Falling towers and fruitless fig trees (Luke 13.1-9, 31-35) [sermon 3-12-17]

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March 8, 2017 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday March 12, 2017. From an ongoing series: “Luke and Acts: The Good News of God’s Salvation.”

Texts for the sermon are Luke 13.1-9, 31-35; and Psalm 122.

Resources I used for this sermon include:

Brendan Byrne. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. rev. ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015), 134-35; 137.

Justo L. Gonzalez. Luke. Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 169-73. *especially helpful for the parable of the fig tree in vv 6-9*

Joel B. Green. The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 512-16; 533-39.

Beth Kreitzer, ed. New Testament III: Luke. Reformation Commentary on Scripture, ed. Timothy George and Scott M. Manetsch (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015), 279-82.

A rough audio is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.


A couple weeks back, we went with Jesus to the Mount of Transfiguration, where Moses and Elijah spoke with him about the Exodus he would accomplish in Jerusalem (Luke 9.31). They were talking about his death, resurrection, and ascent to heaven.

Back in Exod. 4.22, God had said: Israel is my firstborn son. On the Mount of Transfiguration, God said this about Jesus: This is my Son, my chosen one. And just like Israel, Jesus would experience an Exodus. He would suffer under an unjust and brutal empire determined to steal his life. But just as God parted the waters of the Sea for Israel to pass through alive, God would also roll away the stone from Jesus’ tomb—for him to pass through alive. And then God would take Jesus on a journey home.

And Jesus’ Exodus would make a way of salvation for all God’s people.

Jesus had told his followers this was the way he was going: The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected—by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts—and be killed and be raised on the third day (Luke 9.22).

Ever since they came down from the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus and his disciples had been on the way to Jerusalem. They were traveling a path of resistance—of suffering and rejection and death. But that was the only way his Exodus could be accomplished. The cross must come before the resurrection, but Jesus’ resurrection on the third day is what makes ours possible. He’s making a way in the wilderness for our Exodus, too. By baptism, we pass through the Sea of his blood into life.

But we’re the good guys!

Our Gospel lesson today picked up in the middle of something. It began by telling us about some who were present on that occasion. On what occasion?

Jesus was mid-sermon. He’d been warning about a coming judgment. Here’s some of the things he’d been saying, to give you a flavor of the message.

Much will be demanded from everyone who has been given much, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked.

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division.

When you see a cloud forming in the west, you immediately say, ‘It’s going to rain.’ And indeed it does. And when a south wind blows, you say, ‘A heat wave is coming.’ And it does. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret conditions on earth and in the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret the present time? And why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right? As you are going to court with your accuser, make your best effort to reach a settlement along the way. Otherwise, your accuser may bring you before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. I tell you, you won’t get out of there until you have paid the very last cent. (selections from Luke 12.47-59)

Jesus’ point is that a day of reckoning is is at hand. He wants his audience to know what time it is. Jesus has come to offer God’s peace, hospitality, and salvation to the world. But there is no peace outside of God’s salvation Jesus brings. Those who reject what God is doing through Christ reject the way of peace. The present generation—the crowds he’s speaking to—have been given much. Because Jesus is in their midst, preaching and healing and forgiving and casting out demons—they see him doing these things. They hear him saying these things. God’s salvation is right there, in their midst. So more is expected of them than those who haven’t seen or heard firsthand. They of all people ought to know what time it is.

Jesus’ words stand over the church now, too. We know the Lord is returning. We know the present order—the world as we know it—won’t last forever. We will stand before a heavenly judge who will weigh our lives. We will not be able to protest our innocence or ignorance. The time for repentance and reconciliation is now.

Today, as back then, many who hear this challenge will try to deflect. To change the subject from their own need of repentance to someone else’s. For instance, right after 9/11 a couple of prominent evangelical preachers went on a nationally syndicated television show to blame gay people, feminists, and the ACLU. And that’s what’s going on at the beginning of our lesson today. While Jesus was preaching about a coming day of reckoning, and the need to repent and make peace with God, some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices.

