A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
The Third Sunday in Lent
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’” (NRSV).
Today we continue a sermon series called “Teach Us to Number Our Days” based on Psalm 90 where Moses says, “The days of our years are threescore years and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; it is soon cut off and we fly away.” That’s good King James English, but what it means, in plain English, is that while we might live to be seventy years old, or even eighty if we’re strong, we are not going to live forever, not in this world. Life is hard, and eventually it will get the best of us. And so, Moses says, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” In other words, “Lord, if we’re not going to live forever, teach us to make every day count.” And that’s what I’m hoping will happen in this series: that the Lord himself will teach us some lessons about how to live.
Two weeks ago he taught us how to resist temptation: by being so clear about who we are and what we are supposed to do that we are also clear about who we are not and what we are not supposed to do. Last week he taught us how to overcome fear: by thinking of others rather than ourselves, and by always putting them first. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus begins with a hard lesson. Some people ask him about a terrible thing that has happened. Pilate, the same Pilate who would later condemn Jesus to death, has apparently had some Galileans killed while they were worshiping in the temple courtyard, or, as Luke puts it, poetically, he “mingled their blood with their sacrifices.” It’s a terrible thing, and some people come to Jesus asking the questions people always ask at a time like that: Where was God? How could he let such a thing happen? What had those people done to deserve that?” But Jesus says, “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.” And then he gives another example: “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.”
And this is the lesson: that while the days of our years might be “threescore and ten” there is no guarantee. Those words are not a promise, they are a prediction: they are based on the average life expectancy of people who lived in the time of Moses. “You might live to be seventy,” he said, “maybe eighty if you’re strong.” “But you might not,” Jesus reminds us. “You might get cut down in the prime of your life, while you are offering sacrifices in the temple. You might get crushed and killed by a falling tower. Life is not only hard, it is fragile and uncertain. It could end at any moment.” And then Jesus says this, which has left preachers and scholars scratching their heads for centuries: “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
One of the things Jesus does here is reject the cause-and-effect relationship between sin and suffering, and that’s a good thing. “Do you think this happened because these people were worse sinners than you?” he asks. “No. That’s not how it works. God doesn’t strike people down because of their sin.” And then he says, “But unless you repent you will all perish just as they did.” And that’s what leaves us scratching our heads. Does he mean that unless we repent we will all die suddenly and unexpectedly? No. Does he simply mean that unless we repent we will die? No. We will all die, whether we repent or not. Then does he mean that unless we repent we may perish without having seized the opportunity to repent? Yes. I think he does. And I think he is saying that this is our opportunity.
In the chapter just before this one Jesus spends a good bit of time talking about the coming of the Son of Man. He says, “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes” (Luke 12:37). He says, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks” (vss. 35-36). He says, “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Luke 12:39-40). He goes on like that for nearly 25 verses, hammering away at the themes of readiness and faithfulness and unexpectedness. The message is clear: if we are doing what good and faithful servants are supposed to be doing then it won’t matter when the Son of Man comes: we will be ready.
And then we come to chapter 13, which begins with these words: “At that very time.” I assume Luke means that at the very time Jesus was talking about the need to be ready some people asked him about those Galileans who had been slaughtered while offering their sacrifices. It’s a perfect illustration. “That’s what I’m talking about!” he says. “You never know when the time will come or when your time will come, and that’s why you have to be ready at all times.” Or, to put it another way, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did,” that is, without having seized the opportunity to repent. “This is the opportunity,” Jesus says. “Right here, right now! Before a tower falls on you, or you get hit by a bus, or you die of a heart attack, just do it! Repent!”
That’s the word, but in Greek it’s more than one word. There is a word for repentance that means to change your ways (epistrephein) and another word that means to change your mind (metanoia). It’s that one, that second one, that Jesus uses here. “Change your mind!” he says, which leads us to ask, “About what?” And that’s when he tells the parable of the fruitless fig tree. “There was a man who had a fig tree planted in his vineyard,” he says. “He came looking for fruit on it but didn’t find any. He said to his gardener, ‘See here! For three years I’ve come looking for fruit on this tree and still haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the ground?’ But the gardener said, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year. I’ll dig around the roots and apply some good, organic fertilizer. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
That seems fair enough, doesn’t it? But if you look a little closer you might see how the gardener’s request is more than fair. First of all, fig trees are abundantly fruitful. In Israel, where they get both the late rains and the early rains, a fig tree can produce as many as three crops a year. So when the owner of the vineyard says he has come looking for fruit for three years and hasn’t found any he means that this little tree has missed nine opportunities to bear fruit. Secondly, fig trees thrive on neglect. For this gardener to talk about digging around the roots to stimulate productivity, and for him to talk about putting on fertilizer to encourage the growth of fruit, would have been laughable in that time and place. You didn’t baby a fig tree! You just let it go, let it grow, and the fruit would bend down the branches.
