Tom Long wrote a column on our text for The Christian Century in March of 2001. It is archived at the religion-online.org site and is worth reading right now. I want to hit a few highlights from Long’s thoughts and then add a few of my own.
Long notes that according to Jesus, in Luke 12:54-56, most of us are relatively incompetent when it comes to reading the signs of the times and discerning what God is really up to at any given moment. “Indeed,” Long writes, “Jesus says that most of us are far better at meteorology than theology.” Given the lack of skill most of us have in predicting the weather, that’s a pretty pathetic assessment of our theologically predictive capacities.
As I noted in an earlier post, this is the prelude to our text for the third Sunday in Lent. “No sooner had Jesus issued this challenge,” Long continues, “than some in the crowd stepped forward. ‘Don’t say we cannot read the times. How about that terrible incident in the temple, the one where Pilate’s police slaughtered some innocent worshipers from Galilee?’”
Wrong answer! That’s not a sign of anything except for the cruelty of Pilate’s state-sponsored terrorism and colonial oppression. And don’t bother to bring up that sad deal in Jerusalem when the tower collapsed. That’s a building construction issue, not the opening salvo of Armageddon.
So, what are the signs we ought to see and heed? Long tells us that this is the purpose of the Parable of the Fig Tree. “Not the Hale-Bopp Comet, not invaders from space, not Clinton as King Belshazzar redux, not wars or rumors of war,” Long argues with references that date the text even without a byline, “ but instead the gracious and patient hand that reaches out to halt the ax, the merciful gesture woven into the fabric of life that stays all that would give up on the barren and the broken, the merciful voice that says, ‘Let’s give this hopeless case one more year.’”
The fig tree is not a sign of the end of the world as we know it. It is, rather, a sign that there’s a reason to keep tilling and tending, to keep nudging and nourishing the world in the places where we live and love and labor right now. The things we identify as signs of the end might be the end of things we find important. But that doesn’t mean they tell us much of anything about the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and who relents from punishing.
Six months after Long’s article was published, planes were used as flying bombs to destroy the World Trade Center Towers. Life in the United States began to change as we responded to those attacks. It’s not just that we had to take off our shoes at the airport for years after. It’s not that we are limited to three-ounce containers for liquids on planes without intentional packaging. Those are just inconveniences.
The real change – and I think the real victory for the 9/11 terrorists – is that both American government and American citizens shifted from a stance of confidence to one of fear. The world has always been a dangerous place, and we Americans have been insulated from that danger for the most part. But 9/11 brought that danger into our living rooms. That was an end to the world as we knew it and the beginning of a far different world.
I think it’s easy to say in hindsight that we continue to live with the political, cultural, and economic consequences of a massive over-reaction. It will take historians decades more to chase all the threads of that over-reaction and their various impacts. For example, we shifted our attention away from natural disasters to “homeland security.” When Hurricane Katrina arrived a few years later, we discovered that we had gutted our capacity to respond to such an event. Hundreds and hundreds of people died who might have been saved if we had prepared differently.
My point is that we aren’t any better at reading the signs of the times now than were Jesus’ first-century listeners. We find, for example, the availability heuristic almost irresistible. That heuristic says that whatever is at the front of our minds tends to have the greatest salience regardless of the actual odds of something coming to pass.
Compare your chances of getting hit by lightning or dying in a terrorist attack. Then compare your responses to those possibilities. Lightning is the more likely killer, but (unless you’ve been in a violent thunderstorm recently) the terrorist attack is the more mentally available and therefore more frightening possibility.
What are the salient signs these days? The list of candidates is overwhelming. We’re not done with Covid-19, no matter how much we want to be done. The Russian bear is bombing the hell out of Ukrainian cities. And the Armageddon industrial complex has shifted into high gear with publications and predictions. Nuclear war is suddenly back on the table as an up-to-the-minute terror. Climate catastrophe is an oldie but a goodie. Inflation, deflation, gas and oil prices, the bankruptcy of the Social Security system (I’m old, obviously). I’m sure you can add another dozen items to the list.
We have a conflicted relationship with catastrophe and what it means. I love the insights in the film, Men in Black, about our human desire to deny real crises. Jay has just fired his weapon in full sight of some ordinary people, creating havoc and destruction that demand explanation. Kay reprimands him, “We do not discharge our weapons in view of the public.”
“Can we drop the cover-up bullshit?!” Jay replies. “There’s an Alien Battle Cruiser that’s gonna blow-up the world if we don’t…” Kay is not having it.
“There’s always an Alien Battle Cruiser…or a Korilian Death Ray, or…an intergalactic plague about to wipe out life on this planet,” Kay says, “and the only thing that lets people get on with their hopeful little lives is that they don’t know about it.” That’s how we’d like to keep it for as long as possible. Blissful ignorance is the prerogative of the privileged and the fond fantasy of everyone else.
Then we’re faced with some real crisis, one that can’t be denied or ignored or explained away. And for a day or two, that’s the end! We’re all doomed. Of course, it doesn’t take long for us to get acclimated to the “crisis,” and life moves on.
Jesus tells us that the real battles in life aren’t about political inflection points or historic crises. Instead, the real battles are the ones that take patience, persistence, and perseverance. The real battles in life are the ones where you have to dig around the roots, spread a little manure, wait and watch and do it again – and again, and again.
There is a tree that marks the end of the world as we know it. It’s not a fig tree in an imaginary vineyard. It is, rather, a cross on Calvary. We’re on the Lenten journey toward that tree. We know how that story turns out. And we know the lifegiving fruit it produces.
So, it’s back to tilling and tending, nudging and nourishing the world in the places where we live and love and labor right now. It’s back to keeping on keeping on in faith, hope, and love. This is not glamorous work. It doesn’t produce immediate or even noticeable results. I am unlikely to remembered for my part in any of it, and the real problems won’t be solved in my lifetime. Jesus says, keep on digging.
As I dig, most of what I produce is going to be humus, not fruit. I mention that because I am often reminded of the common origins of the words “humus” and “humility.” I would commend to you a great little column by Brenna Davis at ncronline.org entitled “Humus, Humans, and Humility.” In that article, Davis notes that the words “humus,” “human,” and “humility” all come from the same Latin root. All are connected to the soil.
I am reflecting on the reading, study, conversation, and reflection I have been doing over the last ten years in anti-racism literature. I have learned a lot. I have been challenged and changed by what I have learned. But what I have learned most of all is how very much more there is to learn, to experience, to unlearn, and to repent.
I have learned that humility is the only proper response for me at this moment, and that I have a lifetime of work still to do. I want so much to find real answers and solutions and responses that might help other people grow and change. And covertly, I also want people to see how smart I am about this stuff, but that’s a personal failing that follows me everywhere. I know I want “success” mostly for me and my comfort level. That won’t do. That’s not humility. I can’t continue to do this work without getting down and dirty, digging around my roots and adding more plant food to the mix.
This is what Jesus tells his listeners at the beginning of our text. Don’t be distracted by any thoughts that the work is just about over. It’s not. There’s a lifetime of repenting yet to do. Remember that repentance isn’t feeling sorry. It’s about a change of mind, an alteration of the path, a turning away from whatever doesn’t give life. Every day we start over with that repentance. And that’s the good news.
So, to coin a phrase, here’s your sign…
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