At that very time there were some present who told Jesus 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.'”Luke 13:1-9
I have to tell you, I am fascinated by manure. I’m not even talking about today’s scripture. I’m fascinated by the phenomenon, the fact that actual excrement expelled from the bowels of barnyard animals has been fertilizing our food for millenia. I mean, think of the first failing farmer who had a bad crop and thought “maybe a pile of poop will help” only to find out they’re right! What a discovery. Who would think to create a world in which poop was a usable if not necessary ingredient for new life? I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before Jesus ever mentions poop, he’s presented with a different bodily secretion: blood. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor in Jerusalem has overstepped the bounds of polite despotism, publicly murdering Gallilean Jews in the temple. Then they say he mixed their blood with the blood of sacrifice on the altar. They bring this news of blasphemous brutality to Jesus asking if he would care to comment, but the commentary he gives is not the commentary they expect.
Jesus is a rabbi, so just like in the gospel of John when the people ask him “who sinned, this blind man or his parents?” the people come expecting him to give them a ruling according to the law. The thing is, they genuinely want to know. Their assumption is that fortune follows the righteous and misfortune follows sinners. They want to know what those Galileans did to deserve such a disgraceful death in order that they may avoid it. “How can we be assured Jesus, that we’re better off than them, that nothing like that is going to happen to us?”
Jesus grants them no such assurance, nor does he give a rationale for why bad things happen to good people. Jesus says “Do you think you’re any better off than them? That they’re worse sinners than you?” Then he brings up another story that’s been working its way through the news cycle.
“What about those people that died last week when that tower fell in Siloam? They weren’t Galilean agitators killed in Jerusalem, they were just ordinary people. Is the fact that you’re still standing here proof that you’re better than all of them?”
“No,” he says. “You’re all just like them, as good as dead. You’re all liable to fall to the same Sin at work in Pilate’s power. You’re all under the gravity of the Power of Death. So here is my ruling. Bad things happen to bad people, and guess what? You’re all bad people. Repent or perish.”
There’s an art gallery outside my office. The installations change weekly and the artists are all under the age of ten. This week our Director of Children’s Ministry, Ms. Arleen, installed a series of writing prompts completed by K thru 5th graders in Sunday school. The prompt on one of them is “What do you think Jesus is like?” Under the question in clear and determined handwriting are the words “Kind and Caring.” Jesus is kind and caring. And I just want to say, I kind of hope that kid skipped church today.
The people posing questions to Jesus in Luke 13 don’t get the kind and caring Jesus. They get Jesus the prophet who speaks the Word of the Lord, whether or not we like to hear it. And, even though it stings, thanks be to God, he speaks the truth.
The truth he reveals is that Pilate’s Sin and that Tower of Terror are the Alpha and Omega of this present evil age and none of us are immune from their destruction. These are Powers reigning without and within us which God cannot and shall not abide. Brick by brick, stone by stone, they must be destroyed. Like trees which refuse to bear good fruit, they must be cut down. Thus sayeth the Lord.
But that’s not all the Lord sayeth. The Lord sayeth something else. He tells a story.
A man owns a garden where a fig tree grows. For three years he has watched and watered the tree but it has utterly failed to bear fruit, and so he puts in a work order for the gardener to cut it down at once. But, upon receiving his orders the gardener appeals to the owner, “Give me a little time. Let me dig down to the root of the problem and spread some manure on it. If you come back and there’s no fruit, then you can cut it down.”
A diseased tree, unable to bear fruit, is destined for death, but someone intervenes. The gardener intercedes for the tree, offering to get down in the dirt and perform what I still consider a miracle by fertilizing failure with feces expecting to find fruit.
He’s talking about himself, you know. He is the kind and caring gardener. He’s talking about us too. We are the tree that by itself cannot, will not bear fruit. Under the power of sin and death, we are the tree worthy of being cut down. For three years Jesus worked and watered among us but by Luke 13 there’s no fruit to show for it but dead Galileans and desperate people trying to save themselves.
Now he’s nearing the end of his time and the ax is laying at the foot of the tree. But you know what this kind and caring gardener does? He intervenes on behalf of the tree. In fact in the end Jesus goes even further than the gardener. Instead of picking up the ax, he climbs onto the tree.
Other than the words “kind and caring” that young artist didn’t write much else, but if you get close you can see three more words he shares about what Jesus is like, “someone who sacrifices.”
On Maundy Thursday he’s with the twelve who will soon betray, deny, and abandon him, proving just how fruitless the last three years had been. That’s when Jesus brings up bodily fluids again, at dinner no less. Knowing full well what’s ahead he looks them in the eye and raises a glass to the next three days, saying “This is my blood, poured out for you, for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sin.”
That night he is arrested, tried, bloodied, and bound. The next day, on Friday, he becomes the latest Galilean killed by Pilate in Jerusalem. They nail him to a tree, a cross, and then they bury him in a garden tomb, deep beneath its roots.
For three days he’s in the ground. When they come back, early on the first day of the week, they expect to find nothing but a dead man, but when they reach his grave they are shocked to hear the Good News, “He is not here. He is risen.”
Then he appears to them, to what’s left of the twelve so they can see him for themselves. In him they behold the first fruits of a new creation rising up from the blood-soaked ground smelling of manure. Mercifully, their Lord returns to them offering new and eternal life to all.
There is no shortage of examples these days of the world’s failure to bear good fruit, no shortage of news stories that make us want to make sense of suffering, and save ourselves from being implicated in it. There is no shortage of spilt blood. No shortage of excrement either.
But hear the Good News. The Lord has intervened on behalf of the fruitless. By his life, death, and resurrection, he has offered his body and blood as the manure for every malady, bringing salvation out of piles of sin. Dying he has destroyed our death. Rising he restores our life, proving that he holds the power to bring new life out of anything.
In word and sacrament, in life and in death, he gives himself again to raise us as well, starting down at the root. This is grace, grace from the ground up. Repent and believe the gospel.