Tag Archives: fig tree

Divine Mercy is the Last Word [OR Give Up on Divine Punishment Already] – Luke 13:1-9

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 28, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

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. 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.’ ”

[sermon begins]

My husband worked many different jobs as a kid up through his years as a college student.  In our house we have a digital clock that he bought with paper route money in middle school.  Whether or not to keep the clock is a topic of conversation that bubbles up every few years.  You can see by its presence how those conversations go.  Some of Rob’s jobs lasted longer than others depending on his age and the season of the year.  Tales from his summers of hot tar roofing come up every so often.  And, for a period of weeks, he pruned apple trees.  Pretty consistently in the apple orchards there were apple trees. Just like in vineyards there are pretty consistently grape vines.  Apple trees make apple orchards and grapes make vineyards.  See how that works?

Yet today, in the Bible verses about the vineyard, there is a fig tree.  Maybe not the most understandable move for a vineyard owner.  Fig trees take a fair amount of the surrounding water, they create shade over the vines, and they grow fruit that attract birds who wouldn’t discriminate between eating tasty figs and eating tasty grapes.[1]   He made the unusual move to plant the tree so he can also do whatever he wants to it.  It’s not bearing fruit?  That seems like a good enough reason to get rid of it.  The order is given to the gardener, “Cut it down!”  This comes as no surprise in the book of Luke.  In Luke, the third chapter, John the Baptist gave a speech to the crowds who lined up at the Jordan River.[2]  The crowds came for the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  John the Baptist hollered at the crowds to bear fruit worthy of repentance.  He also warned them that the trees that didn’t bear fruit would be cut down.

Note this carefully in the reading today: No tree is cut down in the vineyard.  Why not?  There’s a gardener.  A thinking gardener.  This gardener wants to put some manure on the tree and give it some time to bear fruit.  In verse 8, the gardener says, “Sir, let it alone…”  In Greek, the word translated “let it alone” can also be translated “forgive.” [3]  The Greek form of the word is the same here in verse 8 as it is when Jesus says the words from the cross in Luke: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”[4]  Let it alone.  Forgive.  This is language of urgent grace.  Of grace that is as expansive as it is urgent and timely.

Time is something that ran out for the people in the first part of the Bible reading.  There’s a gory murder of Gentiles by Pilate and there are the people crushed by the tower of Siloam.  Jesus tells the crowds that the peoples’ sin did NOT cause their deaths.  Divine punishment is not the explanation for the tragedies.  And, in reverse, this also means that there’s no assurance that staying on the right side of God means safety in an unpredictable world.  From those tragic deaths, Jesus leads into the parable of the fruitless fig tree and the impatient vineyard owner.

One historical reading of this parable makes God the vineyard owner and Jesus the gardener.  The problem with this reading is that it sets up God as angry and malicious which, David Lose argues, is not consistent with Luke.[5] In Luke, Jesus describes God as a father who runs with robes flying toward his prodigal son who finally comes home.[6]  And, alternately, Jesus describes God as the woman who searches high and low for a lost coin, rejoicing when it is found.[7]  God and Jesus are not pitted against each other in Luke so why would we read the parable of the fig tree that way?

David Lose suggests an alternate reading.  Still allegory but this one more consistent with Luke.  In this reading, God is the gardener.  The vineyard owner represents the crowds listening to Jesus.  The crowds think people get what they deserve – good or bad.  This is the same crowd thinking that the people who died tragically somehow got what they deserved because of their sin.  In crowd logic, it follows that people get the good that they deserve too.  Jesus is saying something quite different than people get what they deserve – either bad or good.

Jesus asks the crowd two questions beginning with “Do you think that…?”   He asks them if they think the Gentiles deserved their murders.  He asks them whether they think the people crushed under the fallen tower deserved their deaths.  He answers his own question by saying to them, “No, I tell you.”   In the parable of the fig tree, the assumption is that the fig tree is on a time table to bear its fruit and show its value. The gardener asks the vineyard owner for some time to do some tending to see what might grow.

Time is something that seems in short supply.  A canceled appointment can be a gift of time.  Somebody showing up unexpectedly can be a gift of time filled.  Time opening up differently than we thought can be gift.  In the parable, the gardener is opening up time against the threat of a tree getting cut down.  No tree gets cut down in today’s parable.  In fact, the gardener is clear that he won’t be cutting any trees down.  He gives the job back to the vineyard owner.  The owner will be the one cutting, not the gardener.

