22 February 2016
A lesson from the fig tree
I strongly encourage you to take a couple of minutes to read the relevant section of Luke’s Gospel before reading on. (Click on the link above to see the text) Well? What did you make of that?
My first thoughts were … how on earth am I going to make any sense out of this and be able to write anything of value as a response? Maybe we can make sense of the latter fig tree section, but what about the first five verses? There does not seem to be any Gospel in those words. Such is the bizarre nature of this reading, that rather than just make interesting observations, I feel it calls for an attempt to bring the whole reading into some form of understandable context.
Maybe the clue lies in the opening words, particularly in other translations, “about this time”, which suggest that it is not possible to understand the strange opening to Chapter 13 without reading it as a continuation of the previous chapter/s. A quick browse of Chapter 12 might initially lead us to think that the mystery only deepens. Broadly speaking however, there is a central theme of worldly things, sin, punishment, judgment and the Lord coming at an unknown time when we least expect Him, emerging across the two chapters. In particular though, Jesus is dealing with the popular misconception of the time, that bad things happen to people because of some sin that they have committed. Perhaps He is also conversely saying to the people … don’t go basking in your self-righteousness just because nothing bad has happened to you.
Enter the fig tree! (The first time through I missed the fact that the fig tree is planted in the vineyard! The fig tree itself is evidently symbolic of the Israeli people, so there is a lot of imagery tied up in that.) The strange discourse leading up to the fig tree parable is a classic illustration of Jesus in action as the master teacher, but it also prompts us to give credit to the inspired, clever technique of Luke the Gospel writer. In a way, Jesus has been highlighting the futility of the Old Testament model of operating, as a preamble to ushering in the largely foreign concept of GRACE, which is surely present in this fig tree story. Perhaps this also gives us a glimpse of the grace parables to come, notably the Lost Son, just around the corner in Luke 15.
There is a strong use of the word REPENT in this passage. Historically, particularly in the Old Testament, we tend to think of REPENT as turning back to God and expressing sorrow and regret for our sinful ways and asking him to forgive us. It seems that the fig tree parable in the light of grace, starts to subtly redefine what it means to REPENT. The root meaning of the word REPENT is to change one's mind and in particular to change one's mind about God. Yes Jesus was continually challenging the people to REPENT - but this is more accurately read as challenging the people to change their mind about God and more specifically to change their mind about who Jesus is - that is, to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, as God's son. The subtle difference then as we stand this side of the cross, is that the forgiveness that comes with repentance is a done deal and is automatically issued once and for all to anybody and everybody who have changed their mind about God (who have recognized and acknowledged Jesus as God's son.) That's the amazingly simple SAVED BY GRACE in action.
Under the new deal (Testament), God’s grace negates the need for repentance in the Old Testament sense of the word. Is that reading too much into this story? Personally I don’t think so, since we note in the parable of the prodigal that follows soon after, that although the younger son has something in his mind, he never gets to spit out his repentance plan before being unconditionally received by the Father!
So the message to us in Lutheran schools hidden away in this passage is one of most profound significance … a reminder of what I have come to call a CORE PROPOSITION for what it means to be a Lutheran school in the 21st Century. A Lutheran school is a place where GRACE abounds. The word grace only has meaning if GOD is wrapped up in the word. As spiritual leaders we need to make sure that every staff member has an opportunity to fully know and apply the meaning of that word, after the manner of the God of Grace as revealed to us in the parable of the Fig Tree (and Lost Son to come). We show people Jesus, when we model grace consistently within our school community.