How aptly C.S. Lewis allegorized our Lord when he wrote of Aslan: “He’s not a safe lion, but he is good.” For Jesus, the vinedresser, strongly desires the greatest good of his Church, and we are not safe from his love, but are rather in grave danger of seeing this very good come to pass! A skim-reading of this parable, and the preceding dialogue with “the crowd,” might seem to suggest that an angry deity is dangling us above the unquenchable fire, waiting only to see if we are worthy to be spared. Jesus’ interlocutors seem to have this very idea in mind when they suggest that some Galileans “got theirs” when Pilate mingled their blood with their sacrifices. But Jesus, never shy to speak openly, replies, “Unless you change your hearts you will all perish likewise.” The axe is laid at the root of the tree.
The God of Israel, who owns the vineyard, has come in Jesus to see if His creation has borne fruit, but His three-year ministry has shown it to be barren. Is it good for anything then? Has God’s plan to bless the world through Abraham come to nothing? But here Jesus is also our defense: “Wait. Let me dig down and spread manure.” The imagery is strongly suggestive of Christ’s own sacrifice: He will revitalize the tree with himself. With this interjection, mercy triumphs over judgement. Yet the threat stands: “if not…”
At last the axe falls, but instead of the tree, it falls on the vinedresser himself—and with him, Israel, the tree, us, and all things. Are we then to welcome the axe? The same instrument that fells the tree also trims the dead branches to the greater good of the tree. And God, in His mercy, has chosen to spare the tree, or rather to resurrect it in Christ, that the whole world may be grafted into it. Justice and mercy kiss, as David prophesies.
God has determined to bring forth fruit from the tree, and He has accomplished this in Christ. While we are being grafted into this vine, we are brought in through Christ’s suffering, in which He bids us to participate. In this Lenten season, let us meditate on His suffering as we prepare to remember His Passion.
Lenten Reader 2018
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