Luke 17:5-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Lamentations 1:1-6; Lamentations 3:19-26; Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 37:1-9; Psalm 137
In the Christian church year, we are in the season that leads up to Advent. In the Christian liturgical tradition, some portions of Lamentations that are also read during Holy Week are included in the readings for today.
Both Jewish and Christian interpretations of these passages deal with a spiritual world that is transformed into an alien place overnight. Psalm 137 tells the story of the Babylonian exile of the 6th century, bce. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” The ancient Hebrew people who experienced the original exile were physically uprooted and marched away into captivity in the 6th century, bce. The commemoration of that day happens on the 9th of Av in the Jewish calendar, which this year was July 19. …
Luke 13:6-8; Judges 9:7-15
Luke seems to borrow from Mark when he suggests that the fig tree the owner wants to cut down has been barren for years. But Luke does not take Mark’s metaphor. In Mark’s gospel, the story of the fig tree cursed by Jesus brackets Jesus’ demonstration in the Temple (Mark 11:11-21). Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan argue in The Last Week that Jesus’ unreasonable curse of the fig tree that is without fruit in the off-season calls attention to the condition of the Temple under Roman rule. The Temple cannot properly serve the people (produce good fruit) under the corrupting influence of the Roman occupation. Unlike Mark’s Jesus, Luke’s vinekeeper suggests giving the fig tree a second chance. “Let it stand, sir, one more year . . . Maybe it will produce . . . but if it doesn’t, we can go ahead and cut it down.” Later, in Luke 21:29-30, he has Jesus use the fig tree’s leafing out in the spring as a metaphor for the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God.
Mark considered that the kingdom of God had already arrived with Jesus. For Luke, writing 30 to 50 years after Mark, the kingdom of God has not yet arrived, but should arrive soon. So, Luke’s Jesus first says, “repent or perish.” Then – perhaps to soften the blow – he assures with the parable of the barren fig tree that God is working to cultivate and enrich the soil in order to give sinners one more chance.
Luke’s parable appears only in his Gospel. It is highly likely that he invented it; although the Jesus Seminar Scholars were apparently reluctant to consign it to the realm of sayings not original with Jesus. Whether Jesus used the metaphor or not, the fig tree has been reprieved for a year. Prudent gardening practice has become the first century equivalent of “tough love.” Three strikes and you’re out. One more chance, then it’s compost for you, Sinner.
Luke’s “parable” of the barren tree is included in the Revised Common Lectionary for the third Sunday in Lent, Year C. In the context of the other readings for that day, which include the preceding verses in 13:1-5, “. . . Luke’s Jesus is clearly the son of a violent god: ‘[U]nless you repent, you will all perish . . .,’ he says – twice. Apparently Jesus’ God is inclined to give Luke’s hearers one more chance before cutting them down, but that hardly translates into compassion.” On its own, without the dogmatic gloss supplied by its combination with the other readings, Luke’s vignette is merely a metaphor that softens the judgment that went before. We can speculate that Luke is once again making following Jesus a safe occupation for Roman citizens. The radicality of the free gift of grace is not there.
Biblical scholars – liberal or conservative – agree that fig trees in the Bible are metaphors for the people and leadership of ancient Israel. The condition of the fig tree was a metaphor of Israel’s spiritual condition. In Matthew’s version of the fig tree legend, a frustrated and hungry Jesus curses the barren fig tree, then tells the disciples that if they trust and do not doubt, they also can kill fig trees with a curse. In fact, they can move mountains into the sea with a word. But beware the temptation to follow Matthew and Luke into anti-Semitism and black magic. Luke’s fig tree might represent the members of Luke’s community who were reluctant to buy into the Christian version of Judaism that was rising toward the end of the first century. The implication is, with some careful nurturing, they might produce fruit for the kingdom after all and join the Christian faction. If they don’t, then leave them out of the community.
Matthew wanted to replace Torah with his story of Jesus because he considered that Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s deepest hope and desire. Matthew’s contribution to the meaning of fig trees is to declare them incapable of ever bearing fruit again – an unfortunate anti-Semitic trap for the unwary. Further, the followers of Jesus who “have faith” (NRSV translation) and do not doubt will posess the same power Jesus does to not only render fig trees permanently barren, but to move mountains into the sea. Whether the phrase is translated “to trust” (Five Gospels) or to “have faith,” it is difficult to read the passage as a metaphor that calls for radical transformation of all human life. Anti-Jewish sentiment underlies it like a watermark.
Perhaps for the above reasons, the Elves who put together the RCL consider neither Mark’s nor Matthew’s radical fig tree metaphors. Sunday morning hearers of the Word are left with Luke’s gentle conventionality.
