USING UP THE GROUND
3rd Sunday in Lent – C LSB #693
Text – Luke 13:7
And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, & I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’
USING UP THE GROUND
The debates, the primaries & caucuses, the political advertising, the mudslinging, the boasting about who has the most experience, or who can really get things done, it’s the time in our nation’s political cycle when democracy is in high gear. Each side blames the other side for being political & yet it’s impossible to imagine that any one of them is totally honest.
Politics is the perfect reflection of a sinful world, & because of the corruption inherent in the realm of politics, it makes a perfect target for one of Jesus’ parables. That’s where we are today with the Gospel reading, & our ears need to hear Jesus’ words as well. St. Luke writes:
“There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” Just hearing that verse read, it’s easy to miss because we are totally unfamiliar with the times. After all, it was written almost 2000 years ago, but that Bible verse relates an extremely political point of view.
The people talking to Jesus were no doubt looking for Him to make Israel great again. That point of view comes up over & over, throughout Jesus’ ministry, even to the very moment when He is ascending to heaven. We hear that clearly in Acts 1:6, “So when they had come together, they asked Him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’” (ESV)
All along, throughout His ministry, the people of Israel, & the 12 disciples, are looking for Jesus to restore the glorious days of the kingdom of David. They want the Roman government overthrown & political power restored to their party. They think Jesus is their man, so they bring to Him this complaint: “There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” (Luke 13:1 ESV) They expect a sympathetic response from Jesus once He hears about this incident of Roman brutality. Jewish blood was shed. It’s high time for the Romans to pay a price. “How long, O Lord! Hear the cries of Thy people.”
Think of how many political points Jesus could have scored if He had just denounced those heathen Romans. Jesus’ reply shows He’s clearly not running for president: “He answered them, ‘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.’”
That’s the equivalent of Donald Trump saying, “I’ve heard of all the horrible things Hillary Clinton did in Benghazi, but she’s no worse a sinner than the rest of you. So unless you repent, you too will perish.”
Then, not only did Jesus not allow Himself to be drawn into the political fray, He doubled down on His call for the Jewish people to repent by adding this: “Or those 18 on whom the tower in Siloam fell & 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.”
No one running for president today has the courage to tell his followers to repent before they get all worked up about denouncing the other political party. Jesus did, because He wasn’t concerned with politics. He was concerned with His mission, which was not to run for office but to die for the sins of the whole world.
Jesus’ mission was about saving souls, not about saving a country. Now, there’s nothing wrong with trying to lead our nation back to greatness, if that is a blessing that our heavenly Father knows we need. But 1st of all, the people of our nation must acknowledge where that greatness comes from, if it is achieved. An earlier people had a total misconception concerning where greatness comes from & were scattered over the face of all the earth because of it. Hear their words, “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city & a tower with its top in the heavens, & let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4 ESV) It’s a famous event in the Bible because the people did not repent.
Another people, several thousand years later, had their story recorded as such:
“Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, & 23,000 fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did & were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did & were destroyed by the Destroyer.”
To those words, the Apostle Paul drew this conclusion: “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. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”
That last sentence brings to mind a poster hanging on the wall in the gymnasium where I run during these cold months of the year. It says, “Be humble, or be humbled!”
When questioned about victims of violence, Jesus calls all people to repentance & through a parable of the fig tree, proclaims His radical love for a fruitless people. In our world today, we have our own questions about violence. What about the people who died in Kalamazoo last weekend? Or those who died in Kansas this past week?
Some politicians scream loudly for more gun control. Other politicians say that all of us ‘good citizens’ should have guns so we can protect ourselves, & the people around us. I think if we apply the Gospel reading for today, it’s very clear what Jesus’ answer would be. Those politicians had better repent of their own sins, or they will all likewise perish. For Jesus, all tragedies should be seen not as a sign of God’s judgment on specific people for specific sins, but as a sign of His judgment of all people. Jesus calls not for speculation, or for political posturing, but for contrition & faith. The courage Jesus displays, to call out the religious & political leaders, gives us insight into why He was rejected, & killed, by His own people.
