Figs, Fires, and Fate

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?

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