As if to turn attention away from themselves. As if to say, Bad guys get what they deserve. So those Galileans obviously deserved what happened to them. But not us! We’re the good guys! Nothing like that will happen to us!

Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices

Luke literally says they told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. The only ceremony where people who weren’t priests—like those Galileans—would have slaughtered a sacrificial offering was the Passover. That’s important. Remember, Jesus was a Galilean. He’s headed to Jerusalem to observe the Passover with his disciples. The Passover remembers Israel’s Exodus from Egypt—the Good News of God’s salvation in the Old Testament. On that first Passover, the Israelites passed through doorways smeared all around with the blood of a lamb. It was a foretelling of their upcoming crossing of the Red Sea. But it also told a deeper story—crossing from death into life. Remember, Jesus was also going to Jerusalem to accomplish an Exodus. He was also going to pass through death into life that Passover.

And guess who would shed the blood of Jesus the Galilean that Passover in Jerusalem? That’s right—Pilate.

The people who told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices thought those Galileans deserved it. Part of it was pure prejudice. Jerusalem Jews tended to look down on Galilean Jews. Virgilio Elizondo explains the situation Galilean Jews were in by comparing it to the experience of Mexican-Americans. White Americans tend to see them only as Mexicans; while Mexicans in Mexico often see them as more American than Mexican. [1] It was the same with Galilean Jews—like Jesus; and like the ones Pilate had slaughtered last Passover. The Romans saw them all as Jews. But the Jews of Jerusalem, and really throughout Judea, saw them as second-rate Jews. Galilee had been overrun by Gentiles. So many of the Jews of Jerusalem and greater Judea viewed their Galilean brothers and sisters as tainted. About half-heathen.

You can find an example of this in John’s Gospel. When the Pharisee Nicodemus tries to speak up for Jesus, some of his fellow Pharisees ask: Are you from Galilee, too? (John 7.52) That was their way of implying he was stupid and ignorant of the scriptures.

Now, nothing is uglier than when you try to add God and scripture to a prejudice you already hold in your heart. Deut. 28.15 warned: if you don’t obey the Lord your God’s voice by carefully doing all his commandments and his regulations that I am commanding you right now, all these curses will come upon you and find you. If you read Deuteronomy 28.15ff, it’s a litany of all kinds of bad things that might happen to sinners. Everything from crop failure to hemorrhoids to another man having sex with your wife while you have to watch to slow, gross, excruciating death.

Here’s the problem—and it’s still a problem among God’s people. We often see suffering as a sign of sinfulness. I’ve had church people tell me with a straight face that we shouldn’t be too uptight about starving people in Africa. They’re being punished for their idolatry. Last November, a famous preacher suggested to a man that his wife’s miscarriage may have been God punishing him for viewing pornography. Sometimes we may even do this to ourselves. When something bad happens to us or a loved one, we might ask: God, what did I do wrong to deserve this?

That’s what those who told Jesus about the Galileans Pilate murdered were doing. They were suggesting that it was the wrath of God on those Galilean sinners.

Jesus never denies that sin leads to judgment and death. But he does push them—and us—away from trying to play a simple game of connect-the-dots between a specific tragedy or trauma; and the wrath of God. Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans?, he asks. No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.

Suffering and tragedy can befall anyone. Certainly sin often causes suffering; but it’s very often not the sin of those who are suffering and dying that’s causing it. Many people suffer because of the sins of others.

Like those Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus, who would soon join them as a victim of Pilate’s sin.

Would these crowds also say Jesus got what he deserved when they saw him nailed to a cross? If we were there, would we have agreed with them?

Unless you change …

Jesus could have ended there and made his point. But he went on, reminding them of a tragedy that had happened to some Jerusalem Jews.

What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? If they could see the hand of God behind Pilate’s rampage, punishing unfaithful Galileans; shouldn’t they also see the hand of God in the fall of the tower of Siloam? Maybe those Jerusalem Jews were being punished by God for some sin.

But Jesus says the same thing about the Jerusalem Jews crushed by the tumbling tower as he did about the Galilean Jews massacred by Pilate: No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.

