Looking Back at Yesterday’s Gospel

Old fig tree
Old fig tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Readings:
Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9
 

Today’s gospel appears to be two unrelated stories. The first appears to ask why the innocent suffer. The second asks what can be done with unfruitful believers. Despite appearances, the two stories are related. It’s all about appearances. Does God care about the way things look, or does God care about the way things are?  

In the first story, Jesus is accosted with news of people who were executed (perhaps a better word is murdered) by Pontius Pilate, a man whose claim to fame is complicity in the murder of Jesus. Like people today, people of Jesus’ day wanted life to make sense. According to their logic, and according to many pious folk, “Everything happens for a reason.” The problem is that the people of Jesus’ day were no better at discerning the reason than we are. They jumped to conclusions, a universal human failing, and assumed that the dead had done something bad to deserve destruction. After each story, Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will all perish, just as they did.” If those people did not earn destruction by evil deeds, then why did Jesus tell people to repent of evil or perish? Harper’s Bible Commentary tells us that “The final blow to the idea that any person suffering must have sinned is dealt at Golgotha.” 

After this conversation, Jesus told a parable, the second story. In the parable, an innocent fig tree is simply growing in a garden and bothering nobody. Sadly, in the eyes of the garden’s owner, the fig tree is no better than a thief. It is sucking up nutrients from the ground and making itself lush and beautiful, comfortable in its little corner of the world, but it is not doing the one thing that makes a fig tree uniquely valuable: it is not producing any figs. The owner allowed it three years to grow up and become an adult. The owner recognized the religious  (Pharisaical) rule that the fourth year, the first fruitful year, all the produce belonged to God. Well, there was no produce, but that was God’s problem. Then three more years passed. Three years. The fruit during these years belonged to the owner – well, after the tithe they belonged to the owner. The owner is indignant that the tree should receive the resources of the garden while remaining fruitless. As far as the owner is concerned, this tree is a fraud, living off larceny, perpetrating the long con. The gardener speaks up in apparent defense of the tree, offering to give it even more resources, suggesting that a little more investment will pay off in a year’s time. You might say that as a response to Jesus’ admonition to “repent, or you will all perish” the gardener says, “I think I know how to persuade this tree to stop stealing and start producing fruit.” If the gardener could make it happen, it would be a dramatic turnaround for that fig tree. And that is the point. 

The gardener offers to invest more in the tree, and it sounds at first as if he is offering to give the tree more freedom (cultivate the soil so it is looser for the roots to develop) and more food (fertilizer that will make it even more lush). If you read the words again, the gardener is offering to invest himself in that tree. He will dig around it. He will spread more fertilizer. By implication he says that he will do more for this tree without reducing his efforts for all the other plants in the garden. He will give more of himself in order to lead the tree to a place where the tree will give something – fruit. 

It takes us back to the stories of execution and accidental death. What was wrong with those people who died? In what way might they resemble the figless fig tree? In what way might anyone resemble the figless fig tree? If a fig can be reasonably expected to produce figs, and condemned if it doesn’t, in what way does that image compare to a human being? How does the failure of a fig tree to produce figs parallel a human being’s need for repentance?  

Answers to these questions can be found by digging a little deeper, to borrow the gardening metaphor, into the word repent 

The Greek word that underlies the English word repent is metanoeo. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged says of this word, “In general, what is meant is an about-face.” (page 640) Dr. Rick Carlson interprets the word much more dramatically, saying that repentance is radical reorientation. When we think of repentance that way, it sounds like the kind of response called for by radical injustice (autocratic execution of innocent people) or radical probability (the statistical likelihood that eighteen people would be near enough to die when gravity took its toll on that tower).  If you hear Jesus say, “unless you repent, you will all perish, just as they did,” it might sound like something you could put on tomorrow’s to-do list. It sounds more compelling when you hear Jesus say, “Unless you radically reorient your life, you are doomed!”

Which brings us to the fig tree. The whole problem with the fig tree is that the owner had a right to expect figs from that tree. It was his tree in his garden. He bought it, he planted it, he paid the gardener to give it the same care as everything else, but no figs. The problem is what Dr. Carlson calls “axiomatic.”

Everyone who studied geometry, willingly or unwillingly, in high school, remembers the word axiom. Some will even remember that an axiom was a statement of truth which was self-evident and required no proof. An example of an axiom is the statement “things equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” That statement does not require to be proved the way the statement “all right angles are congruent” needs to be proved. Following this train of thought, it is axiomatic that figs come from fig trees, but somebody must prove that extra cultivation and fertilizer will compel a fruitless tree to produce fruit.

John the Baptist talked about this problem. Crowds of people came to hear him preach down by the Jordan River, and among the people in the crowds were Pharisees. The Pharisees were the masters of religious appearance. They looked exactly like the definition of religion just as that fruitless fig tree Jesus talked about looked exactly like the definition of fig tree. Sadly, in both cases, no fruit was being produced

John the Baptist looked at the Pharisees, who had the appearance of being God’s own people, but they showed none of the fruit of a relationship with God. He said, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Actually, the text suggests that he probably shouted those words vehemently. He almost certainly shouted Aramaic words, which were written down in Greek gospels and have now been translated into English. Still, to get the meaning the way John shouted at them, we need to borrow Dr. Carlson’s language. In John’s eyes, those fruitless Pharisees needed something as radical as that figless fig tree needed. He shouted, “It is axiomatic that fruit trees bear fruit, and it is axiomatic that people who live in relationship with God show the evidence in their lives! You need to radically reorient your lives and start bearing fruit axiomatic with repentance!”

In Matthew’s gospel, the parallel between this message of John the Baptist and the message of Jesus is quite clear.

 Matthew 3:1 John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Matthew 4:17 Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Both John the Baptist and Jesus opened their messages with the same call Jesus gave to the people in Luke 13: “You need to make an about-face. You need to radically reorient your lives. And you need to start bearing fruit axiomatic of that radical reorientation.”

The people who came to Jesus with the stories of the murder of innocents, looking for some simple explanation for the evil in the world did not get off the hook. Jesus took them down the road to a place where mere appearances and easy answers no longer worked. It was fairly easy to say that Pilate perverted justice by murdering people who had not been convicted of anything. It appeared to be a perversion of justice. Jesus said that the murder by Pilate was no better or worse than the accidental death of people who simply happened to be standing by when a tower collapsed. In the cosmic sense, that appears to be a perversion of justice, too. People died without being convicted of any wrong-doing. So when a gardener jumps to the defense of a silly tree that refuses to produce the fruit that is axiomatic of fig trees, it almost sounds comical, until you think of what John the Baptist and Jesus both preached. Then you realize that Jesus simply wanted everyone to recognize that you can’t fool God. Nobody can produce the fruit of a radically reoriented life by simply looking religious. Only a person who makes the about face, turns away from the mere appearance of religiosity, and radically reorients his life to complete commitment to Christ will produce the fruit axiomatic of a relationship with God. If we don’t do that, we are as doomed as those innocent bystanders. Christ, our wonderful gardener, invested himself on the cross, invested everything in us on the cross. That fruitless fig tree that focused only on being leafy and comfortable was just like us when we are self-absorbed and self-worshiping and focused on “what’s in it for me.” If we want to produce the fruit axiomatic of a relationship with God, we need to turn around and radically reorient ourselves, do a complete about-face, and follow Christ to the cross.

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