March 20, 2022 Third Sunday in Lent The text is Luke 13:1-9.
1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 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? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6 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. 7 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?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen
Just prior to what’s happening in this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus has been travelling through several towns and his teaching has centered mostly on parables. And right before the first verse today he was telling the crowd that they aren’t able to see for themselves the reality of what has been going on around them. He also tells them that they apparently can’t tell the difference between right and wrong. Just at that moment some in the crowd related to Jesus the news that Pilate had ordered a number of Galilean Jews to be slaughtered while they were gathered near the temple. Jesus’ response about whether or not these people deserved to die any more than others and his recounting of the accident at the tower in Siloam are rather at odds with the accepted Jewish theology of the time.
It was thought that there was a direct relationship between sin and suffering, and that sinful actions were responded to by God with punishment. Jesus is quick to counter this understanding of the Law, stating that those who perished in both of these instances were not any more deserving of punishment than was anyone else. God certainly didn’t afflict suffering against those who were victims of Pilate’s terror or what would today be called an industrial accident at the tower. But Jesus does make the point that life is, in fact precarious and that these events make the need for repentance now, before it’s too late. We never know when Pilate will strike out against those in the crowd, or when they too might be victims of some random calamity; or, simply when we might perish without cause or reason. This is yet another example of Jesus turning things upside down; God won’t punish us for sinful behavior, but the fragility of life, as evidenced by these tragic incidents emphasizes the need for repentance.
Therefore, Jesus doesn’t want us to focus on the perceived punishment of others or the gravity of the offence they may make, but on the goodness to be nurtured in our own heart. Our lives, our actions must be firm, resolute, and dedicated to producing “good fruit”; thus, the parable of the “Barren Fig Tree”. In this allegory, Jesus relates that this particular tree hasn’t borne fruit for three seasons, and at that point it is simply not worth it to allow the tree to absorb nutrients from the soil, while not yielding any figs. But the gardener is able to convince the vineyard owner to allow him to nurture the tree for one more season; if then it doesn’t produce fruit, he will agree to it being cut down. As in all of Jesus’ parables, the characters and objects represent something other than what they seem. In this case the vineyard owner is a stand-in for God; Jesus is the gardener; and the fig tree is a representation of the heart of those who are willing to repent.
Thus, Jesus is asking God to hold off on judging humanity and to let Jesus nurture the people through his mission of salvation. Allow Jesus to teach God’s people and give them time to understand and respond through repentance. Perhaps after further reflection and introspection the hearts of God’s people will come to produce “good fruit”. Just give the tree one more season to bear fruit; allow the gardener to tend to it. Just give the people time to repent and let Jesus change their minds. Please be patient with your children, God. Jesus as asking for God’s grace.
At the same time, this parable reminds us that God’s patience is not infinite; after all, the gardener agrees to one more year for the fig tree. Yet, we also know that God’s grace knows no limit. All this makes for somewhat of a paradox. We know that God will forgive us because of Jesus’ sacrifice, yet Jesus wants us to come to this changing of our minds, sooner rather than later. Again, calamity may strike at any moment and the fragile nature of life is confirmed through this parable. We are not immune to calamity, so let’s make our repentance an ongoing action, so that we might always seek to seize God’s grace with a sense of urgency.
And, what better time to consider this fragility of life than during Lent, when we are called to reflect upon and seek renewal of our relationship with God? As we walk the path with Jesus to his cross, as we make the Lenten journey to Jerusalem with him, we must recognize the precarious nature of human life, as we contemplate his death. Yet, by the grace of God Jesus rose from the cross to secure this same grace for us, for we who are repentant and who acknowledge our dependance on this graciousness. What then does this repentance of ours look like, is it a simple turning around of our behavior or must it also include a changing of our minds? We have come across this Greek word for repentance before; “metanoia”. In its basic form it means to simply turn around, but this isn’t the way Jesus intends for us to understand repentance. In arguing that the fig tree will produce fruit after it is nurtured, Jesus the gardener is assuring God the vineyard owner that the once barren tree will change completely and that now it will bear fruit into the future.
“Metanoia”, this repentant turning around requires that one changes one’s heart, one’s perspective, one’s life into a completely new way of thought and of action. And this change must be ongoing and permanent, for again we remember that Jesus cautions us that this fragile life may be taken from us at any time. It is imperative that our changed, repentant hearts urge us to always seek to bear “good fruit”, to strive to be of service to God’s people. Earlier in his gospel Luke records that Jesus told his disciples, “Take up your cross daily and follow me”. This command to remain in a constant state of discipleship is yet another example of Christ’s desire that we, as followers of his Way are expected to produce fruit that may be deemed worthy of the gardener’s nurturing love, and the vineyard owner’s patience. Jesus has convinced God that we do not need to be cut down…yet.
And, Christ’s resurrection has secured for humanity the ultimate expression of God’s willingness to be patient with God’s disobedient children. We are saved by God’s grace, through our faith in Jesus; all the more reason to practice the lifelong repentance that Jesus mandates. Out of our thanksgiving for God’s grace we ought to take to heart this need to adopt a changing of the mind, a willingness to live lives that constantly strive to produce “good fruit”; aware that Jesus, the gardener will continue to nurture us in our growth.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God, help us to recognize our need for repentance; to fully change the way we think and act. Guide us as we come to better understand that it is your will that we seek to live as people of servanthood to our neighbors. Remind us that you remain patient with us, your stubborn children. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who nurtures us, tends to us, and who desires only that we grow and flourish. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.