Tag Archives: Pharisees

Looking Back at Yesterday’s Gospel

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

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.

What Is A Christian Doing in Dirty Politics?

I have a wonderful friend who tells me that she does not want any part of politics. She does not want to hear about it. She does not want to talk about it. She believes that too many participants in politics are driven by hate. She is affronted by behavior and speech she regards as venomous.

Many Christians feel that way. Some do engage in the national conversations on topics such as taxation, budgets, social services and so forth, but my friend comments that when Christians say something, it is likely to be hate-filled speech. While I disagree that the political speech of most Christians is hate-filled, I did stop and take a closer look after she made that statement. I observed a couple of disappointing truths.

First, many Christians actually do believe that Christianity has the right and responsibility to dominate the culture. Secular thinkers complain that when Christians assert their right to express their faith, they are actually asserting cultural dominance. The secular thinkers say that Christians do not want “religious freedom.” Secular thinkers believe that Christians want “religious primacy.” The assumption by many Christians that cultural norms which held firm for more than two hundred years should continue unabated into the foreseeable future fuels the secular concern. The demographics tell us that the proportion of Christians in the population is declining as the proportion of secular thinkers is increasing, and the natural consequence of changing proportions is cultural change. Most human beings resist change, especially when it is uncomfortable change, and there are a lot of uncomfortable Christians in the culture of the USA.

Second, while I reject the accusation that Christians who speak out against cultural changes that are inimical to Christian teaching are venomous, I do observe that many are whiny. The sense that somebody stole the culture while we were not looking fuels that attitude. Whatever the explanation is, it won’t pass muster as justification for whining. Christians who whine are not doing any favors for the faith they want to promote.

Without going into the history of the declining Christian demographic, it is still proper to note that there is ample evidence that the founders of this country were predominantly Christian, and that those who were not Christian nevertheless believed that the God Christians worship existed and deserved respect. That is the worldview that shaped the nation for more than two hundred years.

Today, however, there are a couple of other worldviews that compete with Christianity for dominance: secular thinking and Islam. Christians who feel pressure to stop speaking and acting like a Christian in public are responding to the pressure from those two worldviews, but they are not always responding with the grace that the Bible tells us should be characteristic of Christians. A whiny victim mentality is not a testimony to our loving, victorious Christ, the One whose name shapes our name.

Just as Christ’s s name is embedded in the name of our religion, Christ himself is embedded in each believer. Paul wrote, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16) If the Holy Spirit is living in us, then our words and deeds ought to testify to that truth. We are called to bring the kingdom of God near to everyone we meet, and whiny complaints about ‘the war on Christmas’ and other such issues do not bring people near to the love that sent Christ to the cross. It almost seems as if Christians in general have become quite Pharisaical in their views. Some seem to believe that as the appearance of Christian cultural dominance declines, Christians themselves should take offense in the name of Christ.

Jesus never did any such thing.

Christ himself constantly offended those who worried about appearances. The Pharisees complained that Jesus did not respect the Sabbath, because he went right ahead and healed people on that day. They tested his respect for the Ten Commandments when he refused to judge the woman caught in adultery. They thought he defiled himself over and over by touching lepers and eating with publicans. The truth is, Christ did not and does not have much use for “appearances.”

That does not mean that Christians should sit on the sidelines of politics in the USA. The government of the USA is quite different from the government of the Roman Empire. In this country, citizens must participate in the government, or the Constitution will not work. If citizens worry that politics is dirty, then more of them must get involved in the work of cleaning it up. Christians care deeply about the values expressed in the culture that ultimately shape the government. If Christians refuse to participate then their voice will not be heard in the decisions that are made by elected officials. The culture shapes politics, and politics shapes the government.

One problem Christians face if they do get involved is a demand that they keep their religion to themselves. This demand arises from secular thinkers who believe that all religion is bunk. They do not want to hear about religion in public, especially not in government.  A Christian who wants the government to mandate a national holiday on Good Friday will call down a firestorm on both himself and the faith he represents. Another issue growing in magnitude is pressure from Islam to incorporate sharia law into US jurisprudence. That pressure also wants to suppress Christian input, because Christian views did shape the English Common Law that is the basis for US law. Islam, a diametrically opposite worldview from secularism, believes that there is not and cannot be any separation between religion and government. Islam believes that Muslims must be governed by sharia law. Secular thinkers would say of Islam and Christianity, “a pox on both their houses.” The United States hosts a veritable conflagration of views that cannot all be simultaneously upheld.

 The people who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights had great respect for religion. They respected all religions. They believed that religion had an important cultural role in shaping the values of citizens. Unlike contemporary secular thinkers, the men who wrote the Constitution believed that the culture and the government alike benefited from the moral and ethical voice of religion expressed when citizens advocate for the laws and the services that shape the government. They expected people to express their religion in the expression of their values, and they honored that contribution as a counterweight to the government tendency to operate more pragmatically than ethically.

Christians, like any other US citizen, need to be part of the political discourse, speaking, acting and voting. They should, however, be recognized in political discourse the same way they are to be recognized in all other venues. They should be known for lovingkindness that makes people see Christ in them. Christ’s lovingkindness was at work when he cleansed the temple as surely as it was at work when he faced Pilate, so Christians must not confuse lovingkindness with abandonment of truth for the sake of “getting along.” The value of “coming together” only stands if the group that comes together actually accomplishes something good. It is a considerable test of character to advocate without compromise for an important principle while unfailingly projecting God’s love into the discussion.

Christians need to stand for objectives that are good. Even more important, while a political conversation may not be the place for an evangelistic sermon, it is certainly a place where God’s steadfast love for all people should be manifest. If Christians are only known for whining and crying that things are not the way they used to be, they are utterly failing in their call to be light in a dark world.

For more discussion of the challenge to live our faith as light in a dark world, read my review of Martin Roth’s book Brother Half Angel.