A while back, I visited an old family friend. This person had not seen me for a long time. Let me reenact our encounter (place and then slowly take off cap). The reason why my friend’s voice trailed off at the end is because my afro had taken an extended vacation.
Oh mind you, my scalp was still alive. If I cut it, it would bleed. If I exposed it to cold air, I would sneeze. And oddly enough, it could feel heat from florescent lights. Oh yes, my scalp was still alive, but my afro had engaged in an act of follicular infidelity. My scalp was alive but not productive. And it was this lack of productivity that caught my friend by surprise and placed a look of disappointment on her face.
I share this anecdote with you because that is what came to mind as I read this text in preparation for this message. If any of you has ever taught this text in a children or youth bible study, you know that this one is not easy. After all, Jesus is loving, good and kind, so why would he pronounce a death sentence on a tree? And to be honest, it took me many years to understand it.
This event is also recorded in Mark 11:12-14. Mark’s version describes the fig tree dying later but Matthew’s version suggests that the tree died immediately. Mark’s version also adds that it was not the season for figs; this textual variation adds to the complexity of its interpretation. But, for fig trees in that part of the world, leaves were the precursor, predicate, and predecessor for figs. So whether the leaves appeared on time or as Mark suggests – too early, Jesus rightly expected figs, found nothing but leaves and condemned the tree to death.
So let’s say that that this text still creates theological tension for you. After all, Jesus forgave a woman caught in adultery, a crooked tax collector and a disciple who denied him, so why couldn’t he forgive a tree? Perhaps three examples will clarify why Jesus took this action:
Example 1 – Growing up, I was in the Junior Oriole program. I received some free tickets to see great pitchers such as Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson. I was fed a steady diet of gold glove pitchers. However in recent years, I have not seen that same level of pitching. And you know what really ‘burns my biscuits’? It is when we have relievers who can’t get people out. The job title of ‘reliever’ means that you are being paid for your skills, knowledge, abilities and experience to get batters out. You only have one job – provide relief. But when a reliever can’t get the other team out, then it begs the question: Why are you on the payroll? If the starting pitcher and the reliever cannot end the inning, then my ticket money is paying two people for the same failure. When that happens, I believe that the reliever who cannot get batters out, needs to consider other career options.
Example 2 – Last year, I went to a local seafood restaurant to get some crab soup. When I entered, the server told me “Sir just so you know, if you want steamed crabs, then we cannot serve you because we ran out of crabs”. When I told the server that I only wanted crab soup (which was hopefully made from canned crab meat), then he escorted me to a table. As I waited for my soup, it occurred to me that this was a seafood restaurant in the Baltimore area, with a steamed crab as its logo on the outdoor sign and on the menu, yet it ran out of crabs. This inventory catastrophe begged the question: If your signage and menu show that you specialize in crabs, then how can you run out of crabs? You can run out of chicken. You can run out of pancakes. But when you have a seafood restaurant in “Crab Country” with a steamed crab as your brand, and you run out of crabs, then someone needs to consider other career options.
Example 3 – I work in Washington DC and typically take the commuter train to work. The commuter train has a reputation of breaking down (it runs most of the time, but it breaks down just enough to be stigmatized). What boggles our minds is that when your sole purpose is to shuttle people between Baltimore and DC, then how can you not keep the engines and cars maintained? Our perspective is that if we wanted to sit comfortably, read a book, occasionally look out of the window, but not go anywhere, then we could sit in our living rooms. These moments of commuter frustration beg the question: If you are in the transportation industry, but have enough problems for the riders to keep cell phones and extra rations handy, then shouldn’t you hire some more mechanics? Shouldn’t you revisit your operational model?
So if these three examples are clear to you, then you can understand what Jesus was experiencing. The fig tree only had one job – grow figs. However, it only produced leaves. Therefore Jesus’ righteous indignation, legitimate discontent and justifiable ‘arborcide’ was because the fig tree was alive but not productive.
SURVEY OF THE SCRIPTURES
If we survey the scriptures, we see that productivity is important to God. For example -
IN: WE ARE TOLD THAT:
Genesis 1 God produced heaven, earth, animals, vegetation and humanity, and gave all of his creations authority, mandate and capacity to be fruitful and multiply.
Genesis 9 God gave Noah and his family authority, mandate and capacity to replenish the earth.
Genesis 12 God conveys to Abram that if he is obedient, then he will give him authority, mandate and capacity to be a progenitor of a great nation.
Genesis 16 When the Hebrews were hungry, God produced manna from the sky.
Genesis 17 When the Hebrews were thirsty, God produced water from a rock.
Proverbs 14:23 All work is profitable, but talk leads to poverty.
1st Corinthians 15:58 We should be steadfast, unmovable and always abounding in the work of the Lord.
