There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Silo′am fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Let it alone, sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” - Luke 13:1-9 (RSV)
Have you ever fully dedicated yourself to a project? I don’t mean spending several hours working on it or even something that’s kind of like a hobby. I mean really put your whole self into something. Been so deeply involved that no matter what the setback you kept working to find a way forward? Today in the gospel reading, St. Luke shares with us a parable of Jesus about a man dedicated to such a project.
The subject of our Lord’s story is a vinedresser. A vinedresser is someone hired – or in Jesus’ day sometimes owned – to maintain a vineyard. Basically, a vinedresser is a gardener or – in even more contemporary language – a lawn service man. Think of a smelly, grass-stained, dirt and sweat-covered man who spends his entire day out of doors.
Daily our vinedresser awakes and toils in a vineyard with vines of grapes, fruit trees, and other beautiful plants. Throughout the year, he monitors the seasons and change of weather anticipating when and how best to prepare the vineyard for what is to come. Before the frost, he stays late to cover the fragile plants. When the soil is too dry, he waters. When the fruit is at its peak of ripeness he calls the harvesters. As he prunes and trims the vineyard he is cut and bleeds. The vinedresser lives and breathes the vineyard. In a very real way the vineyard has become an extension of himself. It is the project always on his mind; his first thought each morning and often his last thought as he drifts off to sleep.
Vineyards are planted on choice ground. Not just any old place can sustain grapes, much less grapes of the quality needed for wine. Vineyards are delicate and require the constant attention of someone with experience. Beyond that, each vineyard is unique: the soil on this slope is rockier than the others and requires more water; this section of the garden gets less sun which does for a sweeter grape. To be a successful vinedresser is to be observant, constantly changing, and able to apply the correct technique at the right time. The vineyard depends on the constant care of a skilled vinedresser to survive and prosper.
Our vinedresser is not a powerful man. Vineyards are expensive to own and his master or employer is surely a wealthy man. The vinedresser toils in the vineyard because it is his life’s project. Though he doesn’t own the vineyard in a legal sense, it is his vineyard in kinship. Our vinedresser loves his vineyard and truly desires to see each and every plant flourishing with fruit. Constantly observing and thinking, our vinedresser is always looking for ways to assist his plants in becoming better. A little more fertilizer here. Some pruning there. More gravel for drainage in this corner. A stake to support a weak branch near some new growth. He will do whatever it takes and then some to see his vineyard thrive.
Three years ago the owner of the vineyard asked our vinedresser to plant a fig tree. Ever the faithful servant, our vinedresser carefully planted the tree and tended to it with the attention given to all within his vineyard. He prepped the hole to ensure proper drainage. He measured the acidity of the soil and took measures to get everything in balance. As time passed he fertilized, watered, pruned, and monitored the little fig tree. In all of Israel there wasn’t a fig tree given as much care and attention as this one.
Each year since its planting, the vineyard’s owner has asked the vinedresser when there would be figs to harvest from the tree. Each year, despite the vinedresser’s best efforts, the tree has remained barren. Each year he tries a little harder, gives an additional measure of care to the tree in hopes that a little tweak here or there is all that is needed to push the tree to fruitfulness. The vinedresser wants so badly to give the vineyard’s owner a positive report. He wants to see beautiful, ripe figs that will be enjoyed by all. Each year he is saddened by the tree’s still bare braches.
This year, however, will be the saddest and most frustrating year of all for our vinedresser. The owner of the vineyard has given him an ultimatum: the fig tree must bare fruit or be cut down. Fig trees exist for a purpose and that purpose is to grow figs. The vinedresser knows this. Despite how much he cares for the tree; he understands that a fig tree without figs is just a tree. The choice ground of the vineyard is for making fruit. If no fruit is to come from this tree, it doesn’t belong in the vineyard.
Despite fully understanding the truth of the present situation, the vinedresser pleads for another year. He cares so deeply for his fig tree project; he can’t let it come to an end without a final push. With one more year he can give the tree all he has and if it still doesn’t bare fruit, he will allow it to be cut down. Though he is realistic, the vinedresser’s optimism brings him hope that with a little more time, he will be able to bring the tree to grow figs. This hope, however, is tinged with a little sadness. The vinedresser knows that the end will come to the tree if progress is not made.
Can you feel the love the vinedresser has for his vineyard? It’s a love born from toiling within the vineyard through the struggles time. Do you know the sadness he feels as he looks on the barren braches of the tree he has cared so much for? It’s the sadness of reality falling short of the visions so clear in dreams. Have you experienced the hope of one more time to get things right? It’s the hope for a better future where dreams are finally realized. Jesus experienced these things as he ministered in Israel. You see, Jesus tells us about the vinedresser because he wants to help us understand him.
The Galileans in Luke 13 surround Jesus with politically-tinged questions of righteousness. The vinedresser of God’s vineyard stands in their midst, but instead of asking him for fertilizer and care, they’re trying to determine the point when one is assured to be cut down. Jesus loves these people. He wants so much for them to understand why he came and what he is doing on their behalf. He wants to lead them to a life full of God’s grace, love, and holiness. He knows that if they do not bare the fruits of God’s holiness, they will not see the Lord.
We can stand in the narthex debating whether Trump or Clinton are more evil. We can judge the eternal state of the abortionist and condemn the prostitute. We can stand in this place with our Bibles in hand and the taste of sacred wine on our lips speaking judgment to all those who live contrary to the will of God, but if we do not recognize our own sinfulness we, too, stand condemned.
God created us to reflect his perfect image of love. He offers us his love and full union with his eternally triune self through the merits of Jesus. We are called by the Father to be holy. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be holy. Jesus showed us how to be holy and covers our ungodliness with his blood. Outside of our relationship with God we are no better or worse than anyone else. We are rotting corpses and like all dying things, will perish and return to dust.
But, what great hope we have in Jesus. On our behalf he pleads for more time. He gives more grace, more love. He, like a good vinedresser, observes, cares, and works with us to bring about the best fruit. He, like the vinedresser, knows our every need and tends to us as the situation and season demands. He does all he can do to lead us to fruitfulness.
In this great penitential season of Lent we are called to reflect on our sinfulness and repent before the Lord. We reflect on our sinfulness, not their sinfulness. We look to how we can allow God to prune our lives of the unholy, so that his holiness can reign in our lives and flow out from us into his creation. While the world around us preaches doom, let us celebrate the hope of one more year. The fig tree has not yet been cut down and the vinedresser continues to tend to the barren.
Live into your intended purpose. Accept the care of Jesus, the Great Vinedresser. Acknowledge and repent of your sins knowing that Jesus forgives all. No sin is too large for the love of God to cover. No chasm is too wide for the Spirit of God to reconcile. From the sadness of the present reality we experience through Lent comes the hope of Easter morning. Jesus lives! Jesus loves! Jesus cares and heals! In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we are forgiven and live into the season of eternal fruit. Thanks be to God! Amen.