Sunday, March 7, 2010

One More Year

Then [Jesus] told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Luke 13:6-9

John the Baptist stood on the banks of the Jordan River calling the people of God to "bear fruits worthy of repentance" (Luke 3:8a) and when asked for specifics, he called them to share their resources and earn a simple, honest wage. After John was locked away in prison (and eventually assassinated), his successor, Jesus of Nazareth echoed this fruit-bearing mission in his well-known "sermon on the plain" (Luke 6:17-49), or what we might more accurately call, his "kingdom-of-God campaign platform speech." There, Jesus called his constituents to enemy loving and judgment-free living on top of casting a vision of an economy where those who are poor, hungry and desperate ("weep") would experience what those who are rich, full and light-hearted already have. Jesus' speechwriter subtly and subversively shifted a quote from Leviticus 19:2 ("Be holy for God is holy.") by highlighting an underrated, overlooked aspect of God that we are called to imitate: "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." With this renewed platform in place, it was time for action. Jesus concluded by warning each and every kingdom citizen that they would be "known by its own fruit."

As Luke's Gospel narrative continues, Jesus carries out a ministry of healing and teaching that embodies all of these virtues and practices. He himself bears fruit and offers a strange exemplar of the kingdom of God: the good Samaritan, risking perilous danger on the road to Jericho, who gives his time and resources to heal and restore the poor, hungry and desperate man beaten on the side of the road. The Samaritan did what the professional religious leaders would not.

In Luke 13, the lectionary Gospel passage for Christians all over the world today, Jesus tells the parable of the fig tree in the middle of the vineyard that did not bear fruit. The prophets Micah (4:4) and Joel (2:22) used this kind of imagery in relation to how the people of Israel, God's people to be a light and salt to the world, would be judged. When the reign of God finally comes, the prophets attested, then the people of God would bear real fruit...or else. Jesus the prophet is calling his people, God's people, to transform and bear the kind of fruit that God had always yearned for: a tireless rejection of idolatry and economic exploitation, while building a just, compassionate and peaceful society.

Jesus' renewed parable of the fig tree in the middle of the vineyard certainly magnifies the impending judgment upon a people who refuse to live out their God-ordained mission, but we catch a glimpse of the mercy and patience of God through the gardener who advocates for the tree: one more year of digging and fertilizing before the owner cuts it down. As the current gardeners of God's fig tree, how might we be creatively and consistently fertilizing it for the reign of God? How might we transform the rugged road to Jericho that leaves millions robbed and beaten? Like digging trenches and spreading manure in the hot Palestinian sun, our work is often tiring and, quite frankly, smells like shit. We love our neighbors, strangers and enemies by advocating for the dignity and rights of the homeless, illegal immigrants, "suspected terrorists," low-pay workers, the elderly, Third-World farmers and those without basic medical coverage.

Our world is filled with weeping, desperate, hungry people who are looking for fruit-bearing ambassadors for Christ who fight for just policies and political leaders that will rid the system of the injustice that keeps people in bondage. The rules, from economics to elections, Fertilizing means that we "dig in" to creatively, wisely and strategically tweak and transform the rules of the game--from economics to elections--to bring liberation to millions: "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them" (Luke 7:22).

Yet we must remember that world transformation yearns for personal transformation: "we must become the change we wish to see in the world" (Gandhi). We challenge ourselves to live simply so that we can share abundantly, while refusing the always present temptation to judge and condemn those who live lavishly and comfortably. After all, we progressive Christians must live self-reflectively, examining and uprooting the logs in our own eyes, instead of obsessively hunting down specks that cloud the vision of others. Our addictions and distractions and ego-centeredness and trivial pettiness and self-protection weigh our hearts down and culminate in barrenness. When Jesus proclaimed that it is "out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45b) he was reflecting the promises of Jeremiah (31:31) concerning the up-&-coming-reign-of-God: "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts." As we reflect in solitude today, we might ask ourselves: "What is written on my heart and how is it manifesting itself in my life?"

Today, the word of the Lord reminds us that we have "one more year." The time is short and our mission is clear. The Hebrew prophets yearned for the Day when "the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield" (Joel 2:22b). This Day started with Jesus' own fruit-bearing ministry. He replaced the "blind guides" who were leading their disciples into the deep pit of barrenness. As prophet Martin Luther King prodded us 4 decades ago, we live in "the fierce urgency of now" and it’s time to act appropriately: "We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” Every "warning" and "judgment" in Scripture is targeted to the people of God--that's quite a responsibility. We do not have a minute to waste. Let's get fertilizing: ourselves and our world.

--Theological Autopilot


  1. Yeah, we don't know when our time ends. I'm encouraged to take myself, my life, and how I live it, seriously. I definitely don't want to be the fig tree cut down. It is a mercy from God that there is time to change and be fertilized. - Longdy

  2. love this. beautiful interpretation of scripture.