However, the parable of the trees in the Jewish book of Judges 9:7-15 may hold a clue to both Mark’s and Matthew’s evangelical conviction that Jesus had indeed restored the kingdom of God to earth. The parable of the trees is never encountered in the normal years of readings from the RCL. It is part of the 400-year legendary history of the Hebrew people, after their escape from Egypt, and the death of Joshua – the successor to Moses. During this time, the tribes of Israel experienced nearly constant wars with their neighbors, and internecine squabbles among themselves, as local leaders attempted to set themselves up as kings or rulers over all the tribes. The parable of the trees is a sarcastic allegory, challenging the legitimacy of Abimelech’s claim to be king. It is part of the argument the leaders of the Hebrew tribes had before the advent of King Saul about the dangers of forming a monarchy. (As an interesting aside, given my use of this parable, “Abimelech” means “My father (God) is king.”)
The fig tree, the olive tree, and the grapevine all represented survival, abundance, and riches for the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. In the parable, all are invited in turn to be crowned king of the trees, and one by one they all decline. They are content to continue to provide their own life-giving fruits to the people. The bramble is the only one that agrees to rule. But the bramble is only used for starting fires – a somewhat ambiguous usefulness. Fires are essential for life, but – in careless or evil hands – fire is the supreme destroyer of life. The bramble warns that if the people are not acting in good faith – if Abimelech is not who he claims to be – destruction by fire will be their fate.
In the ancient parable, when the one who is considered the least valuable is the only one willing to rule, the result will be disastrous unless the people act in good faith, and in alignment with God’s purposes. Bringing the metaphor into the first century, Jesus becomes the itinerant bramble, who is worthless in the eyes of imperial Rome. Mark’s gospel points out that the corruption in the Temple had reached apocalyptic levels. The fig tree is cursed and dies. Matthew’s gospel leaves no doubt that the paradigm has changed. Jesus cursed the fig tree and it died, and his followers can do the same. Luke has apparently forgotten that Jesus came to set the earth on fire (Luke 12:49). Has Luke missed the power and the point once again? Or is Luke the master of subversion who has deliberately obscured a dangerous proposition?
Who knows why Luke strung together the sayings that he did, why he chose them, and why he put them in the order he decided? The verses from 12:54-13:5 seem to form a progression. Luke’s Jesus starts with another example of his frustration with his followers. “You phonies!” he yells, “You know the lay of the land and can read the face of the sky, so why don’t you know how to interpret the present time?” He follows that with what seems to be a clarification: “Why can’t you decide for yourselves what is right?” He finishes with a warning that is pure Luke:…
This portion of Luke is routinely divided by the Revised Common Lectionary among Propers 13, 14, and 15, in Year C. Verses 21-32 are skipped, in favor of the version in Matthew 6:25-34 (Propers 10 and 11, Year B). The result, as these commentaries continue to complain, is that Christian dogma is preserved at the expense of biblical integrity. Like other portions of Luke, this sequence has its own theme: Don’t be greedy; don’t worry about how you will live, and be ready for the kingdom when it finally comes. The Jesus Seminar Scholars point out what might be a thematic progression from wealth and possessions to watchfulness and alertness, and ultimately judgment against those who get tired of waiting. All of it was put together for Luke’s early Christian community. Brief portions are believed by the Jesus Seminar to reliably be attributable to the historical Jesus (12:16-20, 22-25, 27-28).
It is easy to accuse Luke of conventionality. After all, he always adds his own pious commentary at the end of the sayings from Jesus that were part of the oral tradition. It is impossible to know why he did this. One theory is that his editorial additions deliberately took the edge off Jesus’ radicality so that the Way could be practiced under Roman imperial noses. For example, in 12:16-21, Luke uses a saying lifted from Thomas 63:1-3 (see The Five Gospels p. 508). In Luke’s hands, the concern is what will happen to the stuff the rich man has collected. Luke implies that God will demand the rich man’s life because he has saved up for himself, and therefore is really not rich in God’s terms.
Luke then has Jesus go on to explain, “That’s why I tell you: don’t fret about life – what you’re going to eat – or about your body – what you’re going to wear. . . .” He lifts this nearly verbatim from Matthew’s great sermon on the mount. But he intersperses this discourse with his own comments. Regarding Jesus’ question, “Can any of you add an hour to life by fretting about it?” Luke’s Jesus says, sarcastically, “If you can’t do a little thing like that, why worry about the rest?” Luke ends this part with his own heavily veiled challenge to imperial society: “These are all things the world’s pagans seek, and your Father is aware that you need them. Instead, you are to seek God’s domain, and these things will come to you as a bonus.”
