The great thing about parables is that, almost as if by chance, they appear to sneak up on you and get you to think. However, at the same time the catch with the parables is, to quote Louis Pasteur in a different context, “chance only favours the prepared mind”.
Certainly this short story about the fig tree appears to offer hope to the thoughtful who know there is something wrong with their balance on life, yet it still manages to provide an excuse for careless theology for those who prefer a casual and shallow treatment of the parables.
The story is deceptively simple. The landowner comes across the fig tree which is failing to produce.
He tells the gardener – get rid of it. The gardener says in effect. “Not just yet. We will give it one more opportunity. We will loosen the soil around it – add some fertilizer then after a year if it still fails to produce, then we will get rid of it, for if it still fails to produce the fruit it is designed to produce, it has no purpose for continued life”.
At one level at least, Jesus almost appears to intend his listeners to cast Jesus himself as the gardener. It seems it is Jesus who comes and finds the fig tree which is not being the fruit tree it was intended to be. Again the analogy appears straightforward enough.
Many of us have talents atrophied through disuse. Sometimes these talents are the critical talents that might give perspective and meaning to our lives. Just as different fruit trees produce different fruit we don’t expect a fig tree to produce peaches – but as the potential to produce figs is there in the genetic makeup of the fig tree – our value to the community and world will be in developing what we have as our potential. So at one level Jesus is just saying, if we look at our lives and see the wholesome fruits of our lives are not evident, we still have a chance to put things right before we are brought to judgement…. but if we are hearing Jesus right we only have limited time. If we do nothing, the axe will fall.
Well that is fine as far as it goes, but if we read the story in context we start to notice a few clues that suggest Jesus was not talking about judgement in a heaven or hell context – and nor was he teaching that our lives would be long and happy as long as we did the right things religion wise.
What however, he may have been trying to do in part, is remind his listeners – that all of us, young and old, will face death sooner or later. Repentance – or if you like a reordering of life’s values, is a way of being ready.
I suggested at the outset that Jesus tells his parable of the fig tree in such a way that his listeners probably understood him to be portraying himself as the gardener. Giving the fig tree one last year to put things right, might then gain extra significance, referring to the length of Jesus ministry. Remember three of the four gospels have Jesus doing his entire mission over the space of one year – and it is only in John we have dates suggesting a three year ministry.
Remember also how Jesus came to be telling the story in the first place.
In one sense he is dealing with an age-old game. Disaster has paid a visit. And here comes the standard question. Were the victims partly responsible for their own misfortune? And the paraphrase of Jesus’ answer?….. “No but if you don’t repent, you won’t cope with the next disaster”. And in case we too want to be part of the blame game, remember that the two examples at the outset were first the Galileans slaughtered by the Roman governor and then the 18 victims of the tower collapse at Siloam, and for both, Jesus specifically excludes the possibility that they were personally responsible for what had befallen them.
At this distance of time and space we cannot be certain that those bring the news of Pilate’s latest outrage might have been deliberately trying to wind Jesus up to get him to commit himself to a political response. Certainly two of his disciples, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot were known to have zealot and Nationalistic sympathies. If they had been hoping for a direct response we can imagine they would have been surprised and even a little disturbed by Jesus’ odd little parable told in response.
The Temple scene certainly points to an uncomfortable situation developing between the Jews and their Roman conquerors. Some Galileans had been in the Temple and Pontius Pilate had apparently deliberately interfered with their temple ceremonies by having his soldiers burst in and slaughter them, and as if this was not enough he then mixes their blood with the blood of the sacrificed animals, thereby trampling the sensibilities of the general populace by showing his contempt for their religion.
The contemporary historian Josephus has recorded a number of Pilate’s actions which show this was quite in keeping with the sorts of ways he used to subjugate the population. Josephus reminds us for example that Pilate once stole the Temple money to pay for an aqueduct, then, dealt with the ensuing riot by having his soldiers use torture and public execution to crush the inevitable local uprising.
