Making it Pop
Certain combinations of tastes or colors make a meal, a room, a person 'pop.' How about our text? This Third Sunday in Lent has historically gone by the name of Oculi from the first word of the Latin Introit, eyes. What would make this text pop visually? You have to admit Pilate's slaughter of worshippers while they offered the blood of the Passover Lamb is pretty vivid. So, is a tower falling and killing 18 people. But does the parable pop for you?
Or are you ho-humming your way to hell? You know that word, imitative of the sound of yawn, is only a 100 years old. That's probably a commentary on modern life: boring. This seems to be the spirit of the people who brought up Pilates killing of worshippers. There is definitely the sprit of schadenfreude. The German word for joy at the calamites of others. Greek's had one too. Epichairekakia rejoicing upon bad things. That's the spirit of those brining the news about those Pilate killed at Passover while they were offering their sacrifices. See how Jesus trumps that: O yeah, if you think they must be bad, what about those suffering at the hand of God? The first was a manmade calamity. Pilate's evil caused it, but what but God caused the Tower of Siloam to topple and kill those 18?
The people wished to make the first group guilty of some sinfulness. Why else would this happen to them while worshipping? The second group is easier still: Nothing but the hand of God, not randomness, not chance, not bad luck, toppled that tower over. See, God wanted to get those people. He had enough of them. But what use does Jesus make of both events? The worshippers dying and the people killed by an act of God do not testify of their sins or sinfulness but of yours. "Unless you repent, you too will perish." Pick any headline you want, any death, any sickness. War in Ukraine. Covid deaths. How about the person who they opened up for routine surgery and found they were full of cancer? All those are about you; all of those are call for you, and no one else but you, to repent.
But what we all do is mistake pretermission for remission. We're mistaking that fact that God pass over sins with Him actually sending them away from us for Jesus' sake. We mistake God's excessive patience with license to sin. Ecc. 8:11 even warns you about this: "Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly...hearts of the sons of men...are given fully to do evil." Because judgment doesn't fall swiftly men are embolden. If disobedient children's eyes were instantly plucked out, if hell opened up before the fornicators, pornographers, or those self-identifying as married while playing house, or if God really showed his hatred of divorce, if those practicing open Communion reaped the weakness, sickness, and death they are sowing for themselves, how different it would be. And how terrible.
It would be like Passover for the Egyptians: While not a dog barked in Israel (Ex. 11:7), there was a great cry throughout Egypt because there was not a home where someone wasn't dead (Ibid., 12:30). Well, there wouldn't be a kid running around here with both eyes; all the plagues of Egypt would be on us and the land would be about to spit us out of it for our acceptance of abortion, fornication, divorce, and LGBTQ. Go back to Romans 3. There you will read that God does indeed pass over sins and sinners for a time, but at the end of the day either Christ pays for your sins or you do. Don't mistake God forgoing punishment for Him forgiving sins let alone accepting them.
What do you think the Parable of the Fig Tree is about? Of the different interpretations, ancient and modern, I think the best is to stick to the single point: No people, no person should play with the longsuffering of God (Arndt, 326). Are you? Well, you've been warned. The True God does not come like the gods were said to. There was an old proverb, "the gods have feet of wool", i.e., you can't hear them coming for you. Not the true God. Listen to the parable. Before the cutting down begins, He announces it. St, Basil says, "'This is peculiar to the clemency of God toward men...He does not bring in punishment silently and secretly but by His threatening first proclaims them to be at hand, thus inviting sinners to repentance'" (Lenski 729). That was function of Noah to the primordial world, Lot to Sodom, Moses to Egypt, John the Baptist to Jerusalem. And me to you.
For 120 years Noah preached the righteousness of God in the Promised Seed while no judgment, let alone rain fell. The primeval world didn't listen and so they all perished. Lot's righteous soul was vexed for years over the very same things going on in our cities while nothing but warnings fell, no fire, no brimstone. But no one listened. Then came the fire and brimstone burying forever Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses announced at least 10 times, let the people of Yahweh go. Pharaoh would not and judgment fell. John the Baptist up to 3 years before our text had proclaimed, "The ax is laid at the root of the trees." But Israel did not repent. Here Jesus shows them what the ax will do to their unfruitful trees. Chop them down. Psalm 7:12 has the haunting, popping picture, of God's bow of judgment already bent. He doesn't have to bend the bow. He just has to open His fingers, and we impenitent sinners are not just dead but damned.
