Sermon - Third Sunday of Lent (3/24/2019)
Is. 55:1-9; Ps. 63:1-8; 1 Cor. 10:1-13; Lk. 13:1-9
“Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.”
Let it alone. There is a vineyard with a fig tree growing in it. But the fig tree never has any figs, and the owner of the vineyard has had it with the barren fig tree. Cut it down! Why should it take up space? But the gardener says, Sir, let it alone. Let me try for one more year to see if I can help it. I hope I can suceed, but if I don’t, then you can cut it down later. But give me a chance. For now, let it alone.
Luke’s gospel, and indeed all of the New Testament, was originally written in Greek. And in Greek, the sentence that gets translated “Sir, let it alone” is “Kyrie, aphes autên.” Kyrie, as in Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy), is usually translated “Lord.” In modern English, a gardener wouldn’t address the owner of the garden as “Lord” but, probably, as “Sir,” so that’s what the translation says, but the Greek word here is usually translated as “Lord.”
And “let it alone” in the Greek is “aphes autên.” “Aphes” means let be, let go, permit. And “autên” is just “it.” So when the owner says, I am so disappointed in this useless fig tree, cut it down,” and the gardener says “Aphes autên,” that means: Let it be, let it go, permit it. Don’t cut it down, but – as our translators paraphrase it – “leave it alone.”
The word “aphes” shows up in a number of passages that you probably know. Like in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says is someone asks for your coat, “aphes” your shirt too. Just let it go. But sometimes “aphes” doesn’t just mean let be, let go, permit. Sometimes it has a more specific meaning, which is “forgive.” So in the Lord’s Prayer, “aphes” our trespasses, forgive our trespasses, let them go.
And there is one verse that you also know that is almost the same as “Kyrie, aphes autên” (Lord, let it go) in today’s parable. When Jesus on the cross says, in the Greek: “Patêr, aphes autôn.” Father, forgive them, let them go, for they know not what they do. The same word, “aphes,” almost the same sentence structure. Father, forgive them. Lord, let it be. The owner of the vineyard says: Cut it down, and the gardener says: Lord, forgive it.
And so our English translation of today’s gospel reading, while making sense in the context of what a human gardener would say to a human garden owner, in fact obscures something that would have jumped out at the first readers of Luke’s gospel in the original language: that the gardener in this parable is Jesus. Because Jesus is the one who always prays: Aphes. Father, forgive them – let them be, they know not what they do. Lord, forgive it – let it be, let me dig around it and fertilize it. Let me give to this undeserving fig tree, let me devote myself to this fruitless tree. Maybe I can bring some life out of this useless tree, which is as good as dead. If I can, Lord, you will have the fruit that you wanted. And if not, then you can cut down the tree. I’m not cutting down anything. But for now, aphes. Let it be. Forgive it. Let me see what life I can bring out of it.
In this parable of the fig tree, especially when you see the allusion that is lost in our translations, Jesus tells us clearly how he sees his mission. The first human beings, Adam and Eve, were created to live in a garden and to take care of it. There was a tree in that garden that had fruit that Adam and Even shouldn’t have eaten, but they did, and now the tree in the garden is barren and will produce no fruit. That’s what we humans have done to the garden that God created. And now Jesus is the new caretaker of the garden, pleading for mercy: Aphes, forgive, let it be. Let me bring this dead tree back to life, let me dig around it and fertilize it. Perhaps there can be a new garden on the other side of death, a new creation on the other side of barrenness and futility. Give me some time, put off the day of judgment, aphes. Let it be. Forgive and let me find a way out of this mess.
Jesus told this parable to conclude a rather strange discussion that he had with the crowd at the beginning of today’s gospel reading. The crowd tells Jesus a provocative story about a recent horrible event: some people from Galilee, the same people as Jesus and the same people as the crowd itself, had gone to offer sacrifices to God exactly as the Law had prescribed. And while they were at worship, Roman soldiers killed them. Innocent people doing the right thing, yet they lost their lives in an act of unspeakable evil. It’s an outrage against our neighbors, Jesus! An outrage against humanity and an outrage against God! What do you have to say about this, Jesus?
And Jesus responds: Don’t try to figure out, why them? Don’t ask yourself what they did to deserve what happened to them. Just like the people who died in that accident, when the tower fell at Siloam, don’t ask why this happened to them and not you. They are no different from you, Jesus says. If you don’t repent, you will die too, just as they did.
Which is an odd thing to say. I mean, it’s not as though if we repent, we can avoid dying. Jesus didn’t have anything he even needed to repent from, yet Jesus did not avoid death. So, I’m sure the people in the crowd were as puzzled by the response of Jesus as we are. So Jesus tries to explain his point by tellig the parable of the fig tree. You see, it’s not that God is cutting down some fig trees that aren’t bearing fruit and rewarding other trees for the great fruit that they are producing. You were not spared because your fruit is better than theirs. I can assure you, you are no better than they. You are being spared because I am here saying: Lord, aphes. Lord, forgive. Let me dig around you and fertilize you with some manure, let me try to bring you from death to life. And if I don’t, soon enough you’ll be cut down too.
At the end of today’s second reading, Paul makes the same point that Jesus makes in the gospel today. Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing God will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
Note that Paul does not simply say: God will not let you be tested beyond your strength. If he had stopped there, I might think that if God allows adversity to happen in my life, God must believe that I have the strength to cope with it – so that means I have to pull myself up by my bootstraps, keep a stiff upper lip, and solve my own problems. It’s true that human beings are amazingly resilient, and sometimes in a time of crisis we discover strengths that we never knew we had. But all of us, sooner or later, have to deal with problems that we cannot handle by ourselves.
And the good news, Paul says, is that whatever testing and trials we may face, God has provided a way out. And so we never have to face anything with our own strength alone. Nothing, not even death itself, can separate us from God’s love in Jesus. Jesus stands over everything that is barren and fruitless in your life and mine, over everything that is broken and failing in this world, and says: Aphes, forgive, let it be, suspend judgment, let me work on this, let me dig and fertilize and change your heart, let me find life even in the midst of death. Don’t give in to outrage or to despair, don’t try to figure out why bad things happen, don’t assume you’re better than anyone else or that you don’t need a little manure dumped on your life now and then. There will be time enough for judgment later, if it comes to that. But for now, there is time, and I am here to plead, Aphes, let it be, let me do the work to bring you life.