When I read the parable Jesus used of the unfruitful fig tree I couldn’t help but remember growing up in Titirangi. My Dad was a great gardener. We had a great vege patch in the back yard and the rest of the yard was resplendent with fruit trees: A feijoa hedge, apple trees, grapefruit, mandarins, lemons a plumb tree and a couple of peach trees. But it was a constant struggle to get them to keep producing fruit… the top soil was thin over that good old Waitakere clay. It was a testament to my dad’s skills that most of the trees would produce fruit every year. But for a couple of years one of the peach trees didn’t produce anything. Dad tried lots of things to get it going again. But it was coming to the point that it just wasn’t worth keeping it in the garden. It should be cut down and replaced. My mum wasn’t prepared to give up on it… she came across an article that said if you hit a fruit tree with a broom handle around its trunk at the beginning of spring that it would stimulate sap growth and fruit production. My Dad just laughed but my mum wasn’t put off, she said well she’d give it go and I remember her going out into the back yard when dad was at work and whacking the peach tree. I can’t remember the outcome but I know we didn’t cut it down so it must have produced some fruit. Jesus uses the giving of another chance to the unproductive fig tree to talk of God’s grace and patience in dealing with his people Israel and with us. Looking and working for what John the Baptist called fruit in keeping with repentance.
We are working our way through Luke’s account of Jesus journey to Jerusalem: A narrative that takes up the central third of the gospel, and which focuses on Jesus teaching about what it means to follow him. We’ve been working through a long section of Jesus calling Israel to be faithful and wholehearted in light of what was to come: his death and resurrection and equally for us to be faithful and wholehearted as we await the consummation of the kingdom of God with his return. AS we saw last week he finished that with a metaphor laden appeal for people to respond, to acknowledge who it was who stood in their midst and respond by settling accounts with God. And that comes to a climax in the passage we had read today in a call to repent or perish. In a passage that brings us to the heart of the gospel and our reformation faith… all have sinned and fallen sort of the glory of God and all are justified freely through the redemption that comes by Jesus Christ.’
Just as we saw a couple weeks ago when Jesus teaching was interrupted by a man asking Jesus to judge in a family dispute over inheritance, here we see the crowd wanting to share some news with Jesus. That a group of Galilean pilgrims had been killed by Pilate in the temple in Jerusalem, and their blood had mingled with the blood of the sacrifices on the floor of the temple. It was a subtle test for Jesus to see in his response whether he was pro-roman or pro revolution. Would he condemn Pilate’s sacrilegious actions? We know from history that Pontius Pilate was good at antagonising the Jewish people. He had bought the roman standards with their pagan symbols into Jerusalem and here it seems he committed acts of violence in the temple grounds. Maybe even to the extent of having his gentile soldier enter the Jewish only court of the temple to do it. Jesus is aware of the underlying thinking of his day as well that such a tragic event happening to these people meant they must have done something really bad to deserve it. There is possibly a dig here at Jesus as well, a Galilean leading a band of Galileans on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Maybe they would face the same fate. But also there is a sense that people are pointing to these people as an example of those Jesus had been talking about, when he had called his hearers to settle accounts with God. You couldn’t have meant us Jesus we are nice people, good people, you must have meant people like those other Galileans? And there is a bit racism involved here, as Jews looked down their noses a bit at people from galilee remember , ‘nothing good can come from galilee’.
Jesus response is to say no! They were not worse sinners that all the others because they suffered that way. And he emphatically says all humanity is in the same boat “I tell you no! unless you repent, you will all perish.” he goes on to talk about another disaster where eighteen people living in Jerusalem had died when a tower had fallen on them, were they any worse than anyone else… Jesus asks… and again Jesus uses the refrain “ I tell you no! But, unless you repent, you too will all perish.’ The bible does not teach that bad things happen to bad people, we know that God’s people had always wrestled with the fact that bad things happened to good people. Rather here Jesus turns it back on his listeners and us. To show that it is not the amount of sin in our lives but it’s its very presence that put us in a place of judgement. Paul in his letter to the Romans sums it up by saying we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It is a picture drawn from archery where people have fired an arrow at the target but have missed it, and constantly miss it and consistently miss it.
Jesus then tells the parable of the fig tree in the vineyard. He says that despite it being left to grow to maturity it still did not produce the fruit that was expected. So the owner of the vineyard says to cut it down but the man who looks after the vineyard the gardener says ‘no let’s give it one more year and digs in fertiliser into the soil and cares for the tree.’ Jesus is saying that in fact it is not there goodness but only God’s grace and kindness that has stopped Israel, represented by the Fig tree from facing judgement. It is only God’s grace, in sending Jesus.
