Lost And Found, Repented And Renewed
Some came to Jesus at that very time who told him about Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the sacrifices. Jesus answered them, “Do you think that those Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered thus? I tell you, No! But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those 18 upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed—do you think they were worse debtors than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No! But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Then Jesus told them this parable:
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came seeking fruit on it and found none. He said to the vinedresser, ‘Behold! For 3 years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and I find none. Dig it out! Why should it exhaust the ground?’
Answering, the vinedresser said, ‘Sir, leave it alone another year. I will dig around it and spread on manure. And if it bears fruit in the future…. And if not, dig it out.’”
Thanks be to God for His holy Word.
In the fall of 1940, my cousin, John Bone, was an officer in Great Britain’s Civil Defense. John lived most of his life in the small city of Leicester, located in the heart of England’s manufacturing district, near the cities of Manchester, Birmingham, and Coventry. My cousin John spent most of his career in a factory that made parts for sock-knitting machines. But during the war, those factories were retooled for military and defense purposes.
In the fall of 1940, England was all alone at war with Nazi Germany. The other Allied nations were occupied, and England expected Germany to invade their island any day. Each night, German bombers headed right for the industrial district, hoping to soften the resolve of the British people and weaken British resources for mounting a defense. So in the fall of 1940, my cousin went out with a small crew of men and women, and they built “fake” factories in the country-side; built these factories out of cardboard and plywood, strung up an array of electric lights around these places and hoped the Germans would drop their bombs on the fake factories and not on the real cities.
On the morning of November 15, my cousin John drove his car over a small hill overlooking the city of Coventry and was horrified by what he saw. The city of Coventry looked the way that Jesus described the coming destruction of Jerusalem—not one stone stood on top of another. Smoke and ruins was all that was left of the city. It was the greatest loss of civilian lives during the war. Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Propaganda Chief, began talking about later successful German bombing raids using the phrase, “We Coventried them.”
30 years later, I lived with my cousin John and his wife while attending Oxford University for a year. John was still haunted by that November morning, and he carried guilt because his efforts at defense and deception had failed. “It’s my fault,” he said often. Followed by, “Why does God let the innocent suffer so?”
That is the question on the lips of those who approach Jesus in the Scripture we read this morning. Jesus is a Galilean, and as he makes his way to Jerusalem—teaching, preaching, and healing as he goes—some people ask Jesus about an atrocity that was sanctioned by Pilate not long ago. Some radicals from Galilee had gone to Jerusalem to protest the Roman occupation. Perhaps they had killed a Roman soldier or official. Pilate issued orders for their arrest, and they ran to the Temple grounds seeking sanctuary. But Pilate gave his permission to apprehend—dead or alive—these Galileans, and their blood was shed on the same ground where Jewish animal sacrifices were made, thus offending God and human beings.
One atrocity story deserves another, so Jesus ups the stakes. Pilate used funds that he took from the Temple treasury in order to build an aqueduct for the Roman armies. Local people were scandalized by such audacity. While under construction, a tower fell and killed 18 laborers. Judaeans thought these laborers were worse than scabs, cooperating with Pilate in what they all thought was a crime. Many believed that the tower falling was an act of God’s judgment on the whole project. But Jesus will have none of it.[i]
Jesus word on these atrocity stories does not pronounce judgment on either the oppressed or the oppressor. Instead, Jesus urges each one to consider his or her own life, his or her sin, and the need that each of us has to repent. For the truth is, that either knowingly or unconsciously, we all participate in sin. Evil is around us and in one way or another, that evil is within. Yes, God has created us good and very good—created us for good. But the good we want is not always what we do. Paul’s confessions rings true in each and every ear: “It is the evil I do not want that I do.”
There have always been atrocities. Our age is no different, except word of these atrocities gets to us more quickly and more broadly than in any other era. Did you hear about the 11 who were killed while worshiping in their synagogue in Pittsburgh? Did you hear about the 50 people killed in their mosque in Christ Church, New Zealand? Or the 19 Christians killed in their church in Nigeria? Did you hear how Archbishop Romero was shot dead while holding communion bread—the body of Christ—in the church in San Salvador?
The people who brought this news of atrocity to Jesus may have been testing him, we don’t know. They may have wanted to see whether he was loyal to his fellow Galileans, whether he was a radical like them, or whether he was sympathetic to the Romans and the Temple authorities. But Jesus won’t play that game. He refuses to point a finger of blame, or to label anyone a monster, or to promise reforms of a culture and society that is clearly falling apart. Instead, Jesus does something courageous, but it cannot win him friends in either camp. He urges everyone listening to repent, and tells the entire crowd that God’s judgment stands over all of us. If you want to understand why the crowd in Jerusalem joins the chants of “Crucify” directed toward Jesus on Good Friday, this episode—this call for repentance—is a good explanation. Political enthusiasts of every stripe do not take kindly when someone suggests that they too, may be guilty of sin.
