Tag Archives: Luke 13:1-9

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).

Luke 13:1-9 “The Promise of Judgment”

Luke 13:1-9 A sermon for this 3rd Sunday in Lent, March 3, 2013

March 3, 2013 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

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.’ ”

 

Those poor, poor Galileans.  Those poor, misguided religious pilgrims who walked and prayed and sacrificed as they put one foot in front of the other to acknowledge the God of their ancestors as they put their faith into action.  We can picture the earthy, rural Galileans laughing and crying with each other, with their families, while the rest of the city moves about its business.  And, then, out of nowhere, comes Pontius Pilate. The villain extraordinaire, the ne’er-do-well to end all ne’er-do-wells – the Pharaoh to the enslaved Israelites, the Osama bin Laden to millions of people both living and dead, the shooter in Newtown to our beloved children and teachers.  We can almost hear the hiss of the crowd as Jesus mentions his name.

And what about those poor people who were flattened by the tower of Siloam?  What of them?  We can imagine the thoughts of the people listening to Jesus.  The people for whom this was a fresh event and who could probably name some of the people killed that day.   We can imagine them thinking with relief that they were not standing by that tower on that day.  We can imagine them wondering about God in the midst of that tragedy.  Their attention is drawn to the death and destruction like bees to honey as they try to answer the question, “Why?”

Jesus speaks to them with the well-known traumas of the day fresh on everyone’s minds.  The people are pulsing with fear and survivor guilt as Jesus revisits the stories.  The people are looking for a comforting word – ears tuned, necks craned toward Jesus. And what does he do?  He disappoints them.

It’s important to note that what Jesus is doing here is separating the sin of the people from the calamities that befall people.  There is no connection between the horror that Pilate inflicts and the sin of the people that he inflicts it upon.  There is no connection between the Tower of Siloam and the sin of the people in the wrong place at the wrong time when the tower falls.  Jesus disconnects the sin of the people from the calamity that befalls them and, for all intents and purposes, tells the people to stop gawking in that direction.  They aren’t going to find any good news about themselves through the misfortune of others.  Nor are they going to find a God that is against others and, therefore, for themselves.  God’s judgment is not doled out as calamities in our lives.

Jesus is separating sin from calamity but Jesus is NOT separating sin from judgment.  Judgment has simply been moved to a different place away from the punishment of calamity.  Jesus says, “…unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”  Hmmmm…“Just as they did…just as they did.”  Jesus is separating sin from punishment and, in the same breath, he is comparing the people who are dead to the people who are listening to him.  The comparison being that those who have died were unrepentant just as the people standing before him are unrepentant.  They are unable to see all the ways in they work against God and work against each other.  And until they can see this, acknowledge this work against God and each other, they are unrepentant.

Perhaps this is where the fig tree can help us out. You all know this one right?  The parable of the barren fig tree has to be in the, what, top five most favorite parables ever?  Okay, so…no, not a well-known parable.  But this parable seems to follow Jesus’ calamity stories as some kind of explanation.

The vineyard owner is angry about a tree that has not borne fruit in three years and he wants to cut it down.  The gardener stalls the owner’s anger and asks for more time for the tree.  Take note that it is not more time for the same disappointing barrenness.  This is not a stay that delays an inevitable execution.  The gardener promises to tend this tree with fertilizer, giving it the chance to bear fruit, fruit that is worthy of the repentance from which it springs.

The people to whom Jesus is speaking are called out.  They are called out as unrepentant.  In the Psalmist’s words we sang earlier, they are called out as dry.  Today, we are being called out as well, called out as dry as the barren fig tree.  Repentance begins in this moment of being called out.  A word comes from outside ourselves and reverberates with truth as it moves inside.  There is nowhere to hide from the reality in us that is being named; the reality of the ways in which we move away from and work against God and each other, the reality of our sin.

This is one of the reasons why speaking out loud the confession and forgiveness when we gather for worship feels like air to some of us.  Not by way of shaming but by way of naming, we confess and are brought together in the light of truth – the truth about ourselves, our need and our God.   Being named for who we are and what we have done is called judgment.  And as we listen to Jesus in the text today, Jesus very much connects sin and judgment.  This, of course, is totally fine when it’s someone else’s sin that gets questioned or named or judged.  It feels more than a little difficult when it’s our own.

During the Apostle’s Creed we name Jesus as the one who will come again to judge the living and the dead.  This isn’t a far off threat.  This is a promise here, in the moment of now.  We speak these words in spite of the bad rap that surrounds the notion of judgment.  Quite possibly one of the worse things to be labeled is “judgmental.”  And, yet, it is exactly judgment when God names something about us that is true, something we are in no rush to confess about ourselves.  It is God’s judgment that convicts us and draws us to the surrender of repentance.  And it is at that point where the gardener nourishes us.

This is a moment when the whole creed becomes so important.  Because then what do we say together?  We believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins…wait, wait a second now, what was that…the forgiveness of sins?!

God judges and God forgives.

God judges and God forgives in the proclamation of forgiveness.

God judges and God forgives in the waters of baptism.

God judges and God forgives in the bread and wine from Christ’s table.

God judges and God forgives in the reconciliation one to another in this body of Christ, this church.

God judges and God forgives as the one who resuscitates us and births divine love in our lives.

 

This IS the nourishment that is laid down around our dryness in the face of God’s judgment;

Nourished here, in this place, by this God so that our lives are a testament to the one who sustains us.  Nourished here, we can then bear the fruit of Christ in us, serving our neighbors – for the sake of our neighbors and for our own sake as others turn to serve us.

Nourished here, we can then sing with the Psalmist, “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. 2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.  3 Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. 4 So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. 5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips 6 when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;7 for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. 8 My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.”