Bearing Fruit - Lectionary Reflection for Lent 3C (Luke 13)

Luke 13:1-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

13 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 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? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” 
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. 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?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

    No one wishes to face judgment. I've stood before a judge a couple of times---due to speeding tickets. It wasn't an enjoyable experience. Depending on our theological perspectives we may or may not embrace the idea that God is a judge. Scripture does picture God in that way, so we can't evade the possibility of judgment. The question is, on what basis will we be judged?  Are we all sinners deserving to be sent to hell? If so, what is sin? Some would say that if we do not say yes to Jesus then we're lost. Others point to the judgment scene in Matthew 25, where the judge (Jesus?) sorts between sheep and goats on the basis of how they treat the least of these. What about grace? Forgiveness? These are all questions we raise when it comes to the message of divine judgment.  

           When it comes to the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Lent (Year C) we find ourselves in Luke 13. This reading is a two-parter. We begin with a group of people coming to Jesus to tell him about a group of Galileans whom the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate had put to death while mixing their blood with their sacrifices. This group wanted to know if they had suffered in this way because they were sinners? In fact, were they greater sinners than other Galileans? As I hear this question I think of the rationale being given by the Patriarch of Moscow concerning the war in Ukraine. Among other things, the Patriarch told his congregation in a sermon that the war was due to the rise of gay pride parades in the west. This is clearly a horrific and wrong-headed piece of bad theology, but even if the Patriarch opposes gay pride parades, how is this justification for a war that is killing thousands?  Jesus' response to their question seems rather callous. He seems to ignore the question and suggests that if they don’t repent something similar might befall them. 

          Jesus continues his message by asking them a question regarding the Tower if Siloam that fell killing eighteen people. Were these people worse sinners than others living in Jerusalem? We often hear so-called prophets claim that disasters befall cities because of the sins of the people. I remember after teh Northridge Earthquake. There were those who suggested that the deadly quake hit the San Fernando Valley because of all the adult film studios. The problem is that it wasn't the studios that suffered damage it was churches, schools, a shopping center, and homes that were damaged. Jesus's answer was direct: No, they weren't any more sinners than anyone else. However, if they didn't repent they might suffer the same fate.  

              As I read this, I realized Jesus isn't linking sin and the deadly events brought to his attention. However, since they brought up the matter of sin, he turned it around on them. If they didn't repent of their own sins they would face judgment. In other words, don't worry about other people, take account of your own actions. If these actions are unworthy of God, then they should change their attitudes and behaviors. 

           Having dealt with the question of sin and its ramifications, Jesus tells a story, a parable about bearing fruit. The point of the story has to do with whether one's actions and words reflect the gospel.  In other words, should we not expect a person of faith to act in a way that accords with their confession of faith? When it comes to the Christian life, do words of hate and exclusion, words and actions that bully others, represent the Gospel? Is this the way of Jesus? Are we not accountable for what we say and do? Are there no ultimate consequences for this?

                Jesus answers these questions with the parable of the fig tree. The parable has to do with what the owner of an orchard of fig trees should do if that orchard no longer bears fruit. Should the owner  What would you do he asks, if you owned an orchard filled with fig trees, and one of those trees no longer bore fruit. Would you let it sit there taking up space or would you rip it out? 

            According to the parable, the owner came to check on his orchard for three years, and each year he noticed that this particular tree had failed to bear fruit. The owner told the gardener to rip it out. Would you do the same? The gardener, however, isn’t ready to take this ultimate step quite yet. Instead, the gardener proposes that another year be given to the tree. It’s not an open-ended request. Just one more year. If it doesn’t bear fruit in a year, well then cut it down and replace it. But maybe this tree can be salvaged. After all, if this is a mature tree, just a little work might induce fruit. The gardener suggests that if he were to dig around the tree and put down some manure, it might come right back. Besides, if you plant a new tree it will take time before it’s ready to bear fruit. The owner relents and gives the gardener time to tend to the tree in the hope that fruit can be experienced!

                This is a repentance story. It is the story of a second chance. Judgment is still in the picture, but so is mercy and grace. Mercy without accountability is a bit worthless in the long run. So, maybe certain actions and words don’t fit with the Christian faith. Maybe a bit of repentance is required of us! Yet, when we speak of judgment and accountability, we needn't envision a hellish future that is unending punishment. We needn't envision annihilation. Perhaps we can all be reclaimed by God. At least, that's my hope and expectation!

Image attribution: Tissot, James, 1836-1902. Vine Dresser and the Fig Tree, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved March 12, 2022]. Original source:


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