Repent or Perish
13 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 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? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 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?’
8 “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”
Back in the early 1980’s, shortly after the time I was born, there was a popular Wendy’s television commercial which made famous the slogan, “Where’s the beef?” This famous marketing campaign was a way for Wendy’s to publicly criticize the other fast-food chains for the lack of “beef” in their burgers. When a person is looking for a good burger, when I’m looking for a good burger, my focus is not on the size of the bun, the quantity of the pickles, or the quality of the lettuce, tomatoes, or onions. Yes, I want those to be of good quality, but my primary focus when I order a burger is always based on the “beef.” If a burger doesn’t have that mouthwatering, succulent piece of beef in the middle, then it shouldn’t be allowed to be called a burger.
Our text this morning from Luke 13 is not about a burger but instead is about a fig tree. A man comes to his fig tree looking for … figs! But repeatedly he asks the question, “Where’s the fruit?” For three years this owner has been coming to his tree looking for figs and for three years this tree has produced zero figs. Perhaps the tree has a sturdy trunk, perhaps the tree has good sized branches, and pretty lush leaves, but none of that matters if there is no fruit. So it begs the question … “Where’s the fruit?”
Fruitfulness or being fruitful is something which floats just under the surface of Luke’s Gospel. At the very beginning of the gospel, Luke draws attention to John the Baptist. John the Baptist warns when the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious elite of the day, that “the ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9). Jesus picks up John’s theme in one of his great sermons when he says, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit” (6:43). The point: you are not supposed to walk up to a tree and have to ask, “where’s the fruit?” Trees are supposed to bear fruit.
This point that trees are supposed to bear fruit goes back to the message of our Old Testament lesson. The message goes back to Isaiah who lived hundreds of years before Jesus. In Isaiah’s writings, Isaiah equated or compared Israel to God’s vineyard. Well designed and very well-tended, God’s vineyard failed to produce good fruit. The Lord wonders aloud, “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?” (Isaiah 5:4). In other words, “Where’s the fruit?” The answer the Lord gives to his own question is surprisingly severe. He says, “Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it” (5:6-7). And, of course, in the course of their very long history, the Israelites will continue to be unfruitful with their lives and the Babylonians will come in and ruin their land, just as the Lord said, and they will be carried off into exile.
Now, let’s fast forward to Luke 13, our gospel reading. Jesus here makes the case that nothing much has changed for the Israelite people. God looks at these people and still says, “Where’s the fruit?”
The story starts with people arriving to tell Jesus about a massacre which Pontius Pilate has committed. Pontius Pilate has executed some of the Israelite people and mixed their blood with the sacrifices they were going to bring before God. There are questions with this story which we simply just don’t know the answer to. Did Pilate do this in the temple precincts? Did this event really happen? What are the motives of these people approaching Jesus? Maybe they are trying to encourage an outrage. Maybe they’re trying to trap Jesus because if he sides with Pilate, he’s not a good Jew. But if he sides with outraged Israel, then he’s a danger to Pilate. There are a lot of what ifs and just as many maybes.
Whatever the motives are of the people approaching Jesus, Jesus does not give into them. Instead, Jesus seizes the moment to warn all the Israelites of their impending doom. He says, “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” (Luke 13:4-5). That verb “repent,” it is important and the way Jesus is using it is important as well. Jesus is not calling for personal repentance, he is not calling for what you and I think of when we confess our sins at the beginning of the service. At the beginning of the service I am not confessing for you sins but I am personally confessing and asking for my own sins to be forgiven. Instead of that kind of repentance, Jesus is telling all the Israelites gathered there that they as a nation are under the same judgment which they had been under all those years ago when God had sent the Babylonians to exile them.
This is why Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree which simply will not produce fruit. The owner of the vineyard where this tree is located is very patient. He doesn’t order the unfruitful tree to be chopped down immediately, instead he gives it three years. But, finally, enough is enough. He is tired of asking the question of “where’s the fruit?” So he decides that the tree has to come out. However, the vine-dresser, the one who takes care of the grounds asks for one last chance. He says that he will give it extra attention in the hopes that it will produce something. The tree, as well as the Israelites are on borrowed time.
Now, what does Israel’s fate all those years ago have to do with us, with you and me? We as the Church, as the body of Christ, you and I, we are the continuation and the renewal of Israel. God’s words to Israel should serve as a warning to you and me as well. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus promises that His church will endure forever as the “gates of Hades, the gates of hell, will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). But what Jesus never says it that the church will meet in our neighborhood. Consider this for a moment … when we read the Bible, we have to look up where great cities like Ephesus and Corinth and Colossae were. Those cities all had churches in them. Those cities had large churches in them. Those cities and the churches in them simply vanished over the years. Martin Luther in the mid 1500’s once worried that the Lord would take His Word away from his precious Germans because of their scorn, their disrespect for that Word. Between 2000 and 2004 in the United States … 3,000 churches closed per year. “Where’s the fruit?”
What does such repentant fruitfulness look like? When people look at our church, they see a nice building in a nice part of town. They see a sanctuary pretty full. They see and hear kids running around. They can see a lot going on with all the announcements in the bulletin. Certainly, care for our neighbors is a factor which Luke wants us to notice. Love and concern for the poor and needy is a call that Jesus repeats over and over again. Dedication to God’s Word is also an element of such fruitfulness.
These are all things which I believe we do well. But we need to be careful not to get too conceited. One can’t presume they’re fine, you and I can’t presume that we are fine the way we are. We all need to listen very carefully to what God says. And that listening to Him, that will lead us to the heart of all fruitfulness, listening will lead us to clinging to Jesus himself.
As Jesus is being led to the cross on Good Friday, he tells the women of Jerusalem who are standing alongside the road not to weep for Him but instead to weep for themselves. He likens them, he compares them to a green tree, a fruitful tree as it were. Jesus says to “remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (John 15:4).
Friends, if the church, if any church, if you and me are going to have a future, if the church is going to be fruitful, if we are going to be fruitful … it isn’t from anything you and I personally do … it is only because we are clinging to Jesus, who alone gives life. “Where’s the fruit?” The fruit comes from being grafted, from clinging to Jesus and letting him have control of our lives. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, now and forever. Amen.