Colossians 3:23 We should work heartily unto the Lord and not seek to impress people.
Ephesians 5:16 We should make the best use of our time.
2nd Thessalonians 3:10 If someone in that community of faith was unwilling to work, then they should not eat.
In fact, if you consider that Jesus only had 3 years of public ministry, his earthly existence was the embodiment of productivity. Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, opened blind eyes, enabled the lame to walk, comforted children, cleansed lepers, taught, preached, shredded the veil that separated dust from divinity, and split history into BC and AD.
Additionally, if you examine what Jesus did on the cross, we see the ultimate example of productivity. While being hung with his flesh ripped off, and having iron spikes in his hands and feet, Jesus: (1) makes provisions for his mother, (2) makes provisions for a repentant criminal, (3) has intercessory prayer for his enemies, and (4) deposits his spirit into the hands of his father.
Hence, in light of the prolific, industrious and diligent work-ethic of Christ, we can understand his low tolerance for fig tree’s lack of productivity.
If we dig deeper into this text, we can see that there is something that still does not make sense. Specifically, we have addressed how productive Jesus was in his ministry. One area of productivity that we did not mention was his ability to work food miracles. He turned water into wine. He multiplied bread and fish. He put fish into the nets of fishermen. So then, if he was hungry, then why not just whip up a snack from the leaves on the fig tree? Why condemn the tree when he could have made his own food? Well if we look at this text through the lens of social theory, then the rationale for Jesus’ actions will be perfectly clear.
Specifically, if we look at this text from the perspective of functionalism (which is the theory that people, places and things are best understood by what they do, rather than by how they look) then we understand that:
1. Leaves are where photosynthesis takes place
2. Leaves keep the internal sap stream operating
3. Leaves help regulate the plant’s temperature
In short, the leaves support the life of the tree. But figs support the life of the community. In effect, when we look at this text, we are seeing Jesus passing judgment on something that was taking up space, sucking up resources, but not giving anything to the community. Jesus condemned the fig tree because it was viable but not valuable, bustling with leaves but not beneficial for life, alive but not productive.
Let’s dig even deeper into this text. In theology, there is a concept that was developed by St. Augustine, and expanded by Martin Luther and Karl Barth; that concept is “homo incurvatus in se”. That is a Latin expression that means ‘humanity curved inward toward itself’. It refers to the mindset of focusing on oneself rather than focusing outwardly on God and the community. For example, in Luke 12:16, the farmer who wanted to build bigger barns for himself, instead of starting a community food bank was curved-in toward himself. The unrepentant thief crucified next to Jesus, who asked for an undeserved stay of execution, was curved-in toward himself. And in Acts 15, Peter, Paul and Barnabas convinced the church to change its policy toward gentile believers, because the first Christians were curved-in toward their Jewish heritages. “Homo incurvatus in se” is a theological concept that says that ‘being curved-in, is a proxy for sin’. Lecturer and former Pastor, Karina Kreminski put it this way: We humans have a tendency to “curve in” on ourselves. We orient inwards. Like hunchbacks on the inside, we bend over and instead of looking outwards, we curve internally and focus on our own needs. We are always thinking about ourselves and this is our human condition. From birth, we are focused on “my needs”, “my wants”, “my way”. As we get older, we engage in a masquerade around this unpleasant reality, because we must learn to function in broader social settings. However, we get glimpses into this incurvatus in se through how we behave online, as we make plans around our comfort and our choices about the future. We see it in the lack of attention we give to the least of those among us. Like Narcissus, we are frequently too in love with our own image to look up and around us.
In that light, the fig tree that sustained life for itself but not for the community, was curved-in toward itself, and was a symbol of humanity’s sinful condition. So when Christ condemned the tree, he was pointing to his eternal purpose – to take away our sin. In condemning the fig tree that was alive but not productive, Jesus was sending a signal that he came to save a curved-in world from the penalty, power and presence of sin.
So what does this text have to do with us? This text teaches us three lessons:
LESSON #1 - This text reminds us that individually and collectively, God expects us to not only be alive but also productive. This theme is echoed in Luke 13:6-8 >
6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
In effect, this parable suggests that there is a penalty to be paid when we are not productive. Hear also Matthew 25: 31-46 >
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a]you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
So yes, in condemning that fig tree, Jesus was saying that taking up space, sucking up resources, but not giving anything to the community, was not consistent with the eternal purposes of God. In like manner, we have been blessed to be a blessing. But if we only have leaves and no figs, if we only sustain ourselves, if we become curved-in, then the outcomes will not be good. In fact, if you read Revelation chapters 2 and 3 – the Seven Letters to the Seven Churches, you will see that 5 of the churches were told by Christ that if they did not make corrections, then there would be undesired consequences. What does this text mean for us? This text is a wakeup call - that the church of Jesus Christ must do what it has been called to do, and not what it wants to do.
