The Barren Fig Tree
He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
Professor Nitin Nohria is the dean of the Harvard Business School. In a 2015 essay titled You're not as virtuous as you think Nohria stated that he had been teaching Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiment to business students for more than a decade. The 2015 movie Experimenter is about Stanley Milgram and his work. The experiment went essentially like this: A subject, assigned to be the “teacher,” is ordered to administer increasingly intense shocks to another study participant in the role of “learner,” allegedly to illustrate how punishment affects learning and memory. Except, unbeknownst to the subject, the shocks are fake, and the learners cries were pre-recorded. More than 60 percent of subjects obeyed fully, delivering up to the strongest shock, despite cries of pain from the learner.
Professor Nohria made this observation. “When I ask students whether, as participants, they would have had the courage to stop administering shocks, at least two thirds raise their hands, even though only one third of Milgram’s subjects refused. I’ve come to refer to this gap between how people believe they would behave and how they actually behave as “moral overconfidence.” In the lab, in the classroom and beyond, we tend to be less virtuous than we think we are. And a little moral humility could benefit us all.”
1. In the first century there were no newspapers or news alerts for your mobile devices. News travelled with people. Our gospel lesson today is a story of Jesus on his way to Jerusalem; he has made the turn mentally and this news comes to him with Jerusalem as the horizon of his ministry direction. The news is disquieting to say the least. Another instance of Rome’s cruelty to occupied peoples is reported. The news was about some “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” Clearly these Galileans were at worship in Jerusalem and were targeted by Pilate for some reason. We do not know the incident being referred too, but it is consistent with what we know of Pilate’s governing tactics. Galilee was known to be the birthplace of the Zealots who advocated the overthrow of Rome. Still, a cruel act—slaughtered at worship.
But there was something about the way the news was reported to Jesus; an assumption made about those who died. There was, according to Jesus, a sense of “moral overconfidence” by those who reported the story. Jesus picks up on their assumption in the question he proposes. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Today’s news reports have some similarities with those of the first century. The assumptions about who has the moral high ground is divulged by how the story is told. Think about how the actions of terrorists have been characterized by some as the result of some “root cause.” These actions are thought to be a reaction to the systemic evil of being cut off from the benefits of the affluence of Western capitalism. Western civilization is to blame for their colonizing ways. Is this not to blame the victims of terrorist acts? The reason for the atrocity is because there is some wrong in them for their Western way of life. The people reporting on the fate of these Galileans similarly thought the dead Galileans reaped the harvest of their sinful ways.
These first century Jews would all know the story of Job. You can read this older testament story of senseless suffering in a book that goes by the title of his name: Job. He is the man who was said to blameless and upright, a man who feared God. Job had great wealth and tumbles from that pinnacle of success in a series of devastating loses including the death of his children in a tornado. And then to top it all off he is afflicted with a disease that debilitated and isolated. Some friends come to be of help to Job and in essence blame Job: “As I have seen,” quipped his friend Eliphaz, “those who plough iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.” (Job 8:8)
It is a system of thinking we like because there is truth to it. The Apostle Paul wrote that “God is not mocked, you will reap what you sow.” (Galatians 6:7). But does this explain all atrocities that happen? Note Jesus’ question. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” “Maybe those Galileans were trouble making Zealots,” some might be thinking. So, those who died in recent terrorist atrocity, is it because they really had it coming to them as distinct from us who have not suffered in this way? We want to say no, of course not! But in the back of our minds are those euphemisms—where there is smoke there’s fire, sowing and reaping—niggling in our imaginations.
So, Jesus doubles down, so to speak. He picks another news story. “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Many believed and believe that calamity is a punishment for sin. Our Lord’s answer is the same for both question. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
“No,” said Jesus. This is not how to understand the mess that human sin has made of the world. We don’t understand what sin means to God. This is no way of judging what sin is as if a line runs between me and my neighbour upon whom calamity is unleashed, a line of marginal sinner and massive sinner. “No!,” said Jesus. Our Lord is ever exposing the groundless myths by which humankind is enthralled. We all stand in need of repentance, insists our Lord. Scales of who needs to do the most repenting fail to account for the reality of sin. Repentance, turning around from our trajectory away from God towards God, was at the heart of our Lord’s preaching: “the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15)
Some theologians think Jesus is, in this encounter, warning his Jewish hearers about the coming destruction of Jerusalem in a war he sees brewing on the horizon. “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”, is heard a prediction of the military defeat at the hands of the Romans in 70 A.D. It may be so, but such a particular warning does not exhaust the scope of Jesus’ call for repentance. He has been preaching repentance everywhere he went.
