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Repent or Perish and The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree

Compassion over rules


Luke 13:1-9

Repent or Perish

1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 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? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’

The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree

6 Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 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?” 8 He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”‘

Continuing Matthew Fox’s study of his 95 Theses:

No. 12 “Jesus does not call us to a new religion, but to life” [Dietrich Bonhoeffer]. Spirituality is living life at a depth of newness and gratitude, courage and creativity, trust and letting go, compassion and justice.

No. 13 Spirituality and religion are not the same any more than education and learning, law and justice, or commerce and stewardship are the same.

No. 61 Interconnectivity is not only a law of physics and of nature, but also forms the basis of community and compassion. Compassion is the working out of our shared interconnectivity, both as to our shared joy and our shared suffering and struggle for justice.

Sometime ago I saw a television production of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ starring Harriet Walter and Antony Sher. This was the Royal Shakespeare Company recorded at the Roundhouse in London. The scene in which Macbeth murders Duncan is an act of almost indescribable revulsion. It is the depth of wickedness very nearly too awful for words. It grips both the characters in the play and the audience looking on.

Then the tension is broken with a hammering upon the castle gate. The porter shuffles his way across the stage speaking of being like the doorkeeper at the gate of hell itself. Finally he opens the gate and both Macduff and Lennox enter. Then the blackness of the evil is lightened by the porter’s short but coarse, colourful and comical description of the influence of intoxicating drink. It is a scene that speaks of desire, lechery and, for some reason known to Shakespeare, nose painting!

The importance of this scene is the indication that although evil is present it will not triumph forever. In the presence of death there is the reminder that life goes on and there will come a day [but not necessarily this day] when goodness and hope will triumph.

Shakespeare used this theatrical technique to excellent effect, and Luke used a similar process in this chapter 13 reading from his gospel. Here we have both the dire warnings to repent or be confronted by eternal punishment, immediately followed by a plea of compassion: “Sir, leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.”

This is a clever literary creation used by Luke to cause maximum impact upon his audience by contrasting the warning of judgement with the comfort of compassion. But why is it that only Luke has this particular story dealing with the martyrdom of Galilean worshippers while they were offering sacrifices to their Yahweh God?

Perhaps Luke was addressing needs within his own community of followers of the Way of Jesus? Perhaps Luke was bringing to mind an all too real incident in which Pilate had killed them because they upheld the traditional Jewish religious approach that stated holiness by separation as ‘their way’ of attaining once again national and religious survival and self-determination, and as such, Pilate rightly accused them and their actions as being insurrection against Roman Imperial rule and domination.

Also, it should be noted that there was a tendency for the Pharisees to see that people deserved what life did to them. Therefore, by this reasoning, those Galilean worshippers killed by Pilate must have offended Yahweh in some way or other and therefore they were not to be offered any pity.

However, it is significant that, according to Luke, Jesus pointed out that those who were martyred were no worse or no better than anyone else! For Luke, here was Jesus undermining yet more of the Pharisaic approach to life, religion and tradition.

We need to remember that Luke was writing within the context of both Roman occupation and growing tensions within the synagogues that were resulting in Jewish and gentile followers of the Jewish Jesus sect being expelled from their synagogues. To the traditional ‘exclusive’ Pharisaic Jews, it was the inclusiveness of Jesus and his followers that was threatening the whole future of Judaism.

But also, Luke may have been meeting head-on some of the Jewish followers of the Way of Jesus in Antioch who maintained the traditional understanding of Jewish separation as the road to holiness and self-determination.

Luke was reminding such exclusive followers of the Jewish Jesus sect that Yahweh God’s universal love and acceptance was for all people, so fully demonstrated by the works and words of Jesus. Perhaps this was why Luke was calling for repentance?

As I study the gospels I increasingly see that in his early ministry Jesus had maintained the Jewish holiness code of separation from gentiles. That gradually changed with new spiritual insights as he increasingly mingled with the despised, the rejected and the excluded. Samaritans, Romans, prostitutes and tax collectors all helped to educate Jesus into the broader vision of Yahweh God’s love and concern for all.

