Reading: Luke 13:1-9.
“If the fig tree bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” Well, that could generate a little stress for the fig tree, couldn’t it? It really does sound kind of harsh.
Since it is a continuation, to grasp the meaning we need to briefly revisit chapter 12. Luke 12, leading up to this reading, can be a little disconcerting. Jesus made a comment of the sort we don’t usually associate with him; Jesus said he had come to bring to the earth not peace, but division. Family member will be set against family member. This challenges our image of Jesus as the “prince of Peace”, doesn’t it?
Still, as God’s own Messenger in the midst of this world, there is no avoiding a certain degree of conflict. Jesus’ insertion into this world as a truly holy person was like putting a white hot piece of iron into a bucket of cold water—a boiling reaction was inevitable.
Everyone, Jesus’ disciples among them, are fretting – worrying about all kinds of things – food, shelter, clothing, money, security and status quo. Those worries are causing many to be in conflict – worry is the common theme in Chapter 12. And, in answer to all that worry, Jesus says, “… and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and God knows that you need them. Instead, strive for God’s kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”
Luke 13:1-9 appears in two sections, the first being commentary by Jesus on some recent events and the second part is a brief parable about a fruitless fig tree in a vineyard.
In verses 1-3 Jesus addresses a recent violent event involving the deaths of some Galileans who were slaughtered by Roman troops under Pilate’s command. What’s more, it appears that the slaughter took place while those Galilean Jews were offering sacrifices to God. It’s not clear in Luke 13 whether this was a very recent event or if it had happened some while earlier but was still a hot topic of conversation among Jews in the greater Jerusalem area. Either way, it was tragic.
Equally tragic was the collapse of a tower that killed eighteen people. The pool of Siloam was in Jerusalem, and was surrounded by towers. The victims of this collapse were, presumably, Jews.
After each incident is described, Jesus asks the question, “Do you think these people were worse sinners than you?”
Inherent in this question is the exposure of underlying judgments that were prevalent at that time. In the minds of Jesus’ audience, these poor people somehow deserved their lot in life – even to the point of a tragic death. There’s also an underlying assumption that God caused their death – that God punished these same people for some undisclosed sin.
Jesus’ question challenges that assumption by forcing the audience to re-examine their judgments. Jesus also tells them, “Unless YOU repent, YOU will perish.” Repent from what, we might ask? The answer is very apparent – repent from judgment based on how others live. Hmmm. The audience is being told that, unless they bear fruit, they will be cut down like a barren fig tree.
Jesus is calling the audience to humility – to set aside their arrogance and tendency to judge the worth or deservedness of others, or their need to feel right or more righteous – and, for their own good, to embrace an abundance of spirit, a generosity towards other people, that shows the fruit of being a disciple. In doing that, they will flourish – they will bear fruit. They will live.
Of course, judgment like this is not limited to the time and place of Jesus. It still abounds today. After a major disaster of some sort, it is not unusual to hear prominent religious leaders publicly state that it occurred as God’s retribution for some kind of collective sin. Several very prominent Christian leaders in the U.S. said that the 2004 tsunami was a devastation sent by God against Muslims in Indonesia. They also said that 9/11 and Katrina were punishments of God for America’s tolerance of sin – highlighting, in particular, abortion and homosexuality.
While many in the U.S. criticized these leaders, a great many believed that what was said had some truth to it. There still is a relatively widespread belief held by some Christians that God inflicts this kind of punishment on innocent people who do not believe as they do.
What is even more common, unfortunately, may be a more subtle form of arrogance. It can be found in subtle attitudes in which certain groups deserve to be ostracized – to be rejected – to be denied certain basic rights. It can be found in subtle attitudes that equate being poor with being less deserving.
I can do this when I am obsessed with worry that someone, who has far less than I do, may take advantage of my generosity. When I worry that my generosity will be wasted if someone gets a little more than I think they deserve. And in that, I come face to face with my own lack of tender-heartedness – my own arrogance. At that point, I have to ask myself if I’m the fruitless fig tree that appears to be dead.
Now arrogance is a seemingly harsh word – it carries meanings today that are very negative. So it seems necessary to unpack the word arrogance a little – to delve into what it really means. It comes from the Latin arrogare , which means “to claim for oneself” or “to assume”. Quite modern usage has given it the really negative meaning of an “offensive display of self-importance”.
In reality, Jesus’ notion of being arrogant is not so much being intentionally haughty or overbearing. It is an underlying tendency to think of ourselves as being separate from others, and to assume things about other people.
Am I tender-hearted when I stock the shelves of my cupboards before giving to the food pantry? Or when I wonder if someone doesn’t deserve to be a little less secure than I am, if someone hasn’t caused the suffering they are experiencing, if they have less because they haven’t worked as hard as I have. In this form, hard-heartedness is the unintended result of worrying about my own welfare – of stressing over security – of needing to feel right and righteous and worthy.
The opposite of arrogance is “humility” – that concept of being tender of heart. Humility is one way Jesus called the disciples into being in right relationship with God. As Paul said, and as Jesus infers here, humility is a fruit of faith. Humility can best be described as a “generosity of spirit” – a willingness to see our own interests in others – to evaluate our attitudes and see the face of God in each and every one of our neighbors, friends and family members. It stands in contrast to arrogance, which is really nothing more than a “poverty of spirit”. It seems to me, that it may even be a matter of life and death.
There is very good news in this little parable, however. There is time to learn and to grow in humility. The gardener says to the owner – be patient – I will keep tending the tree, feeding it and nurturing it, until it bears fruit. If it doesn’t bear fruit in the next season, then you can cut it down. It seems we have a little time to learn to be tender-hearted.