It is also a valuable take-away from this story to note that Jesus answers an emphatic “No” to both of these questions and, further, does not give an answer as to why such things occurred. Evil and its concomitant calamities are not subjects for explanation. We might find the shape of an answer in how he taught is to pray; “deliver is from evil” or “deliver us from the evil one.” We are not taught to pray for an understanding of evil things. That the resolution for sin and wrong is in the self-giving of our Lord on the cross is not some logical deduction we make. We are called to resist evil and aid those devastated by such things to help relieve their suffering. Things were set to rights by our Lord on the cross; the culmination of that setting to rights will be known by us in that kingdom of eternal joy when love will give way to only more love.
2. In the context of this discussion Jesus tells a parable about a barren fig tree. Three years was plenty of time for a fig tree to begin bearing fruit and the vineyard owner does not see any reason to be wasting good soil on a barren tree. So the owner directs the gardener to cut it down. Listen again to what the gardener says. “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
In the Greek text when the servant tells the vineyard owner to “leave it alone,” the Greek e word uses is the root Greek word from which we get the word “forgiveness”. The word is identical in Luke’s presentation of the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer “And forgive (aphes) us our sins.” (Luke 11:4) The word also carries the idea of passing over or by. The meaning “to pass over” would not be lost on Jesus’ hearers. Passover o commemorated the event of Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt when the angel bringing death passed over those who had sprinkled the blood of the Passover lamb on the door posts of their home. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for Passover; the Passover when he will become the Passover lamb who takes away the sin of the world. Forgiveness will be proclaimed to the world in his name.
In his parable of the barren fig tree we hear our Lord’s proclamation of the steadfast love of God that endures for ever. Sin will never exhaust the love of God. Sin and wrong will come to an end; his love is eternal as is the eternal nature of the God who makes himself know to us in Jesus. I note with you that the gardener does not simply leave the tree to itself to see if fruit will come. The gardener provides all that is needed to promote a fruitful tree. Logic and prudence and efficiency all say we should cut the tree down and replace it with one that will produce fruit. The gardener says to leave it alone, to forgive, to pass over.
We read today from the wonderful invitation to abundant life in Isaiah 55. It is in the section of Isaiah that announces God’s comforting word to his people who have endured the hurts of deportation and exile. We love these kinds of biblical statements. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.
We love these kinds of pronouncements because they sound so good. Preachers love to offer them because we perceive they sound good to the listeners’ ear. It is good to note something God says in the pronouncement of his most generous invitation. The invitation is part of a call to “return to the Lord”; think of Jesus insistence on repentance. It is in the context of this announcement of God’s great amnesty with regard to sin that God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Yes, evil, as we have discussed is incomprehensible; it is never explained. But it is the mercy of God that is said to be far above our thoughts. It isn’t in the discussion of sin that God says “my thoughts are not your thoughts”, but in the proclamation of his mercy for sinners. It may seem self-evident to us that God would love us, but the gospel dispels all such myths.
It is on the cross that we see God’s self-forgetful self-giving on display. “In this is love”, said the Apostle John, “not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” The cross does not look like anything we would call love, and yet the gospel asserts it to be so. (1 John 4:10). The Apostle Paul describe our Lord’s love as “surpassing knowledge.” We cannot get our minds around its height and depth and breadth and length. But we can receive such love in our hearts.
Come again to the barren fig tree. Suppose that same servant made the same request even a year later. Would the master forgive it again? The gospel seems to say that the answer may be yes. The gardener say only that you can cut it down after the year—not that it must or were inevitable. But we like to keep score—“repent or you are done.” There is always more grace in God than sin us.
But what do we make of “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Indeed, when God’s love meets our sin there is forgiveness, there is mercy. And in the announcement of this mercy is this word that teaches that God’s grace isn’t something to be presumed upon or trifled with. In Isaiah’s wonderful invitation is the insistence that we “seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.” Remember our Lord’s essential message—the kingdom is near, repent and believe. The Apostle Paul wrote, “We must not put Christ to the test.” (1 Corinthians 10:9).
The parable of the barren fig tree pictures a gardener who does everything he can to promote the tree to bear fruit. Our Lord isn’t one who folds his arms to see if we become fruitful. Our Saviour does everything he can so we can have life in him. Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” He who had ears to hear let him hear. Amen.