Tuesday, March 5, 2013
The lesson of the fig tree. . .
There is a framework in the Old Testament in which the words of the Gospel lesson make a bit more sense. If you look at Leviticus, you find the directions Jesus refers to in the parable. If you were to plant a fig tree, you would leave it without harvesting the fruit for three years. The fruit of the fourth year belonged to the Lord and the fruit of the 5th years and beyond belonged to the owner of the tree. Without that knowledge the parable of the fig tree can seem rather difficult.
The man had this fig tree and waited 3 years past the time when he should be expected to harvest the fruit. He had been extremely patient but his patience has come to an end. Enter the vinedresser, the one who worked the vines and fruit trees, who asks him for more patience. "Wait," says the man, "I will save the tree. If I cannot save it, then you can dig it up and remove it so it will be like it had never been there at all. For the Jew, to remove even the memory of one's existence was the worst punishment of all.
The parable of the fig tree is told to teach us something about God and His kingdom. So what does it say? The first thing it says is that God has been waiting for fruit for a long time. God is the owner of us all and He has waited for faith in His people and for the fruits of faith in their lives for a very long time. God is therefore patient beyond description. To the hearers of this parable, such patience was shockingly generous. No one would be expected to wait so long for fruit. But God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (as we just sang).
Like the owner who waited nine years for something, well beyond the ordinary time of waiting, so the Lord is incredibly generous and patient with His people. God does not rush to judgment or to condemn. In the Old Testament lesson, God pushes back against those who accuse Him of being unjust, uncharitable, and unkind. Just like last Sunday when Jesus said God was always willing but His people refused Him. Perhaps it seems to us that God is impatient but the Lord is clearly a long suffering God whose patience flows from His gracious and merciful character. What seems to us one way is, in reality, another. God is incredibly patient but Jesus tells us that this patience is not without limits.
But. . . yes, there is always a but. The parable also says that God will not wait forever. There is a limit even to the patience of God, even to the mercy of God, and even to the grace of God. This is certainly the part of the parable we do not want to here. We do not like deadlines. We like being able to procrastinate and do other things more important to us than the cause of the Lord, than His kingdom, and than His grace. But the word is clear. His grace will not wait forever. Judgment is coming.
Into the midst of this comes the vinedresser. Jesus is that vine dresser. He comes speaking to the world the word of forgiveness. "Let it be," says Jesus. "I will fix it." Now this is pure Gospel here. Jesus takes and extends the generous patience of the Lord and He acts to redeem the fruitless tree. It is important that we understand what it means in this parable when Jesus says "let it be." This is all about forgiveness. The past is forgiven, new life is given to the tree, so the tree can bear its fruit. Our past is forgiven, our new life in baptism is so we can be fruitful.
Redemption does not come from the tree but from the work of the vinedresser. Our redemption is not the fruit of our labors, the result of our repentance, or the reward of our efforts. Redemption is God's work in Christ. He saves the tree. He saves us. We don't save ourselves.
Now comes the part we do not want to hear. We are saved for a purpose. We are redeemed so that we might bear fruit. The tree is not given a pass. The unfruitful tree is not told to stand there and be beautiful or that God will gather fruit from others. Fruit is still the goal and purpose both of the tree and of God's work to save the tree – to save us. Redemption will either result in fruit or the judgment will stand and the tree will be cut down, its roots dug up, and its memory erased. But He is not talking about trees; He is talking about us. Either our redemption in Christ results in bear the fruits of repentance in the good works we were created for – OR, judgment still stands against us.
The key here is God’s generosity. We are not moved to repentance by fear but rather compelled by His love and the Spirit. Yet there is a limit to that grace. Today is the day of salvation but the day is coming when salvation will be replaced with judgment. God is not the bad guy here. He is gracious. He is merciful. He is generous. He is slow to anger. He abounds in steadfast love. He has provided our salvation in Christ – the free gift of His grace – but with that new life comes the expectation that we will bear good fruit for Him.
To reject the Lord's patience, to turn away from His mercy, is to invite His judgment and the punishment of death. This is not simply a judgment that is a bad end to an otherwise happy life. If we are lost to the Lord, it as if we had never lived at all. Eternal death is not some payment we must make for a self-indulgent life now. It erases our life completely from Him who is the source of life. This is the stark reality of a life without repentance. Here repentance does not mean a once and forever turning from sin to God but the daily kind of repentance in which we deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus in the trust of faith.
Grace is given to you and to me that we might bear the fruit of repentance, the good fruit of good works, that glorify God and honor Him. We cannot enjoy the mercy of God without also our commitment to be the people He has declared us to be, doing the good works we were regenerated to do. The purpose of grace is to make it possible for us to become the people we were meant to be. That includes a life of holiness, good works, and faith. This is not some curse placed upon us but the very reason for our lives and the fruit of God’s work of redemption in us. Today we pray Jesus to make it so. To make us fruitful. To enable us by the Holy Spirit to live new lives that glorify God by what we say, think and do. Amen.