3rd Sunday in Lent
Texts: Luke 13:1-9;
JESUS THE GARDENER BEARS FRUIT ON THE TREE OF LIFE
9-11 certainly lives in infamy. Now there’s 3-11. Another horrifying tragedy this week. How can human beings do this to one another? After going through the terror of the World Trade Towers and Pentagon bombings, our hearts go out to the people of Spain.
In our Gospel Lesson this morning there are some folks present who bring up what to them was a similar tragedy. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, had apparently spilled more blood. He was famous for that. Of course, the Jewish people were constantly busy making desperate attempts to throw off the Roman oppression through armed resistance — a futile proposition. And so from his point of view Pilate was just doing his job of keeping the peace. He surely considered those armed rebels as terrorists — though from the Jewish viewpoint, they no doubt considered them “freedom fighters.” Well, it sounds like some Galilean “freedom fighters” were in Jerusalem for a festival and attempted an uprising — which Pilate swiftly put down with great force, mingling some of their blood, with the sacrifices of the religious festival they were there to observe.
But if we consider this Gospel Lesson in light of this week’s tragedy, what do we make of Jesus’ response to it? Doesn’t it sound callous? Tell me if it could be compared with something like this:
You come up to me shaking your head and commenting about the terrible tragedy in Spain this week. To which I respond, ‘Yes, I tell you; and unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or what about those thousands who were killed when the twin towers fell on them in New York? I tell you that unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did. And let me tell you a little story about a gardener and a fig tree that wouldn’t bear fruit. The master wanted to cut it down, but the gardener begged for one more year, one more chance.’
I took these words almost directly from Jesus’ words. I only skipped the part about whether or not the people who died were worse sinners, because I think we have at least made some progress in thinking about such tragedies. In Jesus’ day it was still automatic that people who died in such tragic ways were assumed to have sinned and were receiving punishment from God. It’s no longer automatic for us to tie tragic death to sin (1) — though we might want to come back to this later.
But let’s begin with the rest of Jesus’ response. Doesn’t it seem callous to say, “Unless you repent, you will all die as they did”? What if I said that to you in response to the tragedy in Spain? And then I brought up the Twin Towers to boot? And what about that little story of the fig tree? What does that have to do with a tragedy like this? What’s going on here?!
The first thing which we need to get straight concerns Jesus’ attitude when he says these words. Is he angry and judgmental? In which case, he would certainly seem to be callous. I want to suggest something else, namely, that Jesus says these words with a good deal of sadness. Our clue comes through the strange lectionary fact that we had the end to this passage last week, before we see its beginning. And remember how last week’s passage ends? Jesus makes this sad lament over Jerusalem:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Luke 13:34)
In Luke’s Gospel Jesus’ grief about Jerusalem is made even more clear in the midst of the Palm Sunday story. Literally, in the middle of making his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, before he even reaches the city, Luke is the only Gospel writer to record for us the following:
As Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:41-44)
Isn’t it clear, now, what Jesus is saying in this morning’s passage? With considerable sadness, he is saying that his people need to repent of their ways of trying to win freedom and peace through armed resistance. He is trying to show them a different way to peace, but they won’t listen. The time is growing short, like with the fig tree that isn’t bearing fruit, before the consequences of their beliefs and actions will come to roost. Basically, Jesus is saying to them in this morning’s passage what he will say to his disciples as they try armed resistance at his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane: “All those who take the sword shall die by the sword.” Those Galileans who died at the hands of Pilate’s soldiers, and those who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them, they had taken up the sword. And unless Jesus’ listeners repent, unless they turn to the way of peace which Jesus is offering them, then they “will all perish just as they did.” And Jesus was right. In the Jewish war against the Romans thirty years later, many, many of them died as did the Galileans of Luke 13, mingling their blood with their sacrifices, and with many of the buildings of Jerusalem falling upon them, most especially the temple.
I finally went to see the movie last Sunday afternoon. I’d have to say that Mel Gibson did a commendable job in artistically and movingly telling the story of our Lord’s Passion. Yet I’m not sure he did it in a way that would change anyone’s mind about what the cross means. What the cross means to you before you went in is likely to be the same when you walk out. This isn’t entirely Gibson’s fault by any means. But I think he does bear some blame by making the resurrection so brief. For it is when Jesus appears to his disciples on Easter morning that we truly begin to figure out what the cross means. Otherwise, the cross is simply another state execution of a criminal.
This is the point at which we can return to the part in this morning’s passage about whether people who die tragically can be said to worse sinners than others. I mentioned that we’ve made some progress in this area. But in other ways perhaps we have taken a step backwards. Because there is this theological corollary, if you will, to the notion that someone’s tragic death means that they’ve sinned. Behind such a view is often the theological view that God is punishing their sin by making them die in such a way. Now, our theology of grace tells us that we all sin and are in need of God’s grace. But the theological corollary, namely, that God is a punishing God, often remains in place. The most popular view of the cross is the familiar idea that God would punish us all with death if Jesus didn’t step in on the cross and take that punishment for us. I’ve heard folks who hold that view come out of the movie with the same view in place. They even explain the terrible violence of the movie by saying things like, “Gibson was right to show it as so violent because Jesus had to suffer the sins of the whole world.”