The Jesus tells a parable. Luke thinks this parable explains Jesus’ position and makes it clearer. But frankly, sometimes, when Jesus tells these stories, we are so far removed from the time and the culture that we cannot understand what Jesus is thinking. A man planted a fig tree in his vineyard. This is common agricultural practice in Palestine. Most varieties of figs bear fruit 10 months of the year. This landowner has asked his hired hand—his vinedresser—to plant this tree, but over a number of years, the tree has produced no fruit. The landowner is ready to give up, but like every gardener I’ve ever known, the vinedresser has a hard time destroying a tree that is growing. So he asks to let the tree live for one more year and see if any fruit grows.
Christians hear this parable, and we think in trinitarian terms: God is the landowner, Jesus the vinedresser, and some commentators even suggest that the Holy Spirit is the manure being spread around. But this is a gross misunderstanding of the Trinity. The dialogue that Jesus has been engaged in is about the nature of justice and mercy, sin and suffering, repentance and renewal. So too, is this parable.
The people of Israel understood that they were God’s vineyard, God’s pleasant planting. And the fig tree, which should provide fruit in almost every season, is Israel’s leadership—the priests and scribes who are supposed to serve God and the people and provide for the prosperity of all. Justice expects that leaders who provide no fruit should be dug out—removed from office. But mercy argues for forgiveness, for more time, for yet another chance. Repentance is dirty, difficult work, but the crowd listening to Jesus would have laughed at the idea of spreading manure among the priests, rabbis, and lawyers.
Jesus makes multiple points here. There is no direct relationship between sin and suffering. All have sinned and all are in need of repentance. Sin is defined as both an act of evil and duties not performed. The compassion and mercy of God in Christ reaches out to all. The lost are found and those who repent are renewed. But it is only the grace of God that renews. God’s offer of mercy must evoke a response from us, or renewal will not take place. And if the tree bears fruit in the future, Jesus says, then well and good. But if not, then dig it out.
In Coventry, they built a new Cathedral next door to the old one. They left the ruins alone. The altar still stands where it has stood for hundreds of years, though there is no roof over it anymore. And the cross is there, now burned, charred, and fragile, but still standing, a reminder that we are called even in the midst of hate to sow love; and in the midst of war, to be instruments of God’s peace. Next year, the people of Coventry will mark the 80th anniversary of this bombing. They will weep for their grandparents, cousins, and neighbors, and they will say the prayer that we prayed as our confession this morning. And they will also pray the prayer we attribute to St. Francis, and ask—not for vengeance—but that they might be made into instruments of God’s peace.
Richard Dawkins—the late biologist, scholar, and atheist—has attributed human mercy to a misfire in our genetic wiring. When we show sacrificial kindness toward people who are unrelated to us, it is a defect, and such defects are bound to become less and less frequent because the people who give their lives to save others will not be genetically replaced. His is a cruel reckoning of our world and our future. Like the people who come to Jesus and ask him to make sense of Pilate’s atrocities, the Richard Dawkins of the world ask those questions because they suspect there is no answer; there is only darkness and emptiness.
But Jesus turns his eyes upon our souls and bids us to repent. Though we are often lost in this cruel world, Jesus seeks to find us. Though we are sinners, by the grace and mercy of God, we may yet repent and be renewed, restored, and saved, in spite of ourselves.
The poet, W.H. Auden called this parable of the fig tree a Christian comedy, because it is based on the belief that all are sinners. Therefore, no one—whatever his or her rank or talents, can claim immunity from the comic exposure. We are need of the manure of grace if we are going to produce fruit. The most excellent virtue is to know that we deserve this exposure, but what we get is not ridicule—what we get instead is forgiveness.
Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy was surely a 20th century prophet. Martin Luther King, Jr. considered Rosenstock-Huessy one of his most important teachers. He counseled his students that God is not in a hurry. While Americans run around expecting instant gratification, Scripture invites us to wait upon the Lord. “The greatest temptation of our time,” he writes, “is impatience: refusal to wait, to undergo, to abide, to suffer. We seem unwilling to pay the price of living with one another in creative and profound relationships.”[ii]
It will only be a matter of days after telling this parable that Jesus will stand before Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate. They will finally all agree on one thing—this Jesus must die. He was a threat to the precarious peace of Rome and a threat to the profitable business the Sadducees were running on the Temple grounds. Jesus was exhausting the ground, using up the things they needed for their own purposes. So they killed him, thinking this would silence him and destroy the kingdom of God he was always talking about. Yet as Jesus carried his cross, he whispered a prayer: “Father, leave them alone; forgive them.” And there it is. Jesus forgives us before we even realize we need such forgiveness. “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” For it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
[i] Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke, Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1980.
[ii] Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy, Metanoia: To Think Anew, Princeton University Press, 1965.
The Scripture is translated from what is now called the Old Syriac Version, the oldest copies of which can be dated to the 2nd century, A.D.