“I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
And He began telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.'” (Luke 13:5-9 NASB)
And so we have a warning from Jesus, to repent or perish. In a sense it’s like saying life is short, but in another sense it’s like warning someone from a cliff. The way it’s worded is as a warning that if things continue then the result will be destruction. This isn’t an usual proclamation for Jesus, He began His teaching with “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near,” and gave that same message to His disciples on both “sending out” events. Repentance is arguably the core of Jesus’ message. But what does it mean?
Most of the time I’ve heard repentance described as “turning around and going the other way.” Yet even this is overly simplistic. Turn from what to what? The word for “return” which is where we get this simple definition isn’t even the normal word for “repent”. The normal word is “after thought” referring to a “change of mind afterwards”. The mind or pattern of thinking about something changes. Which is great, but still, from what to what? And in verses 1-5, Jesus really doesn’t say from what to what. But I believe He does give us a glimpse of what He wants in this parable.
The fig tree has a problem: It doesn’t produce figs as it should. The conditions are good, the tree is the right sort, it’s in the right place, it’s just not making figs. The owner says to cut it down and the gardener says to give it a year of even better treatment. The question left hanging in the air, leaving us in suspense is, “will the tree produce figs, or will it perish?”. So what is the change or turning from and to in this case? Doing what we’re designed to do? Being what we’re designed to be?
There is much in our culture that fights against design. But our culture isn’t made up of the “people of God” either. So it shouldn’t surprise us. But when the “people of God” struggle against the design of their Creator, then there is a problem. Jesus is speaking to Jews of the first century. They considered themselves the “People of God”, and rightly so. Scripture has declared the same thing in both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Yet, their Messiah shows up, and they rejected Him. While this was wonderful news for Gentiles like me, it broke Jesus’ heart. His people were not being what they were designed to be.
Flash forward a few thousand years, and ask the question, are followers of Jesus today being what they were designed to be? It would be overly simplistic to answer for every church and every believer. On the other hand, trends in the American culture seem to indicate an anemic influence of biblical values. And the news seems to have no problem finding examples of those who claim to follow Jesus being better examples of moral evil rather than moral good. It seems indistinct and difficult to change the course of all believers across the country, so how about me…and you?
Are we being what we’re designed to be? Are we doing what we’re designed to do? Are we fig trees bearing figs? Or are we trying to produce peaches? Are we trying to be evergreens? Are we trying to be gazelles? Are we unhappy with who or what God has designed us to be and are we trying to be “self-made” whatever? Our culture tells us that we can be whatever we want, “anyone can be anything”. Disney produced a movie to that effect this year, “Zootopia”. I love that movie. It’s about overcoming the confining cultural barriers and being whatever you want. To an extent, I believe that myself. But only to the extent that my culture seems very invested in me not being a devoted follower of Jesus.
So what will I do? Will I resist my Savior’s design and purpose for me? Will I fight my culture’s design and purpose for me? Will I relent to my Master, or will I relent to my culture? Will I choose a path laid out by my King, or the path everyone else is following? Will I conform? And if so, to whom or what? There are plenty of competing philosophical positions out there to choose from, and it would be very “American” of me to decide on a “cafeteria plan” approach to them. Why not be a reincarnated believer in the natural order established by aliens? Literal “bear hug”, who’s with me? <cricket, cricket>
As we pursue an understanding of Scripture, and through the lens of Scripture, of God Himself, a very different “philosophy” comes into focus. What we discover is a philosophy deviant from our culture, and everyone else’s too. It’s not European, nor Asian, nor African, nor Native American, nor Polynesian. It’s not even some admixture of such cultures, even though that is a common claim. It’s divine, and it’s different; and if I’m going to change at all, it will be from a human culture to what God describes in Scripture. So, from my view through this particular “knothole”, repentance is “counter culture”; and therefore cool.
So what do you learn from this parable?