Our world has no shortage of newsworthy headlines. From insane gas prices and soaring inflation to international conflicts and the atrocities of war, there is never a dull moment on your favorite news source. Whether you read the latest on Twitter or follow updates with your chosen streaming service, no matter if you watch the nightly news or listen to talk radio or even if you are one of the few who still takes the printed newspaper, there is a constant supply of shocking headlines to grab your attention. And we do not consume the news as impartial viewers. No, we choose sides, ascribing right and wrong, and we play our own little game of “Find the Sinner.” That is, we go in search of who is to blame. We want to know the real sinner is finally getting what they had coming. This is difficult on grand international stories, though we still do it. Far simpler are the more intimate stories of drunk drivers, domestic violence incidents, and drug overdoses. In so doing we attempt to harness the headlines of the day and somehow confirm our own righteousness, proving the wicked ones got what they had coming to them.
As our Lord was teaching His disciples, we find this game of “Find the Sinner” is not new to us. They are talking among themselves about some pretty crazy headlines. Such things would be trending in the news in our day, it would be found on every channel, it is full of shock and intrigue. Some eventually ask about the disturbing news that Pilate had mingled blood in the sacrifices of the Galileans and made them drink it. Such a think would have been an abomination. Surely it said something about the power and arrogance of Rome, but did it say something about the Galileans as well? Were they somehow being punished for their lack of purity, for a greater sin? Were they getting what they deserved? Well, no. Jesus says, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Then He highlights another big viral headline about a tower in Siloam which fell and killed eighteen people. Why did it fall at that time? Why these eighteen and no others? Were they somehow worse offenders then the rest of those who lived in Jerusalem? Did they simply get what they deserved? Again, Jesus says, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
These headlines are not an opportunity for assigning blame but a call to repentance. What we are bombarded with every time we turn on the news, every time we go to our social media feed, is the reality of a world ripped and torn by sin. While I am one who thinks we tend to spend too much time consumed by news events we have no control over, there is something good that comes from it all. For we cannot deny the reality of evil at work in our world. We may try and place blame on this or that person, but the truth is sin runs through it all. This is what Saint Paul is talking about when he says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” We hear the groaning when we learn of disaster and calamity in other lands, and even when we see it in our own lives. So, Jesus says the first order of business here is not to assign blame, to build up our own righteousness, but to repent.
Now, immediately after calling for repentance our Lord tells a strange parable to His followers. A man plants a fig tree in his vineyard and when he comes to get some figs there are none. The tree does not produce any fruit. He does this year after year and every time there is no fruit. So, he finally says to the vinedresser, “Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?” A fig tree without any figs is not worth much. It is taking up the good soil. It is time to cut it down and move on.
This parable gives us insight into our Lord’s call for repentance. To not repent, to continue on the course of finding the sinner out there, to continue to justify yourself or find righteousness in your own works by assigning blame elsewhere, is to be an unfruitful tree. And what use is a tree that does not bear any fruit? Might as well cut it down and make room for something or someone else. But notice what the vinedresser does. He does not give up on the tree. He also does not just allow things to remain as they are. No, he says, “Look leave it alone this year also. But this year I will do some work to it. I will dig around the base of it, I will make sure it is properly irrigated. I will fertilize it as well. I will use that good stuff which provides rich nutrients needed for growth.” He says, “Give it another year under my care and then, if it still does not produce fruit, well then fine, cut it down.” The vinedresser is betting on the tree, betting on the fruit.
This is where the parable ends. We do not get a happy resolution to it. Our Lord does not tie it up for us at the end. Does the tree produce fruit? Does the work of the vinedresser prove to be enough? Does the tree get cut down? It does not say, and perhaps that is the point. Because at this point the parable jumps off the page and takes ahold of you. For you, you see, are the trees planted by God in His vineyard. You are the ones who have been given faith, and with it the promise of life and salvation. So, it is from you God expects fruit. In the context of this whole passage just what is the fruit? It is to repent, repent and believe in the good news, repent and trust in the work of Christ alone, the work of your holy vinedresser.
See, our game of “Find the Sinner” does not end because we suddenly decide to give up. It ends because we finally find the sinner, the real sinner at the root of it all. The vinedresser works on you. He digs deep into your reality and shines the light of His truth into the dark corners of your life. He exposes the thing you would rather keep hidden. He gets to the root of the problem. See, the game of find the sinners ends when we find ourselves. To repent is to see the face staring back at you in the mirror and confess you have sinned in thoughts, in words, and in deeds. You have sinned by what you have done and by what you have left undone. What you see staring back at you in the mirror is the one who deserves to be cut down.
But the vinedresser is not finished with you. The vinedresser is not done taking care of His unfruitful tree. He bets on the tree. He bets on the fruit you will produce. And after exposing the rot within, He begins to care for His trees. He speaks words of healing and hope. He freely gives the only thing that can cause an unfruitful tree to begin producing fruit. He gives forgiveness, life, and salvation. He gives His love and compassion. He gives His own body and blood. He gives His perfect life. He gives the very fruit of eternal life, for you are called to produce. He gives it all.
To repent is to find the sinner within. To repent is to confess you cannot, by your own reason or strength, produce the fruit necessary for eternal live. To repent is to receive it all from Christ alone. In Christ, the trees produce fruit. He is our only hope, our only protection from being cut down and cast into the fire. The fruit is produced by our connection to our Lord. And He comes to you yet again, He comes once more to tend you, to hear your confession, to hear you have found the real sinner and declare: “You are forgiven. Eternal life is yours.” And nothing will separate you from His love.