dead to insist on prerogatives. We are saved gratis, by grace.”
This parable should destroy any thought that we can make it on our own and holds together the tension of Christ’s word to us: “aphes.” We are “aphes” – forgiven, and we are living in an “aphes” – let it be time. Instead of running from the headlines, we are called to live into a grace period, in which we must embrace Christ’s word to us.
How we use our “grace period” reflects our embrace of the message. Just as a word of condemnation is spoken to the crowd wishing to procrastinate death, there is a warning for those who do not seek the growth that comes with life. If we believe the word of “forgiveness” spoken for us and to us, but miss the “let it be” time, then we aren’t putting off death – we’re putting off life! We are given a time period of fullness in which we are able to be grounded and nourished, fully sustained even though we cannot feed, root, or water ourselves. The prophet Isaiah promised this:
Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters...
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have
mercy on them.
In this “gifted” time period we are given the opportunity to root ourselves deeply that we might bear fruit. Bearing fruit is the natural end for the fig tree. It uses the resources of soil, water and sun in harmony to bring forth good fruit. The grace period is a critical moment for life and life-giving forces.
The barren fig tree also stands then as a symbol of one who has been given the precious gift of time and done nothing with it. John Calvin wrote: “Why should such a person, having been given life and existence, continue to use up natural resources so unproductively. If one bears no fruit and continues one’s unproductivity and procrastination, then that person should be ready to face the fate of the barren fig tree...”
In short, we are called to care about our time. The Scripture speaks about our use of time – from Sabbath, to worship, to life in community and awaiting the arrival of the Messiah we are supposed to care about how we spend our time. One could even argue that “[t]he Bible is more concerned with time than with space… It pays attention to generations, to events...” In contrast, we live in a world that focuses on the space of nations, land and things that often makes us feel like we should be fleeing the headlines and bunkering down in our own spaces. We may feel like the time in which we are living is anything but a “grace period.”
The life and sustenance for these time can only be found in the vinedresser’s actions. We do nothing and we deserve nothing, yet like the fig tree we are cultivated in a grace period. With our time, however long it may be, we have the opportunity to be nourished and nourish; to grow, to change and to create in a manner worthy of deep roots set in good soil. Christ’s word to us, “aphes” is our headline for each day: As long as I am in him, I bear fruit. As long as his death feeds my roots, I will never be cut down. Thanks be to God. Amen.