Sermon for Lent 3 High Mass Sunday 24 March 2019
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Last year, on my way to Sydney, I visited Abu Dhabi, where I saw a lot of fig trees. Until oil was discovered in the Emirates, the local diet and the local economy depended almost entirely on fish and figs. In that desert, figs, and fig trees, are not decorative incidentals but staple food, providing energy and moisture; they are incredibly hardy trees that flourish in the searing dry heat and feature in local iconography. Now, in the extravagantly opulent modern city, they are everywhere, planted next to the shiny new roads and in every garden. The outdoor areas of the new Louvre Abu Dhabi have been designed to suggest the lattice-like shade of fig trees. In the course of a tour of the city in 40+ degrees, I found myself instinctively gravitating to the shade of them more than once. I also had firmly to resist being taken on an exhaustive tour of a fig market, sadly disappointing my guide of his hope that I would purchase many fascinating fig-based souvenirs.
Reading today’s distinctly odd Gospel, this recent experience clicked with the story of Jesus’ fig-tree-based parable. Not having previously paid much attention to fig trees I discovered that in ancient Israel hope for the future was sometimes expressed in terms of sitting in security under one’s fig trees and gathering fruit from them: Micah [4.4] & Zechariah [3.10], & Haggai [2.19]. There is also well-developed Old Testament imagery of Israel as a fig tree which bears fruit, e.g. Micah [7.1], Jeremiah [8.13] & Hosea [9.10, 16f]: ‘like grapes in the wilderness I found Israel, like the first fruit on the fig tree in its first season I found Israel’. There was a tradition, rather like other ancient Golden Age scenarios, that when the Messiah comes the fig trees will fruit all year round. The fruitless tree suggests Israel fallen under the judgement of God: so when Jesus comes to the city and the tree is found without fruit, judgement is indicated.
That occurs in the other strange and related story of Jesus cursing the fig tree, which we find in Mark and Matthew:
…when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it. Mk 11.12-14
Jesus and the disciples pass by again the next morning and the fig tree has withered and died. This looks like a moment of irrational petulance: this is not even the season for figs; why kill the poor tree? But if we hear the story in the context of Jewish expectations about the Messiah it makes sense. Whatever the season, the tree (God’s people) should be covered with fruit (ready) to greet the Messiah. Because Israel does not recognise her Messiah, she does not welcome him; because she does not welcome him, the messianic age – the season of fruitfulness – cannot arrive for them. In Mark this leads, significantly, into Jesus’ violent cleansing of the Temple; everything is out of joint in the people’s response to God.
This story of cursing the fig tree illustrates how the gospel writers dealt with their material. It clearly puzzled both Matthew and Luke, which is reassuring. Matthew repeats it from Mark, but removes the reference to it being unseasonable for figs, so he’s missed the point. The gentile Luke, writing later, in a Hellenistic context where figs are not the default staple food but a pleasant luxury, is in an environment more like modern Abu Dhabi than pre-oil Abu Dhabi. Those two versions of the city are only six decades apart, but no one in modern Abu Dhabi, especially an outsider like me, would instinctively understand the fig tree as a dietary or economic necessity. It is just a decorative item with cultural reference, rather as it is for Luke. And, as we have just heard, he turns the story into a parable, locates the tree within a vineyard and gives it a completely different sense, a message for the Church now (repent! turn to God!) rather than a judgement on the historical people of God.
Luke does this by linking it with two unusually topical pieces of local news. Pilate has killed some Galileans and mingled their blood with their own sacrifices; a few Jerusalemites rush to tell Jesus this news. He understands the subtext: they are saying that this is the sort of thing that happens to Galileans but not to us. Jesus, as always, recommends self-examination before condemnation of others: he corrects the implication of their gleeful report with other local news.
‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 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? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ Luke 13.2-5
Not only are they wrong to assume that this disaster has been a judgement for sin – God is not to be understood as playing that game – but the suggestion that the Galileans were more likely to be struck down because they are ‘not quite people like us’ is exposed as well: what about your own devout fellow-citizens, he says, who were killed when that tower round the corner collapsed; what are you saying about them?
The fig-tree parable is then told to show the listeners that they, the Church, need to repent, return to God, now, at the acceptable time, and just as much as everyone else. No one is exempt from self-examination and repentance. And there is a sense of urgency. As Isaiah says to us this morning,
Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. Is. 55.6-7
Following Jesus’ previous comments about reform of life, the message of the parable is clear: the Galileans may have died by the malice of some human being; the eighteen Jerusalemites by chance (wrong place, wrong time). We can’t control those things. But we can be ready. The fig tree, the people of God, the Church, will wither and die if, after being given every chance, we remain inactive and unproductive. This, Jesus says, is the greater sin: death by misadventure or judicial murder does not imply sin, but one’s own procrastination and lack of commitment is culpable. So, as in every Lent, we are told
…now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! (2 Cor.6.2)
We, not someone else, are always the subjects of any change we preach; repentance is any change which moves us closer to God, enlarging our relationship with him: more prayer, more bible study, more fellowship at the Eucharist and outside it, more works of mercy and charity. Jesus tells us, this morning, to turn to God this morning, not to put it off until we have nothing better to do. Not because otherwise we’ll be damned, but because we’ll be less ready than we could be; we’ll have missed opportunities to love, and grow in life with God.