March 3, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“[The vinedresser] answered [the owner], ‘Sir, let [the tree] alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Today and the next two Sundays, you will hear Jesus tell parables. These stories will speak to His identity and His work. They will reveal who Jesus is and the purpose for His presence among the people of Israel. These parables of Jesus will convey three major messages: repentance, reconciliation, and retribution.
Today’s parable is a call to repentance. Jesus tells it after He was confronted with an incident that took place during His lifetime. Jesus had spoken of the people’s inability to recognize the signs being done among them, so that they would understand the time they were living in. He says: “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” So some in the crowd give Jesus something to interpret: “There were some present at that very time who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.”
So Jesus interprets this event. He addresses this incident, as well as another one: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Note what Jesus does in explaining these events. First, He dispels an incorrect understanding about them. The death of the Galileans and the people in Siloam cannot be attributed as the wrath of God being poured out on some grave sin that they had committed. But then Jesus does something remarkable: He uses the two tragedies as examples to call people to repentance. Note well the statement that Jesus says twice to the crowds: “but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Just what is Jesus doing? How could He dare say such a thing? Jesus points out that the deaths of the Galileans and the residents of Siloam were terrible. But a worse fate exists: there is a perishing that is more severe, a destruction that is eternal. This will be the fate of all those who do not repent, who do not turn from wickedness to righteousness.
To make His point even more clear, Jesus tells the parable about the fruitless fig tree: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’” Here the fate that Jesus talks about is put into picturesque language. For the fruitless fig tree, being cut down is to perish. It would be hacked by axes and dragged to the burn pile. There would be no life in it at all.
The problem with the fig tree is its lack of fruit. It is meant to bear fruit. That’s why it’s in the owner’s vineyard, why the owner planted it. But if the fig tree won’t bear figs, then it’s worthless. It’s doomed to be cut down. Jesus’ words put the situation into stark plainness. They are directed to the people of Israel whom the Lord had planted. They are especially meant for those who won’t abide by the Covenant that the Lord had made with them. As the Covenant People, the Israelites had an expected way of life that the Lord had called them to. If they would not live it, then they had become worthless to Him.
But Jesus’ parable also discloses something that was happening among the Israelites: “And [the vinedresser] answered [the owner], ‘Sir, let [the tree] alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” The fig tree has a reprieve. The vinedresser wants another go, another attempt to make the fig tree bear fruit. He has a plan: “I will make the effort to help the tree. I know what can turn it into a productive asset for the owner. Given the chance, there is hope for this fig tree.”
Jesus’ words about the vinedresser reveal His identity and work. He is the vinedresser present among the people of Israel. His miracles, His teaching, His efforts are all done with the goal of bringing them to repentance, a change in mind and thought. Jesus digs around their hearts, showing them their errors, exposing how they have broken the Divine Law, and revealing the corrective actions. Jesus places the fertilizer in their souls, speaking the Good News of the kingdom of heaven, recalling all the Lord’s promises, pointing them to the Covenant that He fulfills for their benefit. This is the way to return the people to their identity, to make them fruitful trees in His Father’s vineyard.
But this effort of Jesus, the vinedresser, is not endless. There is a limit to it. Note what the vinedresser says: “If [the tree] should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” The vinedresser does not say that the fate of cutting down a fruitless tree is invalid or uncalled for. If there are no figs on the tree next year, then the axe will be laid to its root. It will be the task that the vinedresser himself will take up against the tree. He will hack down the tree and drag it off to the burn pile.
Jesus’ parable is part of His service as “a watchman to the house of Israel,” just as Ezekiel was centuries before. His parable puts in the people’s hearing the same words that the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in his injustice that he does he shall die. Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right, if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live; he shall not die.” To put this in terms of the parable: If the fig tree trusts in its place in the vineyard but does not bear fruit, it will be cut down; if the fig tree uses the ground and produces fruit, it will remain standing in the vineyard.
This call to repentance is not primarily meant for the world-at-large; it is for all those who have been given a place within the Church, the people of God’s choosing. Jesus’ parable is a call to repentance for you. You are the fig tree that He talks about. The owner, God the Father, seeks fruit from you. He desires to see the evidences of the new life that He has granted to you. He wants to see His people walk in the statutes of life that He has established. They govern the actions of your daily living. The Commandments that you learned spell out the way you are to act towards God and towards your neighbor.
But you don’t only have the owner coming looking for figs. You also have the vinedresser present, turning the soil, digging around, putting down the manure. The actions of Jesus are done, so that you would be productive. This is what happens among you. Jesus is present with His gifts. He brings the good news of what He has done for you: the death that has atoned for your sins, the resurrection that has brought you a new life. You are joined to these things. You are made a partaker and sharer of them. That’s what Jesus does for you through hearing the record of what He has done, being baptized in His name, eating the heavenly food that He provides. You have not been left alone or unattended. There is a digging and fertilizing and pruning that take place, a divine effort being done for your benefit.
But the parable asks the question: What does the owner find among you? Is the fruit present? Or is your place in the vineyard being used up without anything being brought forward? Now is the favorable time; now is the day of salvation. Now is the year when the vinedresser is working among you. This is why Jesus is working in the Church now. But the time will come when there is no more work going on. The time will come when the owner will come to his vineyard, bringing the vinedresser along, and point out the fig trees that aren’t bearing any fruit and call for the axe.
So what is to be learned from this? Jesus’ call to repentance is meant for you: “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Ezekiel’s call to repentance is meant for you: “When the righteous turns from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it. And when the wicked turns from his wickedness and does what is just and right, he shall live by this.” Paul’s call to repentance is meant for you: “Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” These warnings and exhortations are for the Church, for the Lord’s people, for you. They point out the ways of injustice, unrighteousness, and wickedness—the ways that the Commandments speak against. Fruitlessness, injustice, and desiring of evil are not to be found among the Lord’s people. They are to be pruned, cut out, and removed from you during this time of grace.
But that is what Jesus’ work done among you accomplishes. Jesus’ promises attached to His work are spoken to you: “I have baptized you; you are regenerated. I have absolved you; your guilt is removed. I have fed you the bread of life; you live because of Me.” And so you hear the blessings spoken when receiving baptism, absolution, and meal: “The almighty God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given you the new birth of water and of the Spirit and has forgiven you all your sins, strengthen you with His grace to life everlasting…. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it…. The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you in body and soul to life everlasting.”
Through these things, Jesus gives you what you need to be fruitful trees in His Father’s vineyard. They deliver to you what Jesus has earned by fulfilling the Covenant for you, doing what you could not accomplish. Now is the year when Jesus is working among you; now is the time to receive His benefits. Participating in these means of grace will make you be what the Father intended when He called you to be His own people. In them is the life that the Spirit bestows, the life that makes you fruitful. May that fruitfulness be found in this place, this part of the Lord’s vineyard where He has planted you.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.