Like most of Jesus’ parables, it isn’t hard to figure out Luke 13’s fig tree parable, especially in context. “There were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”
The point is clear: God judges sin. God judges fruitfulness. God punishes sin. God punishes unfruitfulness. Because unfruitfulness is a sign of unbelief. This parable does something very important for us tonight as we think about one year ending and another beginning. It focuses on us. It’s easy to talk about horrible Galileans or convicts on death row, or that guy who got what he deserved. Tonight, Jesus forces me to look at me.
We’re the fig tree. God the Father spent three years going through His vineyard, checking out this lovely tree, hoping for, waiting for, desiring to find figs. You understand the feeling. You know about expectations. You know the disappointment of unmet expectations – the empty mailbox, the unreturned call, the missed appointment, the fruitless or flowerless plant. Eventually you get fed up with the postal service, the rude or thoughtless person, or the failing flora. So does God, “Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?”
But then someone intercedes for the plant. The man in charge of the vineyard says, “Let me fertilize it a bit; we’ll see if we can get something out of it. If we can’t, then do what you want.” We see Jesus here, Jesus the Mediator between God and men; Jesus who always lives to intercede for us; Jesus who wasn’t satisfied with rising from the dead for us, but stands beside the Father and defends us. How neat! I’m a sinner. I deserve to be chopped down and thrown into the fire. But wait, Jesus stepped in for me, now things are OK.
Except that’s not the point. This parable focuses on the judgment, the punishment. Jesus points to two options – repent or die. God hates sin this much. God hates fruitless trees this much. He wants them gone. And Jesus, despite the fact that He wants all to be saved, does say, “If this plant doesn’t bear fruit, then cut it down.” Jesus lets people die in hell if they continue in their unfruitful ways. Which leads us to two disturbing questions: 1) Am I at the beginning or end of God’s patience with me? 2) Am I just taking up space?
There’s no better time to examine your life in the light of these questions. You can exhaust God’s patience. It happened to Pharaoh. It happened to King Saul. It happened to Ananias and Sapphira. It happened to Israel and Judah. It happened to those Galileans. It’s also possible that you’re just taking up space.
How do you know? Look for fruits. We identify trees by their fruits. Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul, James, John, Peter – the entire New Testament – all say that we do the same with followers of Christ: we can see with our eyes that they are justified by the fruits that they produce.
The Ten Commandments show us the way, the fruits Christians produce. Paul lists and rephrases the Ten Commandments by listing Christian fruits yielded by the Spirit’s power: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Our Lutheran fathers maintained that fruits must follow faith. The Smalcald Articles: “If good works do not follow, the faith is false and not true.”
Take a deep look at the soil in which you are planted. Are you just taking up space? Are you producing any fruits? Are you producing abundant fruit? Are you producing perfect fruit? If you were, I’d be counseling no one about marriage difficulties. If you were, I wouldn’t be trying to explain to people why homosexuality and all forms of sex outside of marriage aren’t God pleasing. If you were, we’d have better church and Bible class attendance. If you were, our people would be clamoring to receive the Sacrament more. If you were, it wouldn’t be like trying to pull teeth to schedule pastoral visits. If you were, all your priorities would be in line with God’s priorities all the time.
Jesus so desperately wants us to be the humble tax collector, not the arrogant Pharisee. He drives us to see that we need to be on our knees saying, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” begging Him to come and fertilize the soil in which we stand. “Forgive us our trespasses!”
It’s only when we have come to this point that we’re ready to hear, “Wait, give it one more chance!” as words of comfort for us. It’s only when we see our need to be fertilized, that we can see He who does such fertilizing. Because Jesus does this also. He stands between the devastating judgment of God and us. First, He says, “Father, remember, you already poured out your wrath on Me. Remember the cross. Remember the tomb. Remember the perfect fruits I produced. Count those fruits as their fruits!”
And then He also says, “Hold on, let me work on them.” Because though Jesus did what He did for every sinner of all time, not every sinner of all time believes it and produces fruit. So Jesus gets to work. He gets to work with His tools causing us to bear fruit.
He says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” He chose us. He picked us. He sent His Spirit into our hearts and made dead wood alive. And it’s not some mystery as to how He did it. The fertilizer isn’t some magic potion that we have no access to. We don’t have to wait for our own personal vision of Jesus to get worked on. Incredibly, this fertilizer that Jesus uses to bring forth faith and fruit is right here, around us all the time. In his parable of the Sower and the seed, which seed produced fruit? “The man who hears the word and understands it.” He produced the abundant crops – 30, 60, 100 times what was planted. The Word does such incredible things. God invests it with this power. God says, “This is how I want dead sinners to become living, fruit producing trees!”
And Jesus, who redeemed us lost and condemned creatures, sends us the Spirit, using the Word, to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify us, that is, to make us living, breathing, fruit-producing trees.
And sometimes, He needs to start over on us. Which is why we marvel at His intercession. Jesus didn’t stop at dying and rising for us. Nor does He give us one crack at coming to faith, and then that’s it. He patiently continues to work the field, bringing the fruits of His death and resurrection to us over and over and over again – the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, new life in the flesh, the ability and desire to do good works.
As we ponder the Lord’s patience in our own individual situation, as we wonder if our time of grace is about to end, as we’re forced to admit that we have failed to produce fruit more times than we admit, which forces us to admit that we have forsaken the faith Christ called us to – we at the same time see Jesus our Mediator step in. And we see Him working on us. When are we apart from His Word? When has His Baptism ever been stripped away from us? When are we unable to receive the Sacrament of His body and blood? The answer…never. We have constant access to these gifts of God which He says we need, which turn us from worthless, fruitless plants, into abundantly producing prize fig trees, because Jesus makes them available. Good things happen when God’s people are in God’s Word. The best? They become and stay God’s people. They stop just taking up space.
Which invests those words of the gardener with such power. He says, “If it bears fruit next year, fine!” We know what fine means. It means eternal life in heaven. Not on account of my works, but on account of Christ, Christ whose perfect fruits of faith are reckoned into my account, so that my sinful fruits of faith, my weak fruits of faith, my tainted fruits of faith are declared righteous and holy. Oh what grace and mercy is ours in 2014 and beyond. Amen.