But Luke has not yet finished his sermon. He goes on to reassure his readers: “Don’t be afraid, little flock, for it has delighted your Father to give you his domain,” yet he means no challenge to Rome. He tells the people to sell their belongings, donate to charity, and pile up wealth in heaven where it cannot be stolen or destroyed. He further diverts attention from radical, distributive, kingdom-realizing justice by delivering a warning about what happens to faithless slaves who are not prepared for the master’s return.
Then Luke summarizes four other well-known parables: the parable of the leased vineyard (Mark 12:1-13 [skipped by the RCL]); the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-8a); the money in trust (Luke 19:12-27 [skipped by the RCL – stay tuned]); and the unforgiving slave (Matthew 18:23-35). He misses or softens the point of all of them, including the parable of the shrewd manager, which is the one that he alone reports. The concluding warning that Jesus came to stir up conflict appears to apply to internecine squabbles either between traditional Jews and fledgling Christians, or within Luke’s community of believers.
Roman spies would have slipped out the door, to report that these Christians pose no threat at all to the status quo.
But in the saying from the Thomas collection, which is probably closer to the original than Luke’s expanded version, the existential and subversive joke is clear. We can imagine Jesus’ company around the campfire one night, perhaps griping yet again about how unfair it is that the rich have everthing and they (the itinerant poor) have nothing. Jesus says, There was a rich person who had a great deal of money. He said, “I shall invest my money so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouses with produce that I may lack nothing.” These were the things he was thinking in his heart, but that very night he died! In the blink of an eye, Jesus has leveled the playing field. No matter how much anyone has, everyone dies.
In Luke’s hands, Jesus’ defiant joke has been bastardized: “You can’t take it with you.” New age psychologists, self-help gurus, yoga instructors and interior decorators advise that spiritual health includes getting rid of the clutter. It’s good feng shui. Jesus’ discourse on trusting God to provide food, clothing, and shelter has become the foundation for the “prosperity gospel,” which is nothing more than a new name for a very ancient attitude: God intends for believers to be prosperous. The corollary is, prosperity is a sign of God’s favor. The secular form is, if you give, you will get. The social assumption that governs conservative politics is, people are poor because they are guilty of sin: sloth, gluttony, pride, wrath, greed, lust, and envy. In the midst of the worst global economy since the Great Depression, the hapless unemployed are told to get off your duff and get a job. And if you want unemployment benefits, we’re going to test you for drugs first.
Luke has Jesus continue speaking without transition until 12:54, making the paragraph on fire and conflict really part of the preceding sermon. Luke’s Jesus expresses some frustration with the progress of establishing the kingdom. “I came to set the earth on fire,” he says, “and how I wish it were already ablaze!” He voices the complaint of every leader advocating change: “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and what pressure I’m under until it’s over!” Then he warns that did not come to bring peace, but conflict.
The entire speech reflects upheaval among the followers of Jesus as they began to organize themselves. They were often in conflict with Jewish communities who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and were unwilling to replace Torah with the story and teachings of Jesus. Luke’s Jesus expresses impatience with the difficulty of finally establishing the kingdom of God on earth.
A major theme in Luke’s gospel is the unfolding of the divine plan, beginning with Jesus, and continuing in Acts with the early church. Civilizations since Rome have been highly suspicious of language that implies a divine plan other than the one put forth by whatever powers that exist at the time, so Luke is careful to put the prophecy in ambiguous terms. When has there not been conflict among members of families? But Jesus’ words as reported in Thomas are much more provocative: “I have cast fire upon the world, and look, I’m guarding it until it blazes.”
For 21st Century followers of the Way, this part of Luke’s gospel is testmony to the continuing struggle for distributive justice-compassion. Despite the claims of the prosperity gospel and the Tea Party faction of the current “conservative” movement, being rich is not a guarantee of a place in the Kingdom. Having said that, however, “a great deal is required of everyone to whom much is given; and even more will be demanded from the one to whom a great deal has been entrusted” (The Five Gospels, p. 341). In today’s economic conditions, those with the means to redistribute wealth have the moral obligation to do so, whether it is recognized or not. Perhaps this is how to read 12:42-48, about slaves who know what their masters want and don’t do it, and slaves who don’t know what their masters want, but at least make an attempt to act properly. This seems to be a non-sequitur in the 21st century. But when financial corporations and the top 1% of the population continue to stockpile their wealth in treasury bonds and gold instead of investing in viable business, they have only themselves to blame when the system crashes.
Are you ready?