Now in this section of Luke who Jesus is speaking to is always an important issue in our understanding of Jesus words. All through chapter twelve he has oscillated between addressing the crowd and his followers. In this passage Jesus is addressing the wider crowd. He is addressing Israel. He is saying that if they continue to see the kingdom of God in terms of being a nation free from Rome not hearing Jesus words and putting them into action, they will perish. By the sword or as the walls of Jerusalem are pulled down around them. He is saying that God has allowed a little longer that they may have a chance to respond to Jesus before he brings judgement on them. IN 70Ad the romans put down a Jewish rebellion and laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed it. The image behind me is from the Titus arch in Rome celebrating the roman victory and depicts romans taking the contents of the temple back to Rome. They scattered the people all over the empire. It was the last times there as a Jewish state there till 1948.
But it also speaks to all of humanity; it is a call for all of us. Remember last week Jesus had called people to look and see who he was, that he is God’s son and in light of that to respond. Here Jesus call is for all to respond , all to repent. That we have all fallen short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely through the redemption that comes by Jesus Christ.’ We have all been offered Grace so let us repent.
This begs the question what does it mean to repent? Some people think it is the same as remorse or regret for the things we’ve done wrong. That it is an emotional response. Of course these days we probably see it most often when prominent people break what cornel west calls the eleventh commandment “thou shall not get caught” We see people making heart felt apologises for their infractions once the media has dragged it out into the light. It’s been in our headlines this week as the Chiefs have been called out for homophobic slurs and sexual harassing of a stripper at their Mad Monday end of session gathering. A gathering that Steve Hansen rightly says should be kicked into touch.
Or we see it as people coming to respond to a call at an evangelistic rally to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and saviour. To ask Jesus for forgiveness for all they have done wrong. Both I think can be part of what it means to repent. They are steps in the process.
To repent actual has the idea of turning from going one way and going the other way: To do a u turn and stop going our own way to going God’s way. To reorientation our lives to hearing the words of Jesus and putting them into practise in our lives. AS such it’s a process we work through, at its centre is the acknowledgement of who Jesus is and what he has done for us. Yes it is an acknowledgement that we have done wrong, but then changing and allowing God to transform our lives and seeing that bear fruit in how we live our lives and how we react and act towards other people.
James Bryan Smith talks of this ongoing process of repentance is spiritual formation. He says that at the heart of how we live our lives is the narratives we tell ourselves, about life and about God. Spiritual formation is the process of changing the wrong and harmful narrative we tell ourselves and the false narrative we tell ourselves about God changing them for Jesus understanding of God and of life. Then we develop new practises that reflect the new narrative. In Luke twelve Jesus had countered the narrative of fear in the face of opposition and the narrative of worry in trying to find our security in what we own, with the narrative that God cares for us, that we are precious to him, that he will give us the words we need and he knows our needs even before we ask him, and calls us to live out new practises, of courage of our convictions and live generously towards others. The people of Israel saw freedom in political terms, there narrative was independence from outside forces, whereas Jesus narrative saw freedom in dependence on God, free of the internal forces of sin and death, a change in narrative that would stop a doomed bloody violent revolution but would overcome with a revelation of love for each other and enemy. A narrative that you can earn God’s favour by keeping all the laws, to knowing God’s favour and living in right relationship with each other because of that love. That is the ongoing process of repentance. Through which we become people in who Christ dwells and delights.
In Luke’s writing the fruit of that process is always seen in how we treat others, how we allocate and use our resources. James Bryan Smith sums it up by saying we become Not a religion of laws or ceremonies or mystical knowledge, but of love and kindness. And Our world is badly in need of people who love and who demonstrate genuine kindness.
How does this process happen in our lives? I think here the parable of the fig tree has some insight for us. It talks of the gardener digging in manure to enrich the soil and feed the plant so it will produce fruit. It is being willing to open ourselves up to the scriptures to Jesus words and allow the Holy Spirit to let them do their work in our lives. To show us where our narratives our way of constructing the world and our way of living that out is wrong and needs to change, in reminding us again and again of the great love of God, the forgiveness we can know in Christ and the new life in the Holy Spirit, in showing us new ways to act and react. In that process repentance becomes a posture we take in relationship to God wanting to go his way.
And let me finish with a parable: A tiny child runs away from its parent in the busy hustle and bustle of the city, getting separated and lost an imminent danger , the busy unrelenting traffic so close so deadly, I don’t like to say it but you never knowing who or what lurks in the crowd. Then the child hears its father’s voice, calling its name, and it stops it looks around evaluates where it is then turns round, it’s posture changes its face light up and it raises its arms and heads back to its fathers arms and after they embrace it walks through the city lead by its fathers hand. It repented and that is Jesus call to us.