The Hammer of God is a little known classic within Christian literature and the fact that it flies under the radar is indeed sad. The book consists of three novellas, all which paint the picture of church life from a pastoral perspective. In the first novella, titled “The Hammer of God”, Giertz introduces the reader to a young curate named Savonius. Savonius preaches the law with great ferocity, but fails to ever comfort souls with the healing salve of the gospel. This results in a reduction of sinful living within the community, but also begins to breed an air of self righteousness in many congregants and an internal sense of overwhelming desperation within Savonius as he begins to realize the depths of his own depravity. One day a cobbler named Anders visits Savonius to seek counsel about his brother who lives with him. Anders is angry that his brother is drinking whiskey in his home and desires Pastor Savonius to give advice on how to coerce his brother to stop. Savonius asks if his brother is in the habit of being a drunkard. Anders says no, but expresses anger that his brother has the audacity to openly drink in front of him. Sovonius replies by asking if Anders would prefer his brother to drink alone where temptation could more easily overtake him? Anders, frustrated that he isn’t getting anywhere with the pastor, abruptly storms out. Savonius’ questions were purposefully pointed to show Anders that the true problem didn’t lie with his brother or the whiskey, but with himself. Self righteousness is synonymous with unrepentance and this is what Savonius attempted to help Anders realize. Todays biblical text is Luke 13:6-9, “The parable of the barren fig tree.” The contextual setup for the parable is found in Luke 13:1-5 and is remarkably similar to the dialogue between Savonius and Anders.
There were some present at that very time who told him about 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 in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
In these opening verses, Jesus finds himself in the midst those reporting the atrocity of Pilate desecrating the temple sacrifices. At this time Pilate was fighting against the Galilean zealots. These zealots were top priority for Pilate as their motivation was to promote unrest in gaining support to rally the Jews toward insurrection against Rome in an effort to ultimately gain full independance. Pilate was consumed with ridding these zealots from his territory at any cost. In seeking shelter from Pilate, some zealots sought safe haven in the Jerusalem temple, a place they assumed Pilate would not dare go out of reverence for Jewish religious laws. Not only did Pilate pursue the zealots into the temple, but also slew them in the temple, thus mixing their blood with the blood of the sacrifices (which were for atonement from sin). This was a terrible act of desecration which nullified the sacrifices that were tainted with human blood. Jesus’ response to the report is very insightful. Throughout the gospel accounts, Jesus knows the heart of his questioners. His questions are motivated by a desire to aid the questioner in their understanding, not because he is looking for the answer. Jesus knows that these reporters are telling him this story out of self righteousness instead of remorse. This is why he responds by asking them if they thought those slaughtered by Pilate in the temple were worse than all other Galileans. He knows their heart and thus calls them to repentance saying that apart from repentance, they will die in like manner. This statement is fascinating when understood in the context of what happened concerning Pilates desecration of the sacrifices. Self righteousness always looks both inward, to prove that we are checking things off of our list, and downward, at others when their sin is exposed. Repentance comes through the realization of our sinful state by resting in the person and work of Jesus. Thus, if these reporters reject repentance and cling to self righteousness instead, they are ultimately choosing to rely on their work rather than on Jesus’ salvivic work alone thus desecrating the sacrifice that Jesus will earn for them by his death and resurrection. Jesus continues to press this issue further by speaking of a tragedy that killed 18 people when the tower fell at Siloam. Jesus is saying that it is not the manner in which one dies that matters, only the condition of their heart. Whether a person dies in a car crash, is murdered or succumbs to cancer is spiritually immaterial. The only thing that matters is where their faith rests. Saving faith always rests in the person and work of Jesus and always bears the fruit of repentance. Saving faith is the antithesis self righteousness.
To further paint this picture to the reporters, Jesus tells them a parable in verses 6-9.
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, ‘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?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Some theologians attempt to divorce this parable from the previous 5 verses because on the surface, the narrative in verses 1-5 seems detached from the theme of the parable. However, a careful study will prove their theories incorrect. The parable begins with a man who owns a vineyard and plants a fig tree in the vineyard. The owner planted the tree with the purpose of bearing fruit, but each time he checks on the tree, he sees that it fails to bear fruit. The owner then contacts the vinedresser, explains the situation and tells him to cut the tree down as it is merely wasting profitable space. The vinedresser petitions the owner to wait it out the rest of the year so he can once more give the tree the best opportunity to bear fruit, but that if tree continues to be barren, he will then cut it down. With this understood, it is now time to reveal the parable cast.
The Man…..God the Father
The Fig Tree…..Jerusalem
The Vinedresser…..Jesus Christ
The 3 Years…..The collective ministry of the preparatory work John the Baptist and the fulfillment in Jesus Christ
The current year…..Extension of grace that carried through from the time of this parable through Jesus’ death and glorification.
God the Father owns a vineyard. This vineyard was initiated by God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 and 15 and realized through Jacob and his 12 sons in Genesis 32 when God changed his name from Jacob to Israel. After many generations of nomadic living and temporal instability, God then plants his presence, through the building of his temple in Jerusalem which makes it the spiritual center of the Jewish faith. Eventually through sin, Israel breaks into two kingdoms and only a remnant is faithful. The remnant is taken into Babylonian exile with God’s promise of rescue after 70 years. After 70 years, God keeps his promise and rescues the remnant, however, their spiritual exile continues until the Messiah comes. This prophecy is consumated in the preparatory work of John the Baptist and completely fulfilled in the redemptive office of Jesus Christ. John comes preaching repentance, and Christ, at his Baptism, engulfs John’s ministry and propagates it. Christ continues to preach repentance. This means that the vinedresser (or the one who cares for, nurtures and inspects both the condition of the tree/vine and its fruit) is Jesus Christ and the fruit that both he and The Father are looking for is repentance. The collective ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ was 3 years up to the point of this parable and the remaining year carries forth until Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus is most concerned with the unrepentant hearts of these Jewish reporters. He is seeking the fruit of repentance, but they are yielding none. Jesus will continue to preach repentance to them until his time comes. This understanding adds all the more meaning to Matthew 23:37 where Jesus says ““O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” This is the picture of the vinedresser talking to the fig tree at the end of the final year saying that he cared for and nourished it as much as he was given time to do, but that it ultimately refused to produce fruit and thus must be cut down. Ultimately, this picture is not reserved just for Jerusalem alone, but is a picture of our sinful, hardened, self righteous hearts. Repentance is the fruit that Jesus looks for in each of us. Repentance is not self righteous, but instead is naked agreement with our righteous God as we turn from sin and admit His ways alone are right and true. Repentance also is not something that is done once, but is continual in the life of the Christian. Just as the fig tree continues to bear fruit until death, so too will the Christian. This fruit is not something that is forced, but comes out of our new nature which was gifted to us. Therefore repentance is ultimately a gift.
As the first novella in “Hammer of God” comes to a close, the reader is never told what becomes of Anders. Did he eventually recognize his self righteousness and repent or did he continue down the road that leads to hardness of heart? I suppose we will never know and while Anders is merely a fictional character in a book written long ago, the hardened heart he displayed is alive and well in each of us from Adam forward. Each time the sun breaks the plane of a new day, the battle once again rages. Self righteousness is our natural, fleshly preset. So although Anders may have never existed, his attitude is all too familiar. The call to repent is not only to the Galilean reporters, Jerusalem or to Anders. The call to repent is directed to each of us as we go forth in this life. The first of Luther’s 95 Theses says it best. “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent” (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” In 1 John 1:8-10 the Apostle writes…
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
Let us therefore confess our sins daily with great eagerness. This is the perfect picture of a fig tree that is no longer barren.