The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE FIG TREE

Delivered 3/11/07
Text: Luke 13:1-9 (Isaiah 55:1-9)
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Hmm. An intriguing lesson. First, the reflection on an apparent atrocity perpetrated by the Roman Governor - folks beaten and killed in the midst of their religious observance. Apparently, Pilate was flexing Roman muscle to make sure no Jewish Zealots would consider fomenting an insurrection. Too bad. But those Galileans should have kept to their own territory rather than coming down to Jerusalem to further their political schemes.(1) As painful as it might be to admit, perhaps Pilate had to do what Pilate had to do. They got what they deserved.

Then there was that story of the eighteen people crushed by the horrible collapse of the tower of Siloam, a construction project gone drastically wrong. Word on the street was that the disaster would never have happened had not Pilate stolen the money to fund it from the Temple treasury;(2) people said anyone who worked on it was participating in a blasphemy against God. God made that tower fall. Anyone who cooperates with evil gets evil in return. Period. Bottom line. People get what they deserve.(3)

Nothing unique in that kind of thinking. People get what they have coming to them, and if something bad happens, at some level, somehow, somewhere, they were asking for it. A prostitute is murdered, her body dumped in a ditch - divine retribution, some say. A young woman is attacked; "Well, what do you expect - look what she was wearing!" Uh-huh. AIDS. Why? Lifestyle. Sex. Drugs. And when WE are brought low, we whisper, "Why, God? What have I done to deserve this?"

Do you believe that all suffering is the result of some evil that the tormented person has done (or if the victim is too young or obviously innocent, it must be the fault of parents or grandparents)? Lots of folks do. Psychologists call it the "Just World" theory - everything that happens is just and right, as it should be, even if it does not appear to be. Such a belief helps folks explain the inexplicable.

What do YOU think, Jesus?

"Well, I will TELL you what I think...unless YOU repent, you will all perish just as THEY did."

Huh?

Perhaps it would be helpful to note that some scholars see these verses against a background of an attempt to enlist Jesus in the revolutionary plans of the day, and that would not be unexpected. After all, the traditional understanding of the arrival of the Messiah was that he would come as a conquering hero, a charismatic commander who would rally the people to defeat the forces of Caesar and overthrow the Roman oppressors. Add to that the fact that he was a Galilean like those Zealots who died with their sacrifices, plus being a religious man who would have been as offended as anyone by the misuse of temple funds for the Siloam tower, then we see the logic of the approach. But instead of joining in the revolution on the one side, or aligning with the "go along to get along" group on the other (both of which were probably in his audience), he says, "I tell you, unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."

Repent from what? If Jesus is warning against inappropriate political priorities (as I think the context indicates he is), then the message is to get back to the business at hand - as a community set apart by God, you do what YOU are supposed to do; you be all that YOU can be. Be the "light to the nations"(4) that you are called to be. If you fail in that task, the consequences are as grave for you as those experienced by the martyred Zealots or the crushed construction workers. Jesus' message was no fire-and-brimstone threat; rather it is was dispassionate observation on what would lie ahead if the current course would be followed to its natural conclusion. And, as you historians know very well, the disaster DID come - a generation later, the nation was laid waste. Rome destroyed Jerusalem.

What is the message for us who encounter it after 2,000 years? Fortunately, we do not have to worry about upsetting Rome. However, inappropriate political positions are as problematic now as they ever were. In our day they might involve issues such as school prayer or abortion or gay rights or what is to be taught in our public schools. They might involve obvious and unmistakable partisanship that would alienate those of a different political persuasion from the church. The message, loud and clear, is the same as it was 2,000 years ago: be careful about political maneuverings and equally careful about deciding which position is sinful and which is not. There is plenty of sinfulness to go around, just as in Jesus' day, no matter which side of the spectrum you are on.

But there is more to this passage than a warning. We can easily imagine that, as the conversation progressed, Jesus' eye fell on a fig tree in the midst of a vineyard. Suddenly, we are caught up in a story...about a fig tree, of all things. A fig tree with a problem - it fails to bear fruit. Now, if you wonder what the big deal is about, remember that Israel is not blessed with a great deal of arable land. That being the case, a landowner has to make the best possible use of every inch. Wherever there is room, plant something. So even the vineyards have fruit trees dotted throughout them. They occupy a privileged position on the hills, have water and sun, and are tended with care. The investment has to pay off, though. The fertilizer, the water, the pruning must result in fruit; otherwise, out comes the ax.

The people listening to Jesus understood. Three consecutive years of no figs, firewood! But the vinedresser intercedes: "Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down." And the story ends.

What happened the following year? We are not told. But those earlier words of Jesus about REPENT OR PERISH, might lead us to conclude a theology of SHAPE UP OR SHIP OUT! Reasonable. At least from a human perspective. But I would be hard pressed to say this is the gospel of Jesus.