Some of us are reading a book during Lent about the Lord’s Prayer.[8]  A couple weeks ago we focused on the part of the Lord’s Prayer in which we ask God that, “Thy kingdom come.”  We can so easily make this kingdom about God’s vengeance.  About God’s kingdom coming to cut down the people who deserve to be cut down.  But that interpretation does an injustice to the parable of the fig tree.  It also does little by way of Jesus’ death on a cross.

We pray, “Thy kingdom come…”  This petition includes a kingdom where God dies on a cross rather than lifting a hand in violence against anyone.  A kingdom where the response to sin is mercy not punishment.  A kingdom on earth in which we will die but we will perish as people knowing that mercy exists even now, today.  A kingdom led by God who calls us to repentance and into life.  That IS the kingdom that is here and that is coming.  A kingdom proclaimed from a cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  A kingdom where God’s last word is mercy.

 

[1] James Richardson. “Fig Trees in the Vineyards?” March 3, 2013 on Fiat Lux.  http://spmcrector.blogspot.com/2013/03/fig-trees-in-vineyards.html

[2] Luke 3:1-9

[3] Luke 13: 8 ἄφες Aorist Imperative Active, 2nd Person Singular http://biblehub.com/interlinear/study/luke/13.htm

Luke 23:34 ἄφες Aorist Imperative Active, 2nd Person Singular http://biblehub.com/interlinear/study/luke/23.htm

[4] John Petty. Commentary on Luke 13:1-9 for Lent 3, February 22, 2016. http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2016/02/lent-3-luke-13-1-9.html

[5] David Lose. Commentary on Luke 13:1-9, February 22, 2016 for “…in the Meantime.” http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/lent-3-c-suffering-the-cross-and-the-promise-of-love/

[6] Luke 15:11-32

[7] Luke 15:8-10

[8] Henry F. French. Book of Faith: 40 Days with the Lord’s Prayer.  (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2009).

John 1:43-51 “Can Anything Good Come Out of Lutheran Church of the Master?”

John 1:43-51 “Can Anything Good Come Out of Lutheran Church of the Master?”

January 15, 2012

Lutheran Church of the Master, Lakewood, CO

 

John 1:43-51 – The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

 

From time-to-time I go through the ritual of giving up coffee for awhile.  Maybe just to see if I can.  Maybe because I like it with fake sugar and half-and-half, neither of which are all that good for me.  Maybe it’s so I can live piously alongside those green tea zealots.  Or maybe a little of all of that and more.  Regardless, I’m in tea mode.  This means that I get to read poetry on the sides of my boxes of tea and receive wise counsel from the little tags that hang from the tea bag’s string.  About a week ago there was one such tea bag tag that hung in my mind for awhile.  This particular tea bag tag spoke a 19th century Chinese proverb also credited to Maya Angelou.

“A bird does not sing because it has an answer, a bird sings because it has a song.”

And “What,” I hear you thinking, “does this tea-frothed bit of pop philosophy have to do with Philip, Nathaniel and Jesus?”  Fabulous question!  Let’s recap…

Jesus finds Philip – note that please – Jesus finds Philip.  Philip then finds Nathaniel and makes a big speech about finding Jesus.  Who found whom here?  And then, after Philip says he found Jesus, he launches into Jesus’ family tree – first from the way, way back into Moses-and-the-law-and-the-prophets part and then the more recent son-of-Joseph-from-Nazareth part.  Philip has the details.  After being found by Jesus, he makes known who Jesus is.  He’s laying out Jesus’ street cred to Nathaniel.  Now here’s where it gets interesting.  And here’s where I’d like us to spend some time.  Nathaniel says to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  How snarky is that?  Philip is pumped up, super-excited and gets shot down by his buddy.  He has a song to sing about Jesus, he sings it, only to receive a snorting, derisive laugh from his unbelieving friend.

Think for a second about what you’re natural inclination is when that kind of thing happens to you – when you receive a snorting, derisive laugh from an unbelieving friend.

Maybe you go quiet, stunned that you’re unable to communicate this huge thing in a convincing way.

Maybe you get angry, shocked that your ideas and your excitement are so easily dismissed by a friend.

Maybe you get legal, spurned into creating an air-tight argument that builds the logical case for faith.  Your song gets shut down and you either shut-down or rev up the debate machine.

