This is one of those “hard readings” of the Gospel where judgment and wrath seem to be forefront. But the problem with this reading is we are stepping into the middle of a conversation which begins way back at Luke 12.1. Jesus is traveling towards Jerusalem and there is an ongoing conversation happening. Jesus is giving a long talk punctuated by a series of parables and teachings. He starts out with parables and teachings relevant to the current times: Parable of the rich fool, anxieties about earthly things, storing treasures in heaven. But then he moves on to talking about reading the signs of the times and necessity to repent or perish in preparation for the end times. He then closes this discourse with the parable of the fig tree. Repentance is a recurring theme in Luke’s gospel – he talks about it more than any other gospel writer. Repentance, in the Greek, means to “turn around” – to pull a “180” so to speak. It is the process by which we turn and return to God.
The crowd tells Jesus of some Galileans who were killed by Pilate and their blood was mingled with pagan sacrifices. In an honor/shame society, this was a really good way to shame one’s enemies. Jesus in his response essentially says that these people were no worse sinners than anyone else (including his audience). He even offers up another shocking example of 18 people killed when a tower fell on them (sounds like something out of a tabloid newspaper, doesn’t it?). He says their sins are no worse than that of others. In these two examples, Jesus essentially tells them that sin is a universal condition and tragedies happen. And we know that sin can be the cause of tragedy and suffering. But Jesus does break the connection between tragedies and punishments. These tragedies were not a punishment by God on these people.
What is curious, and I confess I don’t really know where Jesus is going with this, is his linking these instances to repentance: “But unless you repent, you will perish as they did.” It almost sounds like Jesus is dangling a carrot with some divine cause and effect – if you repent, you won’t perish as they did. Now we know from our experience this doesn’t make any sense. We know all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We also know that tragedies strike whether one repents or not. I confess I’m not clear at all about this link Jesus appears to be making, but I cannot accept it as some quid pro quo transactional theology.
We do know there will be a time of judgment when God will establish perfect justice – a time when all things will be set right. There is both some comfort and disquietude about this. While we long for God’s perfect justice and trust it will set creation right, we also live with the discomfort of knowing our actions, especially how we treat each other and creation, will be judged. Jesus may well be using the example of these tragedies to remind his hearers that judgment will come and since they are still alive, they have the opportunity to repent and turn back to God – unlike those who have already died.
Jesus’ call to repentance is a reminder that repenting, turning around, is a lifelong and constant process. It is not a one time “repent or perish” idea. Instead, it is a day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute thing. The way the verb repent appears in the Greek implies it is not a sure thing that we will repent, but if we do, it needs to be an ongoing action – a lifestyle of repentance. We must keep turning back to God continuously because we are so good at continuously turning away from God!
All of this leads up to the parable of the barren fig tree which ends this commentary on sin, tragedy and repentance on a note of grace. A vineyard owner plants a fig tree and comes to look for figs and finds none. He unloads on the gardener about how he’s come looking for figs for three years and finds none: “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” The gardener replies by begging for one more year. He asks for time to work the soil and fertilize it and then see if it will bear fruit. If it does, well and fine; if it does not, then cut it down.
It is tempting to allegorize this story and assign roles to the characters. Often we cast God in the “owner” role and Jesus in the “gardener” role; however, I’m not so sure that Jesus needs to protect the “fig tree” (whatever it represents) from an angry God who wants to give up on it.
I come from a land where fig trees grow. Now I’m no expert on them by any means, but I do know it takes 4-5 years for a fig tree to produce fruit. It strikes me as odd that the landowner would be so impatient. After all, he is also a vineyard owner and grape vines take 5-7 years to produce fruit. This guy should have patience written all over him! Instead, he condemns the poor fig tree before it has a chance … “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”
So, rather than cast the landowner as God … let’s pick this parable up and turn it around and look at it from another angle, shall we? Perhaps the impatient landowner … is us – humanity. Are we impatient? I know I am! The fig tree can be any situation or relationship which we expect to bear fruit. And don’t we sometimes get impatient about that? Especially when the relationships or situations are complicated or messy? Don’t get me wrong – I’m not implying that one should stay involved in a destructive relationship or situation at all. Sometimes cutting it down – ending something which is death dealing – is exactly what we need to do. But there are those times when cutting the fig tree down is not called for … at least not yet.
God in Christ, as the gardener, may be asking our patience with the situation or relationship. Let God dig around the roots, bring the nourishment of prayer and sacraments, and give it some time to see if this fig tree will bear fruit. If it does, well and good; if not, then you can cut it down.
There is a reminder in the parable that there will be a time of judgment – a time when cutting down a barren tree is the best option. Your fig tree may be a relationship that needs to end. It may be a toxic family you need to walk away from to move on and live your life fully. It may be a job situation which has grown intolerable and is not improving. There are plenty of examples of situations which will not bear fruit – at least not the fruit of the Spirit which brings life. However, the parable reminds us not to act in haste and be attentive to God’s leading and timing rather than our own anxiety and impatience.
A lifestyle of repentance and patience – day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute – is one which leads back to God. It is the means whereby we become open to God nourishment of our souls that we might bear the Spirit’s fruit of love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control.