This was Luke’s message repeated over and over again, reflecting upon how problematic it had been for him as a gentile ‘Yahweh God-fearer’ to be accepted amongst the synagogue-based followers of the Jewish Jesus sect in Antioch.

Also, perhaps at the time that Luke was writing there were some in Antioch who wanted to follow Jesus but who also wanted to avoid the associated hardship of the true cost of following him completely? Perhaps this is why Luke referenced those Galilean worshippers martyred for their faith?

But let us think for a moment about the story of the fig tree. It represented those within and beyond the synagogue in Antioch who were rejecting the radical inclusive social and religious message of Jesus. In the story, such people stood condemned by the man [a metaphor for Yahweh God, the Judge of all], but it was the gardener [a metaphor for Jesus] who was pleading for a little more time so that the tree could be nurtured and fruit would grow.

This was Luke’s literary counter-balance between judgement and compassion. Notice again Luke’s literary construction: there is a profound warning to repent or else, followed by the comfort of Yahweh God’s compassion towards all. Many will know the weight of one’s personal transgressions and feelings of guilt being suddenly lifted by the experience that Jesus is all compassion! However, there was a further warning in Luke’s message to the Jewish Jesus sect: an awareness of such love was no excuse to continue wilfully abusing such compassion and mercy.

So what has all of this to do with us today? Unlike Luke, we live in relative peace. Unlike Luke, we are not persecuted. I cannot tell you what this story means for you but this I know, the story should speak to each one of us in different ways.

It speaks to me by reminding me that in the wisdom of Jesus the most powerful weapons available to individuals to help us to change for the better are compassion, mercy, gentleness of spirit, inclusiveness and unconditional love.

But sadly in a world dominated by might, money, and power, some people look upon compassion, mercy, gentleness of spirit, inclusiveness and unconditional love as weakness. In a world blighted by terrorism, war and indescribable brutality demonstrated day by day, for example in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan; in a world where many have become indifferent, self righteous and just downright selfish; in a world where Bible passages are taken out of context to uphold racism, sexism, homophobia and unhealthy nationalism: these are the places in which compassion, mercy, gentleness of spirit, inclusiveness and unconditional love should work and speak.

In the terminology of Luke’s Gospel compassion is not simply a noun but it is a verb – for example, for me it is about being active in times of relative peace to ensure that any future war is avoided. If this rings true for you then surely we are to struggle against everything that is unjust; we are to challenge all that creates barriers; we should demand equality and fairness in, for example, provision of adequate health services and education. The list is endless.

Compassion such as this will cost us greatly in time, money and effort because it brings us into conflict with the values of this world. Compassion is not about some simplistic touchy feely, love everybody mentality. As one who spent my formative teenage years in the early 1960s, I know that compassion is not about wearing flowers in the hair if you go to San Francisco – if you are old enough to remember Scott MacKenzie’s record!

Compassion hurts. Compassion includes being angry that the majority of people suffer as a result of having too little while we, among the minority have too much – angry enough to do something about it.

Compassion is not about segregation or superiority or the sense that, because we have accepted some religious ideas and said certain religious prayers ‘we are the chosen but others are not’.

The role of the Christian Church in our contemporary world is not so much to do with propagating systems of outdated belief, of setting up barriers to decide who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. The Church should be encouraging and enabling ordinary people to do extraordinary things as we live and practice compassion as a way of life: compassion that is inclusive and not exclusive, based upon our experience of the Yahweh God we meet in Jesus. Compassion is to be preached by actions before any words are used.

The combination of these 2 stories – the martyrdom and the fig tree – speaks right into the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus today. To follow the way of Jesus is a way of immense blessing – the way of the gardener pleading for the fig tree to be given another chance – but such blessings come at the great price of constant daily dying to self. For some it can also be the way of the Galilean worshippers: the way of the ultimate price of martyrdom.

Dr Martin Luther King Jnr. said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Copyright ©: 2016, Rev John Churcher All rights reserved. New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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