Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 24, 2019 (Luke 13:1-9) – “Christ the Vinedresser”

“The Vine Dresser and the Fig Tree (Le vigneron et le figuier)” (1886-1894), by James Tissot (1836-1902). The Brooklyn Museum.

This sermon was originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia, for the Circuit 9B Pastors’ Winkel on March 21, 2019, in preparation for its delivery on March 24, 2019.


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Terrible things seem to be a frequent fixture in the news of late, don’t they?  It seems like some new horrible thing happens somewhere around the globe every day.  Just this past week we had the Ethiopian Airlines crash of a Boeing 737 Max-8 that killed 157, rockets shot into Israel from Gaza and retaliation by the Israelis, terrible and historic flooding throughout the states of Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri that has displaced thousands and killed three, and the terrible attack on the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left 50 people dead.  Three weeks ago, Fulani herdsmen attacked the village of Karamar in Kajuru, Nigeria, setting a church and several houses on fire and killing 32 people. In early February, 40 Indian troops were killed in a suicide bombing in Kashmir, increasing tensions between India and Pakistan.  In January, Abu Sayyaf terrorists bombed the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at Jolo in the Philippines, killing 20 and wounding 102.  And so far this year, 301 people have been shot in the city of Chicago alone. The list goes on, and I know that I am not including everything that has happened.  Certainly I am not including smaller tragedies, like accidental deaths and injuries, illnesses, and tragedies that are the result of crimes.  I’m not sure I could. Living in a world of 7.7 billion people, there are countless tragic things that happen every day that lead us to ask the questions “why did x happen?” and “how did x happen?”  More often the question is “why would God allow this to happen?”  And sometimes, we ask, “was what happened deserved?”

But calamity is nothing new, and this is where we get to our reading this morning from the Gospel of Luke.  Jesus has just finished teaching the crowd about how they should live in light of the coming kingdom of God, when some of the people present tell him about an atrocity committed by Pontius Pilate against a group of Galileans who had come to Jerusalem to make sacrifices.  Pilate had apparently killed them on their altars, and their blood mingled with that of their sacrifices. It seems these folks in the crowd believed that the Galileans must have done something really bad in order to get Pilate to do this to them— or rather for God to let it happen to them—, and wanted to hear from Jesus as to what it was and how they could avoid something similar.  Maybe they wanted to hear Jesus rail about how unjust Pilate was. After all, some people expected Jesus to be a political Messiah who would kick out the Romans. Perhaps the questions “why?” and “how?” underlay their bringing this incident to Jesus’ attention. But whatever the reason, it seems that they expected some sort of answer from Jesus, but not the one he gave them.

“The Tower of Siloam (Le tour de Siloë)” (1886-1896), by James Tissot (1836-1902). The Brooklyn Museum.

For Jesus, the specific reason for what happened to the Galileans doesn’t matter.  What happened to them was bad. So was what happened to the people crushed by the tower of Siloam.  But in both cases, no one deserved what had happened to them.  No one’s specific sin caused these terrible things.  Instead, Jesus challenges his hearers to look at themselves instead of asking “why” something happened or seeking to assign blame for the cause of a tragedy.  Jesus challenges them to repent, or else they will “likewise perish.” The response to tragedy should be repentance, not on the part of the victims, but on the part of everyone.  That’s what Jesus had been preaching.  Like John before him, Jesus had been “proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14-15, ESV).  Such calamities, says Jesus, are signs of the times, and they indicate that God’s judgment will be meted out against all people.  Therefore repent before it is too late and you perish forever, not dying bodily as the result of a homicide or being crushed by a falling building, but for all eternity, with no hope of restoration.

That’s an odd thought for us to have nowadays, that we all should “repent lest we perish” because we really like to assign blame when things go wrong.  When something bad happens, we immediately begin by pointing fingers to determine who it was who “sinned” to bring the catastrophe about. For example, when a mass-shooting happens, we all collectively blame the gunman, but we also blame the people who allowed him to get his hands on his weapons, or we blame the people we think ideologically influenced him, or even the people who made the weapons he used.  Or we blame law enforcement and even the government for not preventing him from carrying out his aims. And sometimes we even blame the people who were harmed or killed for not doing enough to protect themselves. “If they had or hadn’t done x, y, and z, then this never would have happened!”  Or when a natural disaster occurs, we may try to blame it on climate change and the people who we think, through their actions or legislation, are exacerbating it. Or we may blame our response on fearmongering (“Climate change isn’t real!”).  We expect all those people to repent of their actions (or inaction) in light of a catastrophe, but our response is rarely to think of our own need for repentance in our lives.  We look at the large sins committed by and against others, but we ignore the little sins we commit every day, perhaps sometimes thinking like the Pharisee in the parable, “thank God I’m not a sinner like those people!”  We ignore the unkind attitudes we have toward our neighbors. We ignore the words we say that hurt others. We ignore the unclean thoughts we have about others. We overlook our lack of charity. We overlook our own ingratitude.  We overlook our sins in things done and things left undone.