But not this tree. It isn’t doing what a good and faithful fig tree is supposed to do. You might say that it is being stubborn and rebellious, you might say that it is being lazy and disinterested, you might say that it is only concerned about itself. In any case, it seems remarkable that the gardener would bother with it, that he would take the time and the trouble to dig around the roots and put on manure. Fig trees aren’t supposed to require that much attention. Why not cut it down indeed? But as Jesus tells the story this little fig is going to have one more chance to get it right, one more year to live into its mission and purpose. Most gardeners wouldn’t have wasted their time with it, but this gardener is different. He seems to believe in second chances. Now, whether or not Jesus told this parable right after he used the word repent is anybody’s guess. It might have been hours later, even days later. But Luke, at least, wants us to make the connection between repentance and this fig tree, as if what we needed to repent from was fruitlessness.
I remember the first time I made that connection. I was about thirty years old, about the same age Jesus was when he told this parable. I was serving as pastor of my first church, the First Baptist Church of New Castle, Kentucky. I was still a seminary student at the time and often made the mistake of bringing all those things I was learning down in Louisville back to that little church in New Castle, and unloading them on those poor, innocent people. I did it with the parable of the fruitless fig. I said, “This church is like that tree! For nearly 200 years it has been in this vineyard; it’s been driving its roots down deep into this fertile soil; it’s been stretching its branches toward the sky; it’s been soaking up the rain and the sunshine, and yet it hasn’t borne any fruit! We’ve been content to gather here, and worship, and go to Sunday school. Sometimes we come for prayer meeting on Wednesday nights. But then we go home again, without doing one thing for the people around us, and when the owner of the vineyard comes looking for fruit he’s not going to find a single fig on these branches!”
After all these years I can’t remember what provoked such an outburst. I’m fairly sure those good people didn’t deserve it. But they heard it, and they responded to it. That very night we got together to share our dreams for the church’s future and seventy people showed up, a remarkable number for that little church. And some of their dreams were dreams of how we could make a difference in the community, and that, too, was remarkable. We decided to begin a ministry to Osage Estates, the government-subsidized housing project just down the street. A woman in our church named Betty began to work with a single mother and her two children. She taught that mother to budget her little bit of income so she wasn’t broke all the time. She helped the daughter get a scholarship to a good Baptist school. She discovered the son was legally blind, which helped to explain why he was failing in school and why he seemed to be so angry so much of the time. She helped him get into The School for the Blind where he began to succeed and the anger disappeared overnight.
That’s just one example of what happened in those years after that sermon, although it’s probably the best one. Still, things changed. We began to think of ourselves as a church that was bearing fruit. We made a banner of a fig tree with its branches bending under the weight of all those sweet, ripe figs. We put that image on the cover of our bulletin along with the words, “First Baptist Church, New Castle, Kentucky: Bearing Fruit.” We began to believe it wasn’t enough to do for ourselves; that we had to do for others as well. And I began to believe that if the owner of the vineyard came looking for fruit on his fig tree, he would find some.
But what had to happen before any of that could happen was repentance. That church had to change its mind about why it was there. It wasn’t just for worship and fellowship, although those things are important. It wasn’t just for Sunday school or the monthly business meeting, although those things are important, too. It wasn’t just for supporting missionaries, although that’s extremely important. It was there to bear fruit, fruit that would hang from its branches so heavy and sweet that a child passing by could reach up and pick it. It was there to be a blessing to the place in which it had been planted. And little by little, over time, that church began to learn that lesson, until “bearing fruit” wasn’t just a slogan on the front of the bulletin: it was a way of life.
I think there are lots of churches in America these days that need to learn that lesson. There was a time when people came to church just because it was the Sunday morning thing to do. We opened the doors and they walked in, and we tried to make sure there were enough Sunday school classes for all of them and enough room on the pews. We did our best to take care of the people in here and didn’t do much for the people out there. We didn’t have to! They were all coming to church.
But these days are not those days. Things have changed, and people seem to be finding lots of other ways to spend their Sunday mornings. They’re not in here, most of them, they’re out there, and on their way to the river or the mountains they are driving past lots of churches that don’t seem to have much fruit hanging from the branches. That’s because those churches are focused inward, wondering what they can do to get people back in the pews, and their money back in the plates. But that’s not what churches are for, is it? No, not any more than that’s what fig trees are for, or what you and I are for. I believe we were planted in this place to bear some fruit and if we’re not doing it we need to get started, soon, because life is fragile and uncertain. You never know when Pilate is going to mingle your blood with your sacrifices, or when a tower is going to fall on you. Unless you repent you will all perish just as those people did. Unless you change your mind, that is, unless you begin to believe that your purpose in life is to bear fruit and get busy bearing it.
“Give me one more year,” the gardener said. “Let me dig around the roots of this fruitless fig and see if I can provoke it to do something. Let me put on some good, organic fertilizer and encourage it in every way I can. If it bears fruit next year, well and good, and if not,
“You can cut it down.”
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.