Figs

wrapped_fig_treeWhen I was growing up, there was a large Italian community in my hometown of Hartford, Connecticut.  One could easily identify the Italian neighborhoods because many of the houses in these areas had fig trees planted in the front yard.  The first immigrants to the area planted these trees so that they and their families could have a taste of home.  The only problem is that Connecticut does not have a particularly Mediterranean climate.  While the mild temperatures in southern Italy are the ideal growing conditions for figs, the harsh New England winters can kill the temperamental trees.  Not wanting to forgo their taste of home, however, the immigrants would insulate their precious fig trees.  Every year as autumn gave way to winter, one could drive around town and watch as older couples tenderly wrapped their trees with blankets, tarpaulins, and plastic wrap.  For this community, the taste of home was important enough to warrant inconvenience.  For this community, preserving their fig trees was worth an extraordinary amount of effort.

Yesterday, we heard a passage from Luke’s gospel that deals with figs.  In chapter 13, Jesus tells a parable about an unfruitful fig tree.  The owner of the fig tree wants to cut it down, since it doesn’t bear fruit, but the gardener intercedes on its behalf, asking the landowner to wait one more year, to give the gardener some time to give the tree some attention.

figThe fig tree is a common Scriptural image.  In the prophetic tradition, the fig tree is representative of Israel.  Jeremiah, for instance, uses the image of the fig tree to lament the infidelity of Israel to God: “When I wanted to gather them, says the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree” (Jeremiah 8:13).  This is probably the tradition that the gospel of Mark appropriates when Jesus curses the fig tree on his way into Jerusalem:

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, Jesus 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…

In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.  Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look!  The fig tree that you cursed has withered”  (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21).

Mark was written at a time when it was clear that the Temple system was not going to exist for much longer.  Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree is meant to foretell the destruction of the Temple and the reconstitution of Israel.  Matthew’s gospel adapts this story (21:18-19) so that Jesus can make a similar prediction.

It’s strange, then, that Luke puts Jesus in a position of forbearance.  In Mark and Matthew, the fig tree is not producing fruit, so Jesus curses it.  In Luke, the fig tree is not producing fruit, so Jesus intercedes on its behalf, suggesting that we might give it more attention, that we might fertilize it, that we might wrap it in blankets and tarpaulins.  Only after we have done everything we can possibly do to save the tree and make it fruitful can we cut it down.  In Luke’s gospel, preserving the fig tree is worth an extraordinary amount of effort.  This is an amazing message, particularly because it comes in the context of Jesus teaching about repentance.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is saying that there is always a chance for renewal, that there is always an opportunity for us to bear fruit.

urlUltimately, this is the message of Lent.  As we engage in Lenten disciplines of fasting and prayer, we must remember that these are like the fertilizer and the blankets for the fig tree; they are not ends in themselves, they are meant to help us bear fruit for God.  As we focus on our spiritual life and our relationship with God during this season, we may very well discover some things that draw us away from God.  The message that Jesus proclaims in Luke’s gospel is that it is never too late for us to turn away from these things, that it is never too late repent and turn to the Lord, that God will expend an extraordinary amount of effort so that we might be renewed in Jesus Christ.

Notorious

During the invitation to a holy Lent on Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that Lent was historically “a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.”  Lent was meant to be a time when those who had injured the community through their actions could be restored to the church and forgiven of their past wrongdoing.  We see this kind of community discipline described in Scripture.  In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul describes a situation in which an unrepentant sinner needs to be removed from the community for a time.  In Matthew 18, Jesus lays out a very specific formula for community discipline that could result in a person’s temporary exclusion from the church.  The important thing to realize is that in both of these examples, the sinner was not permanently excluded from the Christian community, but would eventually be reintegrated into the life of the church.  The body would eventually look beyond a person’s notorious and damaging past actions and embrace that person as he entered a new life of grace.

While there are some churches that still have such forms of community discipline in place, they are rarely used.  When these forms of discipline are used, it seems like the sinner’s exclusion from the community is not a temporary measure, but will probably last for a lifetime.  This is symptomatic of a wider trend in our culture.  Whenever politicians are caught in indiscretions or celebrities are exposed doing something wrong, they will invariably offer a public and tearful apology.  And for the most part, we refuse to recognize even the possibility that they are repentant.  We assume that their penitence is insincere and that their apology is just a media ploy.  There are certainly public figures who only apologize to placate the public, but I have a hard time believing that every apology we hear on television is completely insincere.  We are in danger of becoming so jaded about the penitence of public figures that we won’t be able to recognize apologies from those who are closest to us.

PC_Chick-Fil-A_2012-08-01As you probably remember, there was a dust-up this summer about fast food giant Chick-fil-A’s support of a variety of anti-gay causes.  There were boycotts by the gay community and its allies, while conservative groups organized to eat more of the chain’s chicken sandwiches.  A nasty, public, and frankly annoying debate raged for several weeks on message boards, talk radio, and cable news.  Behind the scenes, however, Dan Cathy, the COO of Chick-fil-A, was reaching out to the gay community.  In an article published in January, Shane Windmeyer, a gay-rights activist, told the story of how he got to know Dan Cathy.  Evidently, Cathy wanted to understand how his stance was hurtful, and if possible, he wanted to make amends.  I’ll let you read the article, but as a result of his conversations with Windmeyer, Cathy withdrew his support from the most divisive organizations.  Windmeyer makes it very clear that Cathy didn’t change his position; he changed a behavior that had been destructive of relationships and community.

The most striking part of this article to me was the comments section.  Just after Windmeyer told a story of dialogue, mutual understanding, and dare I say penitence, people responded by telling the activist that he was being played, that Dan Cathy had reached out to him for the sole purpose of improving Chick-fil-A’s image.  While I was saddened to read these jaded responses, I was hardly surprised.  We live in a culture where penitence is suspect and apologies are dubious.  As Christians, however, we are called to be countercultural.  We are called to trust in a person’s penitence.  We are called to trust that those who have recognized the destructiveness of their behavior and changed it must be welcomed back into the community, regardless of what they have done in the past.  Lent is an opportunity for us to think about those people we have not been able to forgive, to think about those people we have excluded from our lives, and to bring them back into the fold.  It isn’t easy for us to get over the mistrust that has been so deeply engrained by our culture.  But we can move forward, confident that, no matter how notorious our wrong, it is God who is reconciling us to each other.