Jesus’ example of the tower collapse has a contemporary ring to it. Buildings, even today do fail, and just as the case whenever there is a substantial disaster, there will always be those who claim that it must have God’s will – perhaps punishing wrong doers. Remember back to the Christchurch Earthquakes when there were letters to the paper claiming that it was God’s punishment as a consequence of the poor morality of the people of Christchurch – blaming as I remember, the prostitutes in Manchester Street being allowed to ply their trade – not to mention an apparently liberal dean of Christchurch cathedral!
Jesus is ahead of this situation. He reminded his hearers that they should not think for one moment that the victims in Siloam were responsible for their fate… any more than Jesus sees individuals in Jerusalem are likely to be personally responsible for the disaster that will befall them. Here it is hard to be certain whether this is Jesus simply being perceptive about the likely dreadful consequences of the gathering rebellion against the Romans, which of course, by the time Luke wrote his gospel, had already happened. More disturbing perhaps is that Jesus can consider shocking disasters without singling out some as being more deserving of his sympathy. All, he said – which presumably means the Roman tyrants, the terrorists and the common people caught up in situations not of their making…..all – need repentance – and what it more – repentance before it is too late.
This must also have been a very worrying time for the disciples. The disciples having heard of how Pilate was treating those of faith – and being well aware of the increasing friction between Jesus and the leaders of the Jewish religion, to them it must have seemed foolhardy in the extreme to continue the journey to Jerusalem.
Even if they had been unable to make sense of what Jesus was telling them at the time, a few years later as the walls of the Temple and the other buildings came crashing down as the Roman army swept into Jerusalem bent on revenge so terrible that further resistance would be considered futile, the echo of Jesus words must have made his parable seem an extraordinarily perceptive warning with both political and military overtones.
Jesus of course has a well deserved reputation of making astute observations. He clearly understood that people putting their faith in traditions and even the ancient stones of their most sacred buildings would not be enough to protect them from the gathering storm. But for all of us, sooner or later, the dark clouds will gather.
Lent is upon us once more. Although I am not Anglican, I note the Anglicans have a litany for Lent which seems particularly appropriate as the disaster toll mounts for the New Year. Civil war worsens in Syria, rioting mounts in Egypt, and in Tunisia while a major storm hits the East coast of the US…. A Tsunami in the Solomon Islands…. First bush fires and now floods are hitting Australia. So the Litany goes: ‘From famine and disaster, from violence, murder and dying unprepared, good Lord, deliver us.’
Now I know it is traditional to pray and expect God will answer, but I am coming to believe that at the very least, as with all intercessory prayers, this prayer should awaken our conscience to do something as part of the answer. If we do not wish for famine, we must plan our food store – and of course food stores for those less able to fend for themselves. Disasters happen throughout the world as they have done through history and as they will continue to do. Our Rotary club for example helps in a small way by preparing disaster kits called shelter boxes which are deployed when hurricanes and Tsunamis hit the low lying Pacific Islands. Is this not part of the answer to such prayers? Notice the litany does not, and indeed cannot ask, that we be be delivered from death, but the prayer does ask to be delivered from dying unprepared.
For me, prayer has little meaning unless I am prepared to allow myself to become involved in its answer. So in terms of avoiding dying unprepared, some of this preparation is simply planning. Will I have “donor” recorded on my driver’s licence? Will I organize for money to be set aside for my funeral? Is my will clear and easily accessible? And I guess from Jesus words this morning – part of the preparation for death must involve repentance.
So given that life is finite, and often unexpectedly fragile, as we start to realise Lent is not simply a religious exercise but includes our preparation for Easter, why not look again at the way we have chosen to live?
The story of the fig tree contains some basic truths. Many of us do not bear the fruit in our lives we would like to bear. Check! Negative perhaps, but true nevertheless. But don’t forget another of these truths is positive. There may still be time to turn our lives around. Why not make this a feature of our season of Lent?