Dear People of God, I submit to you this morning that we’ve missed the point of the cross if this is what we think happened. Yes, this movie is terribly violent, but the fact is that it could have been much more so. Countless people through the ages have died more horrible deaths. In college I had to read a book about torture and punishment that opened with the grisly first-hand account of someone only a couple centuries ago being drawn and quartered — being ripped apart alive between two horses. And that was after gruesome torture. (2) No, Jesus didn’t necessarily die a more horrible death than others. But what we hopefully gain after more than two hours of Mr. Gibson’s movie is a renewed sense of our inhumanity to each other. No, the cross is not about Jesus taking God’s punishment for us. It’s about Jesus taking our typical human punishment for God. For what truly makes the cross of Jesus unique is not the death but the life that comes after it. What makes it unique is the faith of the person who underwent that terrible death: he trusted in God’s power of life to raise him up. The faith that counts is Jesus’ faith that the eternally powerful life of God’s peace in this world, the power of compassion and pardon, will never ultimately be vanquished by our pitiful powers of violent death.
Let me sum it up this way: Jesus didn’t come to save us from the death wielded by an angry and punishing God. No, a merciful and forgiving God sent Jesus to save us from our violence! The faith of Jesus Christ to live God’s powerful compassion and forgiveness in this violent world of ours is what makes the cross unique and meaningful.
So let’s take a moment to consider this faith for us today. Jesus lamented his own people, that they would continue to trust in the powers of armed resistance to evil and that they would suffer for it. How much more would he lament us, us who call ourselves Christians over two thousand years later and still seem to trust in military might as the main weapon against evil. Isn’t the point of Jesus saying that those Galileans are no worse sinners than others that, when violent means are used, it’s all evil? There are huge questions that face us with these acts of terrorism against us, such as 9-11 and now 3-11, questions that we can’t answer today. I’m not going to say that there is no role for the military, with no means of protecting ourselves. I’m aware, for example, that when a women is suffering violence from her husband, there is a priority for protecting her first — certainly not that she should forgive her spouse if it means putting herself in danger again. But as people of Christ’s faith, shouldn’t we be trying harder to find ways of bringing peace through mercy and pardon, perhaps even sometimes for our enemies — if it doesn’t mean giving up all protection for ourselves? Think about the two-and-a-half years since 9-11. How much have we used compassion and how much have we relied on military might? Have we used our military might only for protection?
Perhaps I’m addressing this on too grand a scale. We don’t need to settle the global issues of our day. Let’s just take a moment to consider this on the level of our church life here in this time and place. We bemoan the fact that going to church is no longer a priority in our cultural. But I would lift up for us to consider that we need to shoulder a good portion of the blame. I think that many, many of today’s unchurched — especially those who used to go to church but have stopped doing so — they have quite quit coming because of our violence. Again, I’m not just talking about the big stuff, like sponsoring the Crusades or justifying the slaughter of Indians because they are “heathens.” We shouldn’t underestimate the power of those big things to have turned many away. But I’m also talking about countless small acts of violence. When I talk to folks who quit going to church, it most often involves a story about a fight at church and then being hurt by the gossip in the aftermath. We argue about things like the color of the carpet in the church lounge, and then we say hurtful things to each other. Does this sound familiar? Ever happened here at Grace? Well, in a culture where church is not a priority, people simply stop coming when they get hurt.
The tragedy is that we do have Good News to tell, even when we hurt one another — perhaps I should say, especially when we hurt one another. The best news in this morning’s Gospel is not only that our Lord himself is the gardener who begs for another year. But in that year he himself climbed the tree, and he himself became the fruit that his master was looking for. On the cross, the tree of life, our Lord Jesus Christ bore the fruit of having faith in God’s power of life in the face of our human powers of death.
What’s more, there’s the Good News that, apparently, St. Peter was right when he wrote in one of his letters: “that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Peter 3:8). For the year for which our Lord has begged has now become two thousand years. And he is still here as our gardener this morning! In a few moments, he will once more dig around us and put some manure around us. He’ll be here, in other words, to once again feed us and fertilize us with his faith. Not only his faith that went to the cross, his faith that believed in God’s powerful mercy and compassion even in the face of our worst violence. No, he will also be here with his faith in us. Because he was fully human and was able to live in faith of God’s way of peace in this broken world, he has faith in us that we can do it, too. With his help, we can finally bear the fruit of living in God’s peace. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Grace Lutheran,
Kenosha, WI, March 14, 2004
1. There are many who would make this passage solely about this flawed theology of tying tragic death to sin. So they would make the tower incident be about an accidental death. Perhaps it is. But N. T. Wright (Jesus and the Victory of God, 183, 253, 331, 334, 344, 641) takes it in the same category as Pilate’s bloodletting, that is, as the result of Roman force, the same kind which would topple many of the buildings in the 66-70 C.E. Jewish War. This passage, then, is not primarily about a bad theology of linking all death to sin. It’s about a bad theology that says that violence against one’s enemies is righteous, to which Jesus is giving the response, ‘Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.’ I am assuming along with Wright that the tower of Siloam was toppled by human beings. Buildings do crumble in earthquakes but not usually one at a time.