The tragedies that befell the Galileans slaughtered by Pilate and the citizens of Jerusalem killed by the falling tower should both point the survivors in the same direction: To examine their own hearts and lives. Not to deflect attention to the real or perceived sins and flaws of others. Not to speculate about whether or not God was punishing those people. That’s none of our business. Anyone who doesn’t respond to God’s call through Jesus for repentance and reconciliation will perish. Whether they’re from Galilee, Jerusalem, or anywhere else. It’s by God’s grace that any of us is still alive.

This was an especially poignant message for those who lived in Jerusalem at the time. Jesus called them you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! God’s purpose in sending the prophets had always been to save the people, not to condemn them. How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that, Jesus cries. And that’s really all repentance is, ultimately. Submitting yourself to be gathered under the nurturing, protective wings of God.

But Jesus doesn’t see that for Jerusalem. Look, your house is abandoned. I tell you, you won’t see me until the time comes when you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name. But Jerusalem won’t welcome Jesus as the one who comes in the Lord’s name. And so their city and their temple would be destroyed.

Not because God was punishing them for killing Jesus. We know the whole story. They weren’t punished for killing Jesus—Jesus is no longer dead. Jerusalem was destroyed because, as Jesus will say later, they didn’t know the things that lead to peace (Luke 19.42). Because they wouldn’t gather themselves under God’s healing wings, where peace is found.

Anyway, if we’ve learned anything from our readings today, it’s that it does no good to focus on someone else’s sins and God’s judgment on them. Jesus’ words call out to us now: unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. Jesus tells his church: How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.

Are we willing to be gathered under his wings, where salvation is found? That’s really all that matters now.

Much will be demanded from everyone who has been given much

All this is what Jesus was trying to get across with his parable about a barren fig tree in today’s readings. He told of a man who owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. He said to his gardener, “‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any.”

This image goes all the way back to John the Baptist’s ministry. He urged the people who came to him for baptism to produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives (Luke 3.8). From what we’ve seen in Luke’s Gospel, bearing fruit worthy of repentance meant the same thing for Jesus as it did for John. Those who have extra sharing with those who don’t have enough. Being a good neighbor—even to your enemies, as we heard from the parable of the “Good” Samaritan last week. We tend to think of repentance as making a commitment not to do bad things anymore. But in the Bible, repentance is a change of orientation. It’s a journey back to God. Showing mercy to others is a journey back to God, because God is merciful with us. And as scary as this parable might sound, that’s what it’s really about.

The story continues with the vineyard owner ordering drastic measures: “Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?” We hear people speak this way all the time about those they consider worthless, don’t we? They’re moochers, draining resources that could go to someone more deserving. Cut them off! Again, this also goes back to John the Baptist’s ministry. He’d warned: The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire. In Jesus’ story about the fig tree, the ax is also about to fall on the unfruitful tree.

But the gardener pleads on the tree’s behalf: “Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer.  Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.” Speaking of this story, John Calvin finally said something I appreciate. He said: “The Lord not only prolongs the life of sinners but also cultivates them in many ways so that they may yield better fruit.” The gardener doesn’t just ask for more time for the unfruitful tree. He’s also going to take special care of the tree to try and coax fruit from it.

This is a word for all of us who are yet alive. Especially those of us who consider ourselves blessed with abundance. Do we take this as a sign of God’s special favor? Maybe we shouldn’t. After all, the fig tree didn’t receive special care because it was a good tree, but because it was not good and productive. Maybe God continues to be merciful and generous with us because we haven’t yet born the fruit in our lives God wants us to bear. Maybe many of us couldn’t produce any fruit if God hadn’t given us so many advantages.

The story of this fig tree receiving special attention—extravagant mercy and generosity—calls us all to see ourselves as that tree. Like we’ve heard Jesus say: Much will be demanded from everyone who has been given much. We’ve been given much. Not just in terms of material blessings, but in knowing through biblical authors like Luke what fruit God requires of us. Maybe we need to see a warning hidden in all our blessings: a judgment is coming if we don’t bear fruit worthy of repentance.

And so, let us go from here now as people who know each day is another chance the vineyard owner has given us to bear good fruit.

[1] Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1983), 52.


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