“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?
Good stuff as always Matt. I liked your macroscopic view you took with regard to Israel and the church in America today. And I think you’re spot on. I’ve always read this on an individual level. I’ve always connected it on some level to the parable of the sower. I think you took the analysis deeper in that the difference to the sower is the growing conditions are assumed to be optimal in the vineyard. But instead of seeing growth because ‘the seed fell on good soil’, the tree just isn’t producing. It’s a bad tree. And then the keeper asks to give it one more go with a lot of extra help (fertilizer) and see if it perks up. The argument to cut it down is that it’s using up space. It’s useless and dead.
I can see slicing and dicing this theologically two ways, which may or may not be mutually exclusive based upon the reader’s theology: 1) This is the typical believer who is in optimal conditions for growing in Christ, but doesn’t. Judgement is scheduled to occur, because they are using up resources and probably causing the Gospel to be misrepresented as they may state publicly they are a Christ follower (think lukewarm, stingy in heart, social believers who think of church and heaven as more of a country club then a place to worship Christ as one; or think Christianity mixed with with the world, American culture, etc such that their walk with God takes on a cultural meaning, instead of an actual relationship meaning). This misrepresents the Gospel and causes spiritual collateral damage (they’re using up space, cut em down; they appear to be Godly on the outside, but they misrepresent him to others). God gives them one more chance, a really good one, to make good choices, but if that doesn’t work. It’s over. And they are cut off from the vine and lose salvation. If the reader is “once saved, always saved,” this interpretation may not work. 2) Same lukewarm christian, same situation, but cutting down doesn’t necessarily equal loss of salvation, but instead loss of inheritance, treasure stored in heaven, lost developed relationship of Christ which carries into eternity, or loss of physical possessions. It’s still a big loss, but they are not cast into the flame. I can see either method being judgement in a situation or judgement on a person, which may or may not include physical judgement (eg 1 Co 11:27-21).
Regardless of those thoughts, it is evident that this is addressing a person(s) where there is zero spiritual growth under optimal conditions, resulting in a final lavishing of opportunity to grow that if fruit is not observed afterward, there will be severe repercussions.
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Okay, wow, Joel, you like to write (from one writer to another). Really, I don’t think you need to go so far. We can repent and be authentic believers, but I think there’s actually something simpler about this. I believe we have swallowed some sort of lie that says we can be whatever. When God’s reality in Scripture is that we are can be what we’re designed to be. It’s not necessarily “fair” in the sense everyone gets the same amount; both Paul and Jesus speak to this, and teach it as “design” not “flaw”. While I do see what you’re saying in that lukewarm Christians are a detriment, I wonder if connecting this to the soils parable is really the best thing to do. I think this is less about “conditions” and more about “setting”, in that the vineyard is “Israel” and Jesus speaks to one of His own not being what they’re designed to be. In other words, rather than an Israelite being the “Holy Nation” God describes in the Hebrew Scriptures, they’re just…existing (using up soil). What Jesus wants, what is described in Scripture, is a vibrant influential people teaching about the Creator of ALL people. What Jesus came to was a people so caught up in being different, they had lost their purpose. From there I get to the application to myself, where I am to be that person my Master designed me to with the purpose He designed for me to have. I go rather to Ephesians 2:10, “Created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared beforehand that we may walk in them.” So, yes, authentic believers living out authentic faith should fill our churches. But beyond that, I believe we also need to be aware of and live out a divine purpose, specific to our divine design. In other words, to do what we’re created to do.
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Interesting. I see the corollary with Isaiah 5 when you bring up Israel as the vineyard. You might be on to something there. Perhaps I’m superimposing a personal context in something Jesus intended to be taken in a Hebrew context. Or both. It would not be the first time something in Scripture could be applied in multiple dimensions. On your design point, I heartily agree. It is not fair that everyone does get the same thing…with the caveat of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matt 20). We could probably branch off into a robust discussion on design, salvation, and predestination ala Romans 9 here. But withholding my desire to write here, I’ll stand pat on that one 😉
Long story short, yes there is a lie perpetuated that believers can be what they want…no, we can be who we are designed to be. And I think we should desire to be nothing else other than the original blueprint, because this is the form the Spirit is molding us into daily.
But overall, good points and I enjoyed reading your insight on this passage!
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I go back and forth between the different talents, the same talents, and other indications that while the reward will be the same (or similar), what God gives to each doses differ. It’s a weird but not everyone gets the same amount of faith, not everyone gets the same opportunities, or even the same roles. Differences within the body of Christ are design, and Paul points out that without it, the body doesn’t function right. So while one might really push and desire to be one thing in the Kingdom, the King has His own purpose and design that may not be fair, but supersedes all other options. This gets really fun when we branch out into more general ethical implications for humanity as a whole. You want to be martyred, that’s where to hang out, you’ll be crucified in no time.
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