I try to post at least once per week, but I’m sorry for having gone so long. Unlike my philosophy students, I will not bore you with a litany of excuses.
At last week’s Bible study, we read Jesus’ warnings about repentance and his parable of the fig tree in Luke 13:1-9.
This is kind of a harsh passage, where Jesus seems to be advocating what Bob Ekblad calls ‘Turn or Burn’ theology. He says, “Unless you repent, you will all perish”. Likewise, the parable of the fig tree, understood allegorically, is often interpreted as Jesus saving us from his mean, nasty Father. Personally, I cannot accept this interpretation as an accurate presentation of the God I believe in.
Our crew at St. James Mission helped me to gain a much deeper understanding of this text during our time together last Thursday. Many people opened up and shared honestly about their own stories of addiction and recovery. What they saw in this passage, in the words of an old slogan, is that “God loves us right where we are, but loves us too much to let us stay that way.”
The passage opens with Jesus’ conversation with the people about suffering. Like so many in our society, the people of Jesus’ time were keen to blame victims for their own troubles. If God is both just and sovereign, they argue, then all suffering must be somehow deserved. (For a critique of this theology from the Hebrew Scriptures themselves, check out the book of Job.)
Jesus indicates that those who suffer are no more deserving than those who don’t. Then he tells the parable of the fig tree. To frame the parable with a question, one could ask, “Is God more like the land owner or the gardener?”
The image of God that Jesus sets forth is not that of a deity who stands aloof and points the finger when things go wrong. When God’s children fail to live in the way they were intended to live, God does not sit back on heaven’s throne and plan the next flood (or fire, or earthquake). Instead, according to Jesus’ parable, that’s the point when God gets involved. God is like the gardener, who is not afraid to get his hands dirty in the midst of the fig tree’s fruitlessness.
Compare this image of God with the one that St. John the Baptist puts forth in Luke 3:9: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” By using such similar imagery, maybe Jesus was deliberately trying to correct an error in John’s theology?
According to Jesus, the gardener is willing to dig into the soil of our lives. At one point, he says, “Let me put manure on it.” While this, of course, was a basic agricultural practice of the time, I like to interpret it like this:
God is not afraid to get shit on his hands.
I use such harsh language intentionally. God is not frightened by those parts of our lives that make us feel ashamed. When we have failed to live up to the standards of society, church, or ourselves, God is not to be found in a corner, weeping. Neither is God positioned behind the bench of eternity’s courtroom, preparing to pass sentence on heinous offenders. God, according to Jesus, is rolling up the shirtsleeves and getting the tools out of the shed.
There is work to be done. And God is not prepared to give up on this fig tree just yet. Neither is God prepared to give up on you.