LESSON #2 - This text reminds us that we have to embrace the totality of who Jesus is. We really like the baby Jesus born in a manger. We really like the Jesus who said ‘Peace Be Still’. We really like the Jesus who gave the woman at the well a second chance. We really like the Jesus who honored the widow’s mite. And if we are completely honest, we want a Jesus who treats us with what sociologists call ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’. We want a Jesus who never demands anything of us and overlooks everything we do wrong, because he does not expect anything from sinners; we want a Jesus who doesn’t mind us continuing to sin that grace may abound. We want a Jesus who never calls us to be accountable. Yes Jesus is kind, loving and forgiving. But he also has expectations for our lives. He expects us to be the light of the world. He expects us to walk by faith and not by sight. He expects us to love the unlovable, forgive the unforgivable and seek those who have become invisible. He expects us to be his earthly agents that bring lost souls to him. This text reminds us that our concept of Christ and the formation of our Christology, must be totally inclusive of who Jesus is, and not merely a mental projection or social construct of who we want him to be.
LESSON #3 – This text reminds us that we cannot think only about ourselves and honestly claim to be followers of Jesus. As we reflect upon this text, we remember that this was not the first time that Jesus was hungry. When he was in the wilderness, he was also hungry, so much so that Satan tempted him to turn stones into bread. But yet the Jesus who refused to make bread for himself, makes himself the Bread of Life for us. As an itinerant preacher, Jesus had no permanent place of residence – in fact he said that ‘Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head’. But yet, the Jesus who had neither a mailbox nor a door key, tells us that he has prepared a place for us. When he was on the cross, Jesus said ‘I thirst’. But the Jesus who needed fluids for himself, previously told the guests at a feast “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as[the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” The same Jesus who struggled carrying his cross is the same Jesus who said “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”. In fact, if we think about Jesus’ death, he did not die, just to have the Texas City ‘Corpus Christi’ named after him. He died, that we may be known as the Body of Christ. In Matthew 27:42, while Christ was on the cross, the crowd mocked him by saying “He saved others but cannot save himself”. What they did not understand was that while he could have saved himself, he did not save himself, because his objective was to save them and us. They did not know that Jesus’ ministry model was not based on self-preservation, but rather on self-sacrifice. This text reminds us that you can’t be self-centered and honestly claim to represent the Savior. You can’t claim to be a fig tree if you only have leaves. You can’t claim to be a church, if you are only concerned about your own needs. Jesus put it this way: For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.
We have looked at the text; now let’s have the text look at us. Let’s ask ourselves ten personal reflective questions:
1. Romans 14:9 and 2nd Corinthians 5:10 both say that we must stand at the Judgment Seat of Christ to give an account of how we have walked before him. When Jesus looks at my life, will he see leaves or figs?
2. If I have a graduate, terminal or professional degree and if UBC sponsored a community lecture series, as a means of engaging the community, then would I volunteer to give a talk or would I keep my skills, knowledge, abilities and experiences to myself?
3. Let’s say I am the President and CEO of a Fortune 500 company and give three vice-presidents $1 million dollars apiece to invest while I am out of the country. Let’s say that one VP uses the money to sponsor a food truck that gives free sandwiches, fruit and water near a homeless shelter; let’s say that another VP uses the money to sponsor a breakfast program at a school in a low income neighborhood. And let’s say that the other VP uses the money to put a spa in the company HQs. How would I evaluate their respective investments?
4. In Luke 16:19, we see a rich man, a beggar named Lazarus and dogs. The rich man had economic capacity for himself, but no compassion for Lazarus. On the other hand, the dogs had no economic capacity for themselves, but had compassion for Lazarus by licking his sores. I wonder, are there people in my community, who are more likely to get comfort from stray animals, than from me? And if so, then is that OK?
5. If my Christian life was expressed as an economic model, then would my levels of productivity trigger a recession or growth in the kingdom of God?
6. The parable of the farmer who wanted to increase his storage capacity tells us that the farmer died after making that plan. The bible does not say how he died, but theologically, we can argue that his heart exploded, because, he wanted a barn, that was bigger than his heart. In like manner, how does my capacity for serving myself compare with my capacity for serving others? I may know the square footage of my house, but do I know the square footage of my heart?
7. This curved-in farmer, who wanted bigger barns for himself, may have been called an agricultural genius by the world, but God called him a fool. I wonder, based on what I do for others, what nickname does God have for me?
