“A Murder, a Calamity, and a Patient Vinedresser”
Lent 3, March 24, 2019
Lent is a good time to think about things more deeply and seriously, especially those things of the faith. It is a time to ponder and meditate on deeper truths, perhaps more than we do even the rest of the year as Christians. There is a serious tone. A sober awareness of our sins that the Lenten scriptures place before us. And of course, always, we have an eye on the destination – the Cross of Christ, Holy Week, Good Friday, etc.
Today Jesus discusses the topic of suffering in our reading from Luke. Suffering is an experience that is common to all human beings, at one time or another, in one form or another. Living in this fallen and broken world, you simply can’t escape it. And yet we seem to think otherwise. It is in times of suffering, it seems, that people tend to either grow deeper and deeper in faith, or else at times suffering becomes a cause for despair, and can even lead people to turn away from God in anger.
And so one point that Jesus raises with his examples here – of the people murdered by Pilate and of the people who were crushed when the tower of Siloam fell – one point is this: Suffering and Evil come upon all people in various ways – and it’s not necessarily because they’ve done something particular to deserve it.
The people whose blood Pilate mixed with the sacrifices were not greater sinners than anyone else (nor does Jesus say they were less so). Likewise, the people who died under the tower hadn’t done any particular sin to deserve such a death, though Jesus doesn’t deny they were sinners at all.
When we humans consider the causes for sufferings, however, we often want to imagine a scorecard – as if we can even keep score of our many sins. And we want to suggest, sometimes at least, that this sinner or that sinner had it coming. He really got what he deserved. She really was asking for it, anyway. And sometimes even with a hint of schadenfreude – that glee at the misfortune of others. But what’s behind that is an implication: That don’t deserve the same, or worse. That I, myself, am a better person, more worthy of God’s favor, more upright and righteous and yeah well maybe I’m a sinner but I’m not as bad as THAT guy. Chief of sinners though I be, at least I’m not as bad as thee!
But Jesus comes to that sort of thinking, and he knocks it all down. He says, “No. They weren’t worse sinners than you. But unless you repent, you too will perish!” Wait a minute, Jesus, you can’t do that! I was busy using someone else’s suffering to make myself comfy in self-righteousness! You can’t come and pull the rug out from under me! You can’t point out that I deserve punishment like that, and worse! And Jesus says, “Oh yeah, just watch me!”
There is no room for dancing on the grave of other sinners in the Christian faith. There is no cause to revel in the calamities and sufferings of others, even of the most wicked among us. And the reason is this. We deserve the same and worse. If God treated us justly and only justly…. If he gave us what our sins deserve… If he counted against us everything that is right and fair…. We would have bigger problems than wicked rulers and towers falling upon us. We say it well when we confess we deserve both eternal but also temporal punishment. That means, in time, here, now.
So Jesus says, “Repent! And unless you repent, you too will perish!” Jesus doesn’t answer the “why” of the question, why some suffered this calamity or that evil. He tells us, though, to stop looking for the reasons why – and start looking at our own predicament. Rather than playing judge and marking our scorecard, we have our own house to clean, our own sins to address. Repent! Mind your business, Christian! And your business is always repentance. Confess your sins. Turn from them. And turn to Christ in faith and live.
Why then do so many of the wicked, the outwardly wicked, the unrepentant – why do they get away with it? Why doesn’t a tower fall on every bad guy? Why doesn’t God just smite the unbeliever and the enemies of his people? Why doesn’t he bring the temporal punishment so richly deserved? Jesus’ next little parable addresses this question, but again, not in the way we might expect:
He tells of a fig tree which isn’t producing figs. It’s not doing what it’s supposed to do. It’s useless, and taking up space, for three years not doing anything useful. So the owner tells the gardener to cut it down, tear it out; burn it up. But for whatever reason, the gardener begs for patience. He says, “Give it another year, master, just one more year. Let me fertilize it, and then let’s see if we get some fruit”. The assumption is, the master grants such patience.
So the lesson the parable is this: God is patient; He’s giving extra time for repentance. He doesn’t want to destroy anyone he’s created, and patiently, faithfully, calls people to repentance. But there is a limit to his patience, and so the best time to repent is always today!
And what of the gardener? Some have suggested this is Christ himself, the one who stands between the sinner and God the Father and begs for mercy, the intercessor, the mediator. Or, perhaps, and maybe also, Christ’s pastors – who carry the message of Christ forward even in this day, and who spread the fertilizer of the Gospel liberally.
The point is, that God wants repentance from you, and he gives you multiple opportunities and occasions to turn from your sin, and to turn to him in faith. And some of those, are even the sufferings of this life.
Martin Luther tells a delightful dialogue about what a vine might say to the gardener if it could speak:
The vine sees the vinedresser, or gardener, coming with his pruning shears and other tools to work around it and says: "What are you doing? That hurts, don't you know that? Now I must wither and decay, for you are removing the soil from around my roots and are tearing away at my branches with those iron teeth. You are tearing and pinching me everywhere, and I will have to stand in the ground bare and seared. You are treating me worse than any tree or plant."
And the gardener would then reply: "You are a fool and do not understand. For even if I do cut a branch from you, it is a totally useless branch; it takes away your strength and your sap. Then the other branches, which should bear fruit, must suffer. Away with it! This is for your own good." Then the vine would say: "But you do not understand! I have a different feeling about it!" The gardener declares: "But I understand it well. I am doing this for your welfare, to keep the foreign and wild branches from sucking out the strength and the sap of the others. Now you will be able to yield more and better fruit and produce good wine."
The same thing is true when the gardener applies the cow manure to the root of the vine; this, too he does for the benefit of the vine even though the vine might complain and say: "What in the world are you doing? Isn't it bad enough for you to hack and cut at me all day long, trimming this and cutting off that branch? Why, now are you putting that foul smelling stuff at my roots?! I am a vine, to yield delicious grapes to make wonderful wine, and you are putting that terrible smelling stuff near me, it will destroy me!" Of course, we know well that the badly smelling manure does well to put fertilizer and nutrients into the soil so that the vine might grow and prosper and produce an even better crop.
What Luther is saying here, indeed, what Christ is saying, is that sometimes life hurts. Sometimes life stinks. But God the patient gardener knows better than we the branches. And he has our best interests in mind, though it may not always seem so to us. He does his work, in sometimes mysterious ways, always to bring about repentance and faith.
Sometimes the process is unpleasant – stinking like manure. But the fruit of faith is sweet indeed, when the sinner sees the grace of God in Jesus Christ. And the point is not so much, “get busy making fruit” as it is, “wonder at the patience of the gardener”, whose wrath at your fruitless tree is put away in the tree of the Cross, and the one who was there cut down for you.
Repent and believe, for our Lord is patient. He works even through calamity and sorrow to draw you to himself. Even as he has done through the cross of Jesus Christ our Lord. May we take up our little crosses and follow him who bore the cross of Calvary for us.