When something terrible happens, we focus on the event and the actors, but we never think that our attitude in light of its happening should be one of repentance.  We never see how we, poor sinners that we are, really deserve the same fate— or that is to say, those who are victims of such calamities deserve what happens to them no more than we do. We, being sinners, deserve the same such reward.  Death is the wages of sin, and it could come for us at any moment. The same goes for the Last Day— we do not know when it will come. Thus Jesus’ warning is all the more important. When one perishes— ἀπολεῖσθε in the Greek— one doesn’t just die; one dies utterly.  There is no time to repent. Seeing the evils that happen in the world, we should not be assigning blame or thinking that the victims of evil somehow deserved it more than we do.  We should not ignore our own sinfulness which merits nothing less than the ills that others receive. Rather, we ought to be saying, “Lord, have mercy on me, a poor sinful being!”, because these disasters are the wages of sin writ large.

Azulejos depicting the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree in Cloister of Mosteiro de Santa Cruz, Coimbra. Photo by Joseolgon, Wikimedia Commons.

But Jesus doesn’t leave it there, as if he wants only his hearers in Luke (and us) to say that we’re sorry and hope that God will forgive us.  He follows up his injunction to repentance with the parable of the fig tree. In this parable, we see a fig tree, a relatively valuable tree that even had legal protection in ancient Judaea, planted on a piece of good soil in a vineyard.  However, this fig has been a poor fig, not producing any fruit or showing evidence of its production. The owner of the vineyard wants to remove it from the vineyard— he planted it, he can cut it down— and for three years it hasn’t produced any fruit at all.  What good is it taking up fertile soil that can be used to grow other things? It has not lived up to its “figgy-ness.”

But the vinedresser, who tends the vineyard, has a suggestion.  “Master, leave it also this year, until I will dig around it and put down fertilizer, and if it may make fruit in the coming year, all the better; and if indeed not, you shall cut it out” (Luke 13:8-9).  We shouldn’t read this as if the vinedresser and the vineyard owner are at odds. Both agree that if the tree doesn’t produce, then it’s into the woodchipper. But the vinedresser wishes to work on it, to fertilize it and add new soil, and to ultimately bring fruit out of the tree.  He doesn’t give up on it. He works tirelessly to bring it into fruiting condition so that it might be spared and continue to have pride of place in the vineyard.

An etching by Jan Luyken illustrating Luke 13:6-9 in the Bowyer Bible, Bolton, England.

Of course, the vinedresser in the parable is Jesus and the vineyard owner is God the Father.  Like the vinedresser, Jesus didn’t give up on those who heard him in the crowd that day and repented, those listening members of the fig tree of Israel, and he doesn’t give up on us, his children, either.  We are his, after all, because he claimed us, cleansed us in the waters of baptism, and grafted us onto his vine. Because we are his, he won’t cut us out of his vineyard when we trust in him. When judgment comes, he will save us.  When we see the terrible ways of the world; when we receive the wake-up call to see the power of sin in our lives and the lives of others, we can rest assured in Christ’s promise to us that we will not perish utterly and forever when we call on him.  He will help us to live lives that bear fruits in keeping with repentance.  He does this by watering us in baptism and in feeding us with his body and blood.  He sends the Holy Spirit, our helper, to cultivate us and teach us to shun those sins in our lives large and small and to turn to Christ and his promises when sin, death, and the devil attack us.  When we call on him in faith, he is merciful to us and will help us to live as his children, both now and for all eternity. He can help us to repent of our own shortcomings, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to act and speak rightly towards them, and to remember whose we are and be grateful for it.

Detail, “Parable of the Fig Tree” (1430). Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague.

So when calamity strikes in this world— violence, terror, flood, and famine—, don’t seek to assign blame for it, but turn to Christ and trust in him, knowing that though you and I are unworthy members of a sinful generation, Christ loves us anyway and has shown us mercy so that we might have everlasting life.  Though sin can destroy the body, it cannot destroy the soul that trusts in him. He has not abandoned you to be cut out of the vineyard, but is mercifully tending you and bringing you to bear fruits in keeping with repentance, helping you to leave behind those sins that mark your life and to live in his care eternally.  Indeed, we can sing with the 17th Century hymn-writer, Haquin Spegel, in his hymn, “The Death of Jesus Christ, Our Lord”:

“Oh, blest is each believing guest
Who in this promise finds His rest;
For Jesus will in love abide
With those who do in Him confide.”

Amen!