Text Study for Luke 13:1-9 (Part Five)

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.

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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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Text Study for Luke 13:1-9 (Part Three)

Some interpreters and editions separate Luke 13:1-5 (“Repent or Perish” in the Nestle-Aland volume) from Luke 13:6-9 (“The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree”). I think that’s not a helpful separation, no matter how tempting it might be. The parable in verses 6-9 is intended to interpret and expand the teaching on repentance that comprises verses 1-5. “In its narrative context,” Levine and Witherington write, “the Parable of the Fig Tree…is a commentary on the two disasters in Judea; for Luke, the tree is an allegorical representation of the person who needs to repent” (page 365).

The Galileans who bled to death in front of a Temple altar in Jerusalem had no time to make amends for sins still “on the books” of their lives. They were here one moment and gone the next. The (Judean?) construction workers who died in the collapse of the Tower of Siloam had no time to satisfy their moral and spiritual debts. In a moment, their lives were over. The clock had run out. For them there were no more tomorrows.

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In light of that sudden and unexpected end, Jesus tells a story about a near miss and a second chance. The parable creates all sorts of interpretive speculation about tree planting and manure spreading. It has been used as an allegory since some of the earliest centuries of the Christian Church. Those allegories – many of which have imagined the fig tree as “unfruitful” Israel – are not particularly helpful to us and have been one more element in the anti-Judaism impact of the New Testament.

Let’s avoid that mistake, shall we?

The general tenor of the narrative in this stretch of the Lukan account is the theme of unexpected results. Let’s work our way backwards in the chapter. In the parable of the Narrow Door (Luke 13:23-30), the guest list is quite the opposite of what Jesus’ listeners might have expected. Nonetheless, the eschatological feast is standing room only, with guests from every point of the compass coming and eating in the Kin(g)dom of God.

In the mini-parables of the mustard seed and the yeast (Luke 13:18-22), the image is of something very small that produces large results. The Kin(g)dom of God is comparable to these surprising results. In the Healing of the Bent-over Woman (Luke 1:10-17), the woman had been imprisoned by her ailment for eighteen years. What hope could there be for her healing? Yet, Jesus spoke and laid hands on her. She stood up straight and began praising God.

It’s amazing what Jesus can do with second chances, eh?

Perhaps this is one of the ways to approach the text. Every day we live is a “second chance.” When we focus on the potential culpability of those who died in Jerusalem, Justo Gonzalez suggests, we are asking the question backwards. “The surprising thing is not that so many die,” he writes, “but that we still live. If it were a matter of sin,” Gonzalez continues, “we would all be dead” (Kindle Location 3238).

What, Gonzalez asks, does the parable mean? It means that those of who still survive “are living only by the grace of God, and that our continued life is for the purpose that we bear fruit” (Kindle Location 3245). But it means more than that. And here is where Gonzalez’ commentary gets really interesting.

“It also means that even our apparent blessing and abundance are not necessarily something of which we should boast,” he continues. “The tree that has produced no fruit receives special attention and added fertilizer, not because it is so good, but rather because it is so poor” (Kindle Location 3246, my emphasis). This tree has not been blessed with abundance. It has nothing to commend it to the landowner. So far, the tree has been a disappointment and is just taking up space.

Gonzalez suggests that to the casual observer, all the extra attention the tree will receive would be a sign that the tree is specially blessed. “This is what one would expect on the premises of the so-called gospel of prosperity,” he writes, “good things are a reward for faith and fruitfulness. But the truth is exactly the opposite,” Gonzalez continues. “The fig tree is receiving special care because it has yet to give the fruit it was meant to bear” (Kindle Location 3253).

This interpretation takes, for example, the self-serving bias of White supremacy and turns it on its head. “Could it be,” Gonzalez asks, “that the reason why some of us have been given all these advantages is that otherwise we would have great difficulty bearing fruit?” (Kindle Location 3261). Perhaps all our supposed “blessings” are “just so much manure, piled on us because otherwise we would be such lousy fruit trees?” (Kindle Location 3262). I get the sense that Gonzalez offers this interpretation knowing that white people won’t quite get it, at least not right away.

Most important, Gonzalez suggests – might our power, privilege, position, and property be a warning about impending doom lest we bear fruit? And could it be that bearing fruit means sharing our abundance with those who have less rather than accumulating our stuff as a means of self-satisfied self-congratulation (see Luke 16:19-31, again). Might our survival for one more day be the result, not of our great planning and foresight (and hoarding of the good stuff), but rather because the Tree Planter has decided to give us another chance?

The Second Letter of Peter carries forth this thought in verses eight and nine of chapter three (NRSV). “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

You may know, as a reader of my posts, that I am a Christian universalist and hold no brief for eternal conscious punishment. I don’t think the threat here is hell as punishment. It is, rather, the potential hell of complete self-awareness on the part of us who have not born fruit.

What will it be like to come to the end of my earthly life knowing that I used my “fruit” only for me and that now I am privileged to spend eternity with those who were deprived in this life because I wanted to have too much? Will that realization not be as much hell and conscious torment as anyone might need standing in the presence of the God of second chances?

It will be enough for me, I think. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know what it means to ruminate over sixty-five years of regret and remorse. The prospect of facing up to all my failings in an instant, all the missed opportunities, all the losses of nerve, all the blissful and willful ignorance of the needs of others – that’s almost more than I can bear to consider at the moment.

This is one of the opportunities of our Lenten journey – to remember that we still have time to live fruitfully. Another way to think about this is that repentance requires repair before reconciliation. Richard Swanson points out that “Jewish faith recognizes that there is a solid, concrete reality to repentance and faith” (page 124). Feeling sorry may begin a process of repentance, but it is only a beginning. Repair is a necessary element.

This Sunday and next, I’m doing two sessions of an adult forum on forgiving and being forgiven. It’s a classic example of the old saying that those who can’t do end up teaching. I’m hardly an exemplar of either being forgiven or forgiving. Thus, everything I say about repentance is directed first and foremost to me.

And I’m not sure I’ll get anywhere close to getting it right in this life. Frankly, it worries me (a bit). That being said, we’ll start our reflections on Sunday with the discipline of being forgiven. We’ll get to forgiving the next Sunday. But I want to start with the hard part first.

The French have a proverb which notes that “to forgive is first of all to accuse.” If someone forgives me for something, that person is convinced that I have done harm to that person. Otherwise, what is there to forgive? The corollary to that proverb, I think, is that “to repent is first of all to confess.” If I need to repent of a sin, then I have to acknowledge that I did something wrong. Otherwise, what is there to repent?

When I see myself as that fig tree, the first thing I must do is to acknowledge that I have born little fruit. If I had been fruitful, I wouldn’t need the extra time (or the manure treatment).

A brief note about that manure treatment. “Give me some time to dig around the roots and throw shit,” the gardener proposes in Luke 13:8. The final Greek word in the sentence is “kopria.” It really does mean “poop.” For example, coprolites are fossilized feces, dinosaur turds turned to stone by the passage of time. I mention this because most of my opportunities for growth are likely to be uncomfortable and/or unpleasant. Discomfort is likely a sign that I’m getting the treatment I need, no matter how much I might dislike it at the time.

How is the Lord digging around my roots and throwing shit at me to help me grow into the human I was created to be?

References and Resources

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

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