Let’s Stand with the Fig Tree!
Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at Resurrection on March 7, 2010, the Third Sunday of Lent. The sermon text is Luke 13:1-9.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Some powerful natural disasters have taken place recently in the world. The devastating earthquake in Haiti and the terrible earthquake in Chile are constantly in the news. Televangelist Pat Robertson weighed in with his usual harsh judgment: “The earthquake in Haiti is God’s punishment on them for past sins. They deserved it.”
Some of us in this congregation are suffering from some bad things that have happened in our personal lives: the death of family members; the loss of jobs that have created great hardship; and some of here today are enduring severe health problems.
I’ll bet the question has gone through the minds of many here: what did I do wrong that God is punishing me?
That’s the question that Jesus is confronting in today’s gospel account. Can you legitimately associate life’s misfortunes with sin? Folks in the first century, the time when Jesus was here on earth, had this perspective on life. They were taught that there is always a direct cause and effect between what happens in the world and human beings. They believed sincerely that natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes and floods came because someone had sinned. They were God’s punishment.
Jesus gives 2 illustrations of bad things happening to people: Pilate had some Galileans Jews killed and had their blood mixed with the blood of animals that were to be sacrificed at the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus asked the people listening that day: Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?” We’re told Jesus’ answer: “No! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
The next illustration was the 18 people in Jerusalem dying when a stone tower collapsed and killed them. Jesus asked again: “Do you think those 18 people were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Jesus answer is: “No! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Jesus’ word “repent” in this teaching is interesting. Why is he telling his listeners to repent? What is that all about? Another way of asking the question is: Why is Jesus telling his listeners that they must change their mind about the way they think?
Maybe the parable that Jesus next tells will help us with understanding about his insistence on repentance. It’s the parable of the fig tree. A man, the landowner, has a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he hires a vintner or caretaker for this vineyard. The landowner has an expectation: his expectation is that the fig tree will produce figs. For 3 years this tree produces no fruit, and so the landowner wants to cut it down. The caretaker, however, asks for one more year in order to give the fig tree a chance to bear figs.
At first blush this seems to be such a simple story and the meaning so clear. If you delve into this story, I find that it is not so simple to understand. Jesus was an excellent teacher, and his great teaching style was to give parables that make you think. You need to wrestle with this story to have it make sense.
Here are some of the complexities of this story:
· The story is incomplete; we do not know if the tree eventually bore fruit or not;
we don’t know if the tree was chopped down or not.
· Why is a fig tree planted in a vineyard? Isn’t a vineyard for growing grapes?
· The story implies the tree has been growing for 3 years; the problem is that it takes more than 3 years for fig trees to bear fruit; why is the landowner making an unreasonable demand?
There’s some conflict in this story between the landowner and the vintner. The landowner wants to chop down the tree and the vintner wants to preserve it.
The really big complexity is this: we heard Jesus teach that there is no correlation between a person’s actions and what happens and now we have his parable that seems to imply that if you don’t do something, you don’t bear fruit, you will be eliminated, gotten rid of.
So, dear friends, what do you think this parable means?
Let me throw out a possible interpretation. Perhaps this parable illustrates the position that the Galileans and those killed by tower of Siloam were in. They were the fig tree, caught between destruction (Pilate) and neglect (the collapse of the tower). In that case, it would be foolish to blame the fig tree; rather the blames rests with those responsible for tending the fig tree. The change of mind that Jesus calls for might include how one hears the story of the fig tree and thus every victim caught in such a bind.
To read it this way means that we have to stand with the fig tree. We need to take the position that life is not always fair and that what will make the difference is that God’s people will be there to help, to stand up for those people caught in the middle, to risk conflict with the landowners and vintners of this world, people who act selfishly and harshly and those who show indifference and callousness toward folks who suffer persecution and hardship.
The role of Christians, the role of the Church, if we follow the thrust of this parable of Jesus, is to call for justice and show care, compassion and love for those who suffer.
As Jesus teaches, we understand that suffering is not punishment from God in this life; it is a part of the human condition. Good people will experience pain and hardship, you and I will experience this in our lives, but God promises to be with us in those times, and he would love to use other people of faith to help us through those very difficult times.
State of the Church
1. People who have left RLC: let’s show compassion and kindness to them; they are hurting; let our response be Christ-like.
2. All of us are needed to keep the ministry of Christ healthy and vital: be at worship
every week; please participate regularly in Christian Education classes; please volunteer your time; please give generously as a thank you to God and your way
of supporting the ministries we share.
3. PC and I are learning from you now about living on less; we’re faced with a 30%
decrease in income, and some of you have shared with us what it means to go
down 50, 60 and 70% in income. You get through the pity party and woe is me attitude, and then you right away focus on the necessities and cut out the luxuries. I am approaching this as a challenge that has the potential to make me stronger. This week Carol and I did some of the obvious: we are now getting DVDs from the library and have cut back on cable television to the basic plan; we’ve gone to the basic plan on our phone; we cancelled our trash pickup; we cancelled all newspapers and magazine subscriptions; and I will be doing an extra job with the synod starting in May at one day per week.
4. Some of you have wondered about the giving pattern of your Staff and Council. I can only speak for Pastor Carol and myself. We have been doing percentage giving, giving between 15 and 20 percent of our income to Resurrection. We have decided that though our income will drop, we will continue our giving at the 15 to 20 percent level, believing that God will help us to do this.
My hope and prayer is that each of us will simply do our part. Some can give more, others cannot give more. We each need to pray about our own situation, and determine what we have to offer. Here’s what I believe: if we all do that, I am sure the Lord will multiply our efforts and keep this community of faith going strong.
Thank you, Lord. Amen!