People who fight for a just cause often assume that the struggle for that cause makes them righteous. This assumption of righteousness at times expresses itself as an arrogance which refuses any criticism. Such attitudes always lead to destruction, for themselves & others, if they do not repent. To those leaders, out of deep concern for their welfare, Jesus then tells a parable.
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, & he came seeking fruit on it & found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, & I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it & put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well & good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
The owner of the vineyard is the voice of justice. The tree has clearly borne no fruit, but not only that, it is also using up the ground by which the fruitful plants are being deprived of their full ability to bear fruit. It is time. Cut it down.
Then we hear the vinedresser speak, who is the voice of mercy, “Sir, let is alone this year also, until I dig around it & put on manure.” If the fig tree represents the scribes & the chief priests, then it appears that Jesus is doing some ‘trash talking.’ They need a little manure spread around them. The original audience no doubt found the imagery to be humorous.
With that detail the sparkle & vitality of the parable appears along with its unmistakable cutting edge. Judgment requires that the tree be dug out for the stated reasons. Mercy pleads for more grace & a 2nd chance. That same tension between justice & mercy is reflected all through the OT, as heard in the reading from Ezekiel 33 this morning:
“And you, son of man, say to your people, ‘Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely
live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness & does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in his injustice that he has done he shall die.’ Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin & does what is just & right, if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, & walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live; he shall not die.” (vv. 12a, 13-15 ESV)
In this parable mercy & judgment are personified dramatically by the owner & the vinedresser who struggle together over the unfruitful tree. That tension itself is deep within the heart of God. Would that such tension existed in the hearts of our nation’s leaders & politicians. The meaning of the parable is clear.
After God’s works of mercy are completed & sufficient time for renewal is given, the tree must respond. If it does not, judgment will be only option left. The health of the vineyard, which is the Church, is too important & the Master’s expectation of fruit is too strong, to leave an unproductive tree indefinitely occupying good ground & sapping its strength.
Even so, the salvation offered has a special quality to it. It does not come from inside the tree, but outside, exclusively. The vinedresser works the ground & applies the manure with no help or effort or request from the tree. The vinedresser must act to save the tree & at the same time the tree must respond to those acts of salvation.
As is other parables, nothing is written of the results. This lesson is open-ended. Does the owner grant the reprieve? Does the tree respond? We’re not told. The moral of the story is this: The present spiritual leadership of the nation is fruitless. Judgment threatens. God in His mercy will act to redeem. If there is no response, judgment will be the only alternative.
When leadership is fruitless, it not only fails in its own obedience, but sterilizes the community around it. God does care for the community & will not tolerate this situation indefinitely. In the 1st half of today’s Gospel reading, the people are called on to repent. The 2nd half deals with the barrenness in the community that results from the failures of the national leaders, who need forgiveness & mercy. In each, politics & repentance are related in ways that instruct the faithful in every age. It is here in God’s house that suffering children of the heavenly Father meet the suffering Christ.
It is here in God’s house that His Word & Sacraments forgive, renew & lead us, so that we may delight in our Savior’s will & walk in His ways to the glory of His holy name. Together, as His people, we take refuge in the infinite mercy of God, our heavenly Father, seeking His grace for the sake of Christ, & saying: God be merciful to me, a sinner.
It’s easy to get lost in arguments about God when faced with situations of suffering & violence in the world. Rather than answer with an explanation of God’s ways, we live with a testimony of our hope in Christ.
Through His parable, Jesus invites people to see the actions of God in Him in the midst of a world filled with fruitless evil & suffering. When faced with evil & judgment, Jesus responds with hopeful love. Rather than get lost in arguments with the world, we find ourselves living Christ’s testimony of hopeful love. Amen.
Help us that we Thy saving Word in faithful hearts may treasure; let e’er that Bread of Life afford new grace in richest measure. O make us die to every sin, each day create new life within, that fruits of faith may flourish. And when our earthly race is run, death’s bitter hour impending, then may Thy work in us begun continue till life’s ending, until we gladly may commend our souls into our Savior’s hand, the crown of life obtaining. Amen.
 1 Corinthians 10:5 ESV
 1 Corinthians 10:8-10 ESV
 1 Corinthians 10:11-12
 Bailey, K., Through Peasant Eyes, (Grand Rapids, MI, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), pp. 83-87.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet