cursing the fig tree?

Lent 3C

Exodus 3:1-15

Psalm 103:1-11

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Luke 13:1-9

Again, we find in our reading from Luke what looks like at first a mish-mash of sayings: The pair of sayings about those who suffer — those whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices, and those on whom the tower of Siloam fell. Luke has Jesus ask his hearers if they think these were any more sinful than other Galileans or residents of Jerusalem. The expected answer is no. And the moral is, if you don’t repent, you likewise will perish. And then comes the marvelous little parable of the fig tree. Three years the owner of the vineyard has been looking for fruit. He tells the farmer to cut it down. No, he replies, wait one more year. I’ll dig in some manure, and then if it doesn’t bear fruit next year, cut it down.

This story has echoes of the preaching of John the Baptist: Bear fruit worthy of repentance (Luke 3:8), and even now the axe is laid at the root of the tree (Luke 3:9). In between these verses, John warns the crowd not to rely on the claim of Abraham as ancestor. Any tree not bearing fruit worthy of repentance will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

In Mark’s Gospel, we meet the fig tree as Jesus is making his way into Jerusalem. Jesus curses the tree because it has no fruit (Mark 11:12). While in Jerusalem, he cleanses the Temple. On his way back out, the disciples see the fig tree, withered (Mark 11:20). Mark is using the device of intercalation, to have the center story interpret the story split in two. The fig tree is Israel, or the Jerusalem Temple religion, and it is fruitless, and therefore cursed and withered. Recall Isaiah 5.

Luke does not bear the same animus toward the Temple as Mark does, and so has no need to have Jesus curse its existence. Luke moves the fig tree story away from the last week in Jerusalem, and turns it into this parable. In this context then, Luke is suggesting God’s patience with the Judaism of his day — let’s see what happens. Place after the two stories above, it suggests that Luke is saying to Christians, “Do you think the residents of Jerusalem, the adherents of Judaism, were worse sinners than you? Unless you repent. . .” This would be a huge shift from Mark’s understanding of Judaism, much more in line with Paul’s effort to include both strands within God’s saving plan.

The reading from 1 Corinthians would suggest much the same. If you think you are standing, watch out. This pericope is included in an argument about not partaking of the table of idols. Paul’s better off congregants wanted to continue in the social and political life of their city by accepting invitations to banquets and temples. Paul urges them not to, out of consideration for their brothers and sisters whose conscience this practice bothers. Yes, it will be hard to forgo this life, but no test you have been given is beyond humans.

Moses doesn’t want to be given the test either of working to establish a new social identity (taking the people out of Egypt). Send someone else, he says. No dice. We may think we want a burning bush experience, but the cost is high.

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