Actually, I would insist that this is NOT the gospel of Jesus. It is certainly not the message of the scripture. People do NOT get what they deserve, either good or bad. That is why the Psalmist could wail, "Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor...the wicked boast of the desires of their heart, those greedy for gain curse and renounce the LORD...Their ways prosper at all times..."(5) Ecclesiastes complains, "I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well."(6) How about those folks that Pilate killed? The Siloam Tower workers? Look what happened to Jesus. Did he deserve to be tortured and murdered? This litany could go on forever.

On the other side of the coin is the undeserved good. Matthew 5:45 - "[God] makes [the] sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." Or those wonderful verses we learned as assurance of our salvation; Romans 6:23 - "For the wages of sin is death, but the FREE GIFT OF GOD is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." Or Ephesians 2:8 & 9 - "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the GIFT OF GOD, not the result of works, so that no one may boast." Again, the list could go on and on and on.

The point of all this, of course, is to insist that a "shape up or ship out" gospel is no gospel at all. In fact, it flies in the face of everything we learn, not only in human experience, but in scripture as well.

You see, this lesson does not end on a "shape up or ship out" note. This sad little fig tree that has done as poor a job at bearing fruit as the nation has in all its political machinations gets another chance. More nourishment. More care. More time. Why? No reason. The theological word is GRACE.

The good news I bring to you this morning is that GRACE is offered to you and me as well, all of us little fig trees who do not produce as we ought. Are you a fig tree in need of a bit more time to bear fruit? Perhaps a bit more nourishment to get the juices flowing? Then listen again to those wonderfully inviting words of the prophet in our Old Testament lesson: "Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price."

You who struggle at home, you whose jobs bore you or oppress you, you teens who are anxious to make sense of life, you seniors who wonder if there is any life left, come to the heavenly feast. You lonely ones who long for love, you broken and beaten ones, you who battle addictions, you hurt ones who have taken all the battering you can stand, come into the healing realm of your God.

"Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near." In other words, do it now, friend. Who knows when the time will run out? Why this gracious offer? Scripture says do not worry about it - any explanation is beyond our limited understanding. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."

But what about the "Just World" theory? Forget it! Forget justice. I will take grace any day.

A true story. Steve Telkins of Washington, DC writes:(7)

Each time I read Jesus' parable of the barren fig tree, I remember an experience early in my foreign service career. My wife, Pat, and I were assigned to the American Consulate in Kaduna, Nigeria -- a predominantly Muslim, tropical, agricultural region of West Africa. Our house faced a street used by local traffic and cattle herds alike, and needed a hedge to keep the cattle out. The previous occupants had evidently had the same idea, for on our arrival we saw a neat but droopy row of some hundred plants badly in need of care.

We gave them lots of attention, watering regularly and hoping they would grow, but to no avail. The plants remained spindly and nearly lifeless, and we lost patience. Like the man with the fig tree, we decided to uproot them. But when we pulled them up, to our great surprise we found each plant still had a plastic bag from the nursery wrapped around its roots! Clearly the lack of attention from an inexperienced gardener.

Now we felt like the caretaker in the vineyard. The person who had patience and who believed that a little more encouragement -- another chance -- would make the difference. We removed the plastic from each plant and fertilized. We watered regularly. You might guess what then happened. Within a few days green leaves sprouted from each branch. In a few weeks the plants doubled in height. And within a year they merged into a beautiful hedge that provided protection and beauty."

Neat story. Lent is that time of the church year that calls us to self-examination, to do some "uprooting" if necessary. Perhaps there are "plastic bags" - sin - surrounding our spiritual roots that prevent us from bearing fruit. Take the time to find out. Get rid of them. ASAP. Then, as you begin the process of getting those roots re-established...through prayer, through study, through fellowship, through worship...take a brief moment to remember with gratitude a day long ago when, as Jesus talked to his companions, he noticed a fig tree...

Amen!


1. The slaughter of the Galileans by Pilate is not recorded outside of this pericope. However, the Jewish historian Josephus reports how Pilate disrupted a religious gathering of Samaritans on Mt. Gerizim with a slaughter of the participants (Antiquities 18, 4, 1 *86-87).

2. This is also extrapolated from Josephus who reports Pilate killing Jews who opposed him when he appropriated money from the temple treasury to build an aqueduct in Jerusalem (Jewish War 2, 9, 4 *175-77; Antiquities 18, 3, 2 *60-62).

3. Ian Victor, "The Calculus of Grace," via Ecunet, "Sermonshop 1998 03 15," 3/9/98

4. Isaiah 42:6

5. Psalm 10:1-5 plus many other similar passages too numerous to cite.

6. Ecclesiastes 3:16

7. Posted by Sherrin Marshall, Croydon, PA, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop Discussion," #3412, 3/12/98

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