Personally, I’ve tried them all.  All of those responses have bubbled up without a lot of thought or clarity when someone goes snarky on who I think Jesus is.  I’ve gone quiet. I’ve gone angry and I’ve gone legal.  About eight years ago I handed out the book “Case for Faith” by Lee Strobel to a longtime friend.  She handed it back to me and said something like, “Well he argues out of the Bible and so you have to believe the Bible to believe his argument.”  In essence, she said to me, “Can anything good come out of the Bible?”

There is a YouTube video gone viral this past week called “Why I hate Religion but Love Jesus.”[1]   In his video, this young man is singing a song about Jesus while railing against his experience of the church.  In essence he is asking, “Can anything good come out of the church?”

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

“Can anything good come out of the Bible?”

“Can anything good come out of the Church?”

It is my guess that many of us have taken our turns at being both Philip and Nathaniel.  We have tried to sing a song of Jesus, or quietly hummed one, and we have also tried to discredit someone’s faith-filled singing telegram filled with love for Jesus.

Let’s look at Philip again.  What is his response to Nathaniel?  Does he go quiet?  No.  Does he get angry?  No.  Does he argue?  No.  What does he do?  He invites…“Come and See.”

So Nathaniel troops off to meet Jesus.  And what does he do after his encounter with Jesus?  He sings his own song about Him.  Nathaniel says, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”  From snarky unbelief to singing faithfulness, Jesus is the one who has seen it all and Jesus is the one who turns it all.  He turned it for Philip and then he turned it for Nathaniel.

The text isn’t entirely clear on when Nathaniel was under the fig tree or if anyone was with him.  I imagine him standing there under the fig tree with Philip while he proclaims his unbelief over and against Philip’s confessional song of Jesus and I can hear Philip’s call of, “Come and see,” to Nathaniel.  So then Jesus would have heard both the honesty of Nathaniel’s unbelief and the honesty of his confessional song.  This is a different slant on what it means to confess.  In the church we use the word a couple of ways.  Mostly we think of confession and forgiveness.  That there is something I need to come clean about so I confess to it, I fess up, I admit my wrongdoing.

Philip and Nathaniel’s confession is of a different sort.  They are making a declaration, making something known.  They are confessing who they think Jesus to be – much like we do when we confess the Apostle’s Creed together.  If the confessional songs of our ancestors in the faith hinge on meeting Jesus then what does meeting Jesus look like today.

In this season of Epiphany, we have this symbol of a star over our heads to remind us that Jesus Christ is revealed to those we think the least likely to succeed on Christ’s mission – peasant parents, suspect shepherds and milling magi.  It’s not so different today really.  While Christ promises to reveal himself in the waters of baptism, in bread and wine of the communion table and in the words of scripture, Christ also promises to reveal himself in the least likely to succeed on Christ’s mission – us.  See these ribbons pointing out over us?

Can anything good come out of Lutheran Church of the Master?

Can anything good come from us people whose snarky unbelief can sometimes seem to claim the day?  And to us Jesus says, “I have seen you when you were standing away from me under the fig tree in your unbelief just as I hear you confessing me now as Lord.”

And Jesus continues, “I see what you don’t do and what you do that hurts people.  I see the pain you inflict on your brothers and sisters in Christ and to other children of God by not giving, not forgiving, not helping, not loving.  I see your unbelief and I pour myself through it.”  In the last verse of the reading today Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”  In this he refers to himself on the cross as the redeemer of us – the ones who are least likely to succeed.

And Jesus also promises to send us with the power of his Spirit, working through us, revealing Himself through the active care of others.   So as we confess, as we declare, Jesus in word and action, led by the Spirit, Jesus says, “Yes, I have seen you under the fig tree but I also see you organizing canned food drives in your neighborhoods, sending teenagers and brave adult chaperones to New Orleans, tutoring the children at the elementary school, taking communion to the sick and hurting, praying for those who need help, building homes for the homeless, donating money and time and action to those who need it, walking toward the communion table together in your need for Jesus.”

By the power of the Holy Spirit, it is Christ in you who frees you into these things – these ministries that stretch you beyond your own self-interest into being the hands of Christ for each other and for the world.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, it is Christ in you who strengthens you to serve people in God’s name.

And, by the power of the Holy Spirit, it is Christ who inspires your confessional song of Jesus.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, may your song of Jesus be revealed to you by the One who came under a star to live in skin and solidarity with us!



[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IAhDGYlpqY