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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 03/24/2019

Jesus knew the power of stories; he was a master at telling them, the creator of the stories we know as parables. What he knew was that adults weren’t all that different than children and children don’t ask you to give them a list of facts, they ask you to tell them a story. If you want to see kid’s eyes glaze over, give them a bunch of facts; if you want them to pay attention and think and use their imagination, tell them a story and again adults aren’t all that different. Facts do have their place and do provide a certain kind of truth, but stories provide meaning and a different level of truth and hopefully we never outgrow our ability to be captivated by a good story.

So Jesus told stories, parables. If a question was asked or a situation presented itself, rather than provide a factual dissertation with analysis, he told a story. When he was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he told the story of the Good Samaritan. When the Pharisees grumbled about how he welcomed and interacted with those thought to be sinful and unclean, he told the story of the Prodigal Son.

With the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and many of the parables, it’s fairly easy to figure out what Jesus is up to. There are always different angles of approach and interpretation, there are always questions left unanswered; that’s all part of the beauty and power of a parable. But still, the setting and the lead in to the parable, at least in general terms, frequently help to frame it.

Today though, we get the parable of the fig tree. It’s one that I find harder to figure out because of the lead in to it. That lead in is the first part of today’s gospel reading and what it seems to do is to raise questions about why tragedies have taken place. Mentioned first are Galileans who apparently had been killed and then Pilate had their blood mixed in with the blood of animals being sacrificed. Details aren’t provided but whatever happened, it mostly sounds gruesome, an act of mocking and cruelty. Also referenced is a tower falling and killing 18 people. There aren’t any details with that one either but it sounds like an accident.

Knowing human nature though, Jesus assumes that when bad things happen, inquiring minds want to know why. Did the people who these things happened to do something to deserve it? Were they worse sinners than everyone else? You know that the same questions surface today when tragedies strike and there are always those who are ready to tell you why, ready to tell you that it’s God’s wrath being rained down on a group that deserves it. Jesus however, won’t go there. He says that those struck down are not worse than anyone else and he ends with…”Unless you repent, you will be struck down just as they were,” which sounds quite ominous, not what we usually expect from Jesus.

With this as the lead in though, what you would expect is a parable about judging other people, maybe something about comparing sins or maybe something about repentance but none of that seems to work in the Parable of the Fig Tree, or if there are connections, they aren’t very obvious. I’ll come back to that, but first let me try another approach.

Let’s erase those opening verses for a moment and just try to consider the parable on its own with no introduction. Doing that, you just have the fig tree not bearing fruit for three years and the owner of the vineyard wanting to cut it down because it’s just taking up space and wasting soil. The gardener though, says give it another year. Let me see what I can do. “If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not you can cut it down.”

Now let’s play a version of the TV game show Jeopardy, a favorite for many even if it is a nightly dose of making you feel stupid, but you know how it goes with the contestants being given a category and an answer and they have to come up with the question. For example if the category is “Church History” and the answer is “This German monk posted his 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg in the year 1517” the question is…“Who is Martin Luther?” In today’s version of Jeopardy, we’ll make “Parables” the category and the Parable of the Fig Tree the answer. Disregarding the verses that precede it, if the parable is the answer, what then is the question that Jesus is addressing? Keep in mind that in Jeopardy there’s only one right question to the answer but with a parable, there might be more than one.

I came up with three questions I thought Jesus could be addressing; you might come up with others but here are my three. One possibility might be, “How important is it that each member of the community be productive and bear good fruit?” With that as the question, the answer of Jesus’ parable makes it clear that bearing good fruit is important and that there will be consequences for failing to do so.

A second question, related to the first one is, “If a person is not following the way of the Lord, if they are not bearing good fruit, should they be banished from the community?” If that’s the question, Jesus’ parable is about second chances, about not giving up on someone too soon. In other words, don’t rush to judgment; give it time, give the person an opportunity to change.

My third question possibility is, “Are there limits to God’s patience?” That is a particularly tough one for we grace centered Lutherans because it could raise the possibility of limits on God’s grace, which personally, I don’t like to think about. But…there’s no escaping the fact that the parable seems to indicate that there are limits; if the fig tree doesn’t bear fruit in the next year, cut it down. What that says is, not only are there consequences for failing to bear good fruit, the consequences are harsh and final.

Understood through the lens of those three questions, the parable creates tension. There is grace in the gardener’s request for another year; there is a second chance which actually could be looked at as a fourth chance as the tree hadn’t produced fruit for the previous three years. So there is the grace of additional time, but it’s countered by the apparent limit on that time; one more year and that’s it.

So there is also tension, tension that should make us uncomfortable because it really can’t be resolved…but that too may be part of what Jesus is getting at in this parable. We’d like to have certainty and we do trust in the Bible’s core testimony about a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. But we also have to acknowledge the tension created by parables like this and the fact that as much as might want to resolve the tension, we can’t; we just have to live with it. What it is though is healthy tension, tension for our own good, tension that does recognize the centrality of grace but which at the same time recognizes the importance of bearing fruit and we need to know both of those things.

Being a parable, more than one interpretation is possible so in our game of Jeopardy I think Alex would have to give me the points for any of the questions I came up with. But what if, what if the answer on the board isn’t just the parable by itself but does include all the verses of today’s reading including the opening dialogue…then what’s the question?

I’m going to press my buzzer and try, “What does it mean to repent?” I said before that it was hard to make this parable of the fig tree to be about repentance, except maybe indirectly, but the connection may actually be more direct than it first appears. What confuses the issue is that no matter how often we’re told otherwise, I think for most of us, when we hear the word “repent” our first thought is that it means to feel bad and sorry about something we’ve done and to resolve not to do it again. In this text though, when Jesus says, “Repent!” I don’t think that’s what he’s talking about.

What he’s addressing in today’s opening verses is a mindset, one that inclines us to compare sins and sinfulness, to point fingers and to assign blame to those who we think deserve it, to figuratively chop them down like a fig tree that’s not bearing fruit. The challenge Jesus puts out there is to take the approach of the gardener, an approach that says, “Instead of judging the situation, what can I do to help change it? What can I do to help an unfruitful situation bear fruit?”

That’s repentance! That’s turning from a mindset that wants to point fingers and create walls that separate those who are perceived as good from those perceived as bad and instead develops a mindset that sees the potential good in everyone and wants to part of bringing that potential to fruition.

That’s repentance; so... maybe that is what this text is about. Maybe “What does it mean to repent?” is the best question to go with the Parable of the Fig Tree answer. I can’t say for sure if Alex Trebek would give me the points for that response, but I think Jesus would.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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