This is the message for anyone who wishes to speculate about the sins of someone else, for all who think tragic death whether at the hand of men or God are sure indicators of guilt. Nope, they're a call for you to repent. The day of God's grace will run out: it ran out for Noah's world, Lot's cities, Moses Egypt and the OT church. And it will run out for you. But there is another message here too. The day of God's grace will run out but Jesus can't bear to think of it. A guy takes his friend to hear a Lutheran pastor. He preaches Law and Gospel and the friend is put off. The guy brings him to hear another Lutheran pastor who also preaches Law and Gospel. To him he is drawn. The guy asks his friend what the difference was. "Well," he said, "the first man enjoyed preaching of hell and damnation." It's true; the law should be preached as if there is no Gospel, but it should always be remembered that the Law is God's alien work; the Gospel His proper one.
In the parable, there's a catch in the Gardner's voice. He is the Jesus figure in the parable. He can't bear the thought of cutting the fig down. Read it this way: If it bears fruit next year...But if not You shall cut it down." Now don't go off the rails here. There's no discrepancy between the will of the Father and that of the Son. This isn't good cop, bad cop. Again and again Jesus says He can only say and do what the Father wills. The point the parable wishes to make: it's not with joy that God's judgment falls. The Gardner by saying "You shall do it" rather than I, emphasizes in picture, in colors, to the eyes what Jesus says in words elsewhere. Jn. 3:17: "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him." Jn. 12:47: "As for the person who hears My words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it."
To make something pop visually, it often takes a dramatic or stark contrast in color. Here Jesus paints using colors that are usually found in connection with the Gospel. For example, the Jesus figure in the parable asks of the unfruitful tree: Why should it use up the soil? The Greek word used to describe what we in our impenitence and unfruitfulness do in His Garden, use up the soil, is the Greek word katargeo. It's a favorite word of Paul's. He uses it 26x's in his epistles. Outside of them, katargeo is only used here in rest of NT. This can't be by ancient. Paul uses it to describe what the holy life lived by Jesus and His guilty death in our place does to the Law. It nullifies it. It takes the power away from the Law. So, in a Law context, Jesus uses a word normally used in a Gospel one. Let's see if we can make this pop.
I've been told by ranchers that mesquite trees can soak up so much water that they dry out a creek. Remove the trees and what use to be a wet-weather creek becomes year round one. Mesquites are law illustrations. Living in, protecting, excusing sins is using up God's free grace flowing from the cross of Christ. But mesquites only produce inedible fruit. This is God's grace, His forbearance, His pretermission not leading to repentance and faith but only more sinning. That calls for chopping down. But by using the word 'nullifies' we think of how Jesus' perfect keeping of the Law nullifies the Law. There's no law left unkept by Jesus. Likewise, if you can find one sin of the world not on Christ than the Devil, the World, or your own Conscience would have something to demand payment for. But no, all was paid at Calvary.
That's not all. The common word for forgive sins is aphiemi. 47 times it's translated as 'forgive'. In our text, Jesus our Gardner says, "Leave it alone for one more year". "Leave it alone" is literally 'forgive it.' He says, "Lord you must aphiemi it also this year." To the Owners just question: why should it use up the ground? The Gardner doesn't offer excuses, but instead blurts out: You must forgive it!
Compare Jesus' parable to 19th century Bible scholar, Trench's Arabic writer's recipe for curing a palm tree of barrenness. He says it's a story wide-spread in the Middle East. You go with a friend to whom you tell you'll cut the palm down because it is unfruitful. He answers, "'Do not so, this year it will certainly bear fruit!" Here's where the stories diverge. The owner insists it needs to be chopped down and gives the stem of the tree 3 blows with the back of ax. The other than restrains him and asks for another year. No, digging, no manuring, just the preaching of the Law with the back of the ax. In that story nothing but the anger of the owner, the ax, and the law pop (Parables, 359-60, fn. 1). In Jesus' parable, God's nullifying grace and forgiveness do. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday in Lent (20220320); Luke 13:1-9