8. Jesus’ ministry model is one of self-sacrifice and not self-preservation. John the Baptist called him the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. He called himself the Good Shepherd that gives his life for the sheep. He says to us that ‘if any would come after him, that they must deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow him’. When my life is over, will people say that I lived to serve myself or lived to serve others?
9. Glass is used to make mirrors and windows. Mirrors allow us to see ourselves but windows allow us to see others. If I were designing my dream home, would it have more mirrors than windows or vice-versa?
10. John 15:13 says that the greatest love is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. In contrast, Peter denied Jesus to save his own life. In this regard, am I more like Peter or more like Jesus?
Now let’s ask ourselves ten church-wide reflective questions:
1. The fig trees in our primary text and in the Luke 13 passage, suggest that they engaged in spoofing, catfishing and identity fraud. They projected the images of being fig trees, but they did not produce figs. Do we have a sense of our leaf/fig ratio? Are we producing enough figs to prevent Jesus from asking to see our ID?
2. The Luke 13 parable suggested that the soil needed to be broken up and manure added to make the fig tree productive. What are we willing to let God do to us, to ensure that we produce figs? Are we willing to be broken up, and broken down, in order for God’s purposes for us to break through? Are we willing to get dirty in order to be productive?
3. If we ordered UBC tee shirts with an animal logo, which would be most appropriate for us, shirts with sheep or shirts with goats?
4. Mark 10:45 says that “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” What would we be willing to lose, in order for others to gain?
5. Matthew 10:38 says that “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me” In like manner, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Are we worthy of Christ? Or are we seeking a crown without having to suffer a cross?
6. Philippians 2:3-4 says “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Are we in touch with our motives? What is the basis of our corporate decisions?
7. Romans 12:1 says that we should present our bodies as a living sacrifice. Under the law, the priest had to first kill the sacrifice to keep it from running off the altar. Is this corporate body a living sacrifice? And if so, then are we willing to face the pain, of serving in Christ’s name?
8. Stained glass windows have been in Christian churches since the medieval period. They enhanced the beauty of a church and often depicted narratives and spiritual symbolism. The interesting thing about stained glass windows is that they are translucent but not transparent. In effect, churches in America, Europe and around the globe have houses of worship that allow the congregation to seek God’s presence inside the church, without seeing God’s people outside the church. I wonder - Are we aware of the irony, that our churches have an architectural DNA, that allows us to have light, but yet not see? Are people today turned-off by church, because we are curved-in by design – only able to see our own concerns? How well can churches serve communities that are not visible through their sanctuary windows? Literally and figuratively, have our prisms imprisoned our vision?
9. Is our ministry model one of self-preservation or self-sacrifice? Is it more important to use the community to preserve our church, or is it more important to use our church to preserve the community? Metaphorically, why God plant us here? What is our raison d'etre?
10. J E S U S – How do we pronounce this? Do we say ‘Jesus’ or ‘Jes Us’? Where do we place the emphasis verbally? Where do we place the emphasis programmatically? Where do we place the emphasis financially? J E S U S - Are we sure, that we are not placing the accent on the wrong syllable?
So what if we find ourselves alive but not productive? What should we do? John 15:1-8 says this:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes[a] to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed[b]by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
In short, if we want to be alive and productive, then we need to stay connected to Jesus Christ. Stay connected with a regular prayer life. Stay connected by coming to worship. Above all, stay connected by reading the bible. Use the written Word of God to stay connected to the living Word of God.
Stay connected to Jesus Christ; abide in the vine. Let the Holy Spirit break up your old soil and fertilize you, for it’s the nasty stuff of life that often provides the nutrients for living. Sometimes we have to experience the bitter, for God to make us better. Romans 8:28 says “For we know …”
Stay connected to Jesus Christ by allowing the Holy Spirit to curve-out your life. In 1945, in composing a song for the National Tuberculosis Society, Alma Bazel Androzzo, described the ‘curved-out life’ in this way:
• If I can help somebody as I pass along, If I can cheer somebody with a word or a song, If I can show somebody he is travelling wrong, Then my living shall not be in vain!
• If I can do my duty as a Christian ought, If I can bring back beauty to a world up-wrought, If I can spread love's message that the Master taught, Then my living shall not be in vain!
Jesus is still hungry for a church/an ecclesia/the called-out, that is also curved-out. “Homo incurvatus in se” - ‘being curved-in, is a proxy for sin’. In that light, please remember this rhyme:
Don’t forget about the tree,
that had no figs for the community.
When it decided not to give,
then Christ decided, that it should not live.
“Homo incurvatus in se” - ‘being curved-in, is a proxy for sin’.
Let me ask a favor please. Going forward, whenever you see me or someone like me, who did not win the genetic lottery, let our state of follicular infidelity remind you of this sermon title:
Alive – But Not Productive (3X) - AMEN