The Lesson of the Fig Tree

(Year B, Advent 1, December 3, 2017; Gospel Reading from Mark 13:24-37)

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near.  So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.  Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

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I remember – as many people probably do – growing up and waiting impatiently for, well, everything.  “Are we there yet?”  “When can I watch TV?”  “How many days until my birthday?”  My parents would answer me patiently that, “we just left the house, and Granny lives several hours away” “after you’ve done your homework” and “your birthday was two months ago, so around three hundred and forty days from now.”  Each time, there were measurable signs for when the thing that I was looking for would be accomplished.

The same is true for our waiting on the Day of the Lord.  A few weeks ago, the message was to “Be Ready!” because no one knows the day or the hour.  And Mark’s Gospel repeats that command later in this Sunday’s reading, but before that, he records Jesus telling his disciples to be watchful and mindful about the things that will presage the coming of the Lord.  The image of the fig tree is one that is readily understood, that by looking at the world around us, we can know the times and the seasons.  In using this image, Jesus exhorts us to use the wisdom granted us by God to be able to discern when the things that he has warned us about are coming – it doesn’t take special revelation to be able to see that trees are preparing to open to the sun, and God has told us through the Son what it is we can expect before the End.

Christians seem to approach matters of eschatology one of two ways.  Some flock readily to end times doomsaying and hop on the cart of each succeeding interpretation of how this or another passage of Scripture must really be talking about that current event.  Others stand back and claim total ignorance of anything to do with the End, holding fast to Christ’s statements about only the Father knowing when the End will come, using this to put on blinders to anything that could be relevant to eschatological events.  Which is right?  Objectively, the second is more correct than the first, since it relies on Jesus’ own statements about the End Times, and doesn’t seek to lead people astray by making wild claims and attempting to predict that which we are told definitively is unpredictable.  But neither are truly in line with the total witness of Scripture.

There are many occurrences throughout the New Testament when a phrase like “he who has ears, let him hear” is repeated.  It generally refers to the faithful who have not stopped up their ears in their own pride.  Jesus repeats this phrase at the end of many parables, and Revelation repeats this phrase in each of the letters to the seven churches.  It could be reformulated to say, “let the one who can hear this understand what is being said.”  I think that the lesson of the fig tree is in a similar vein – no, we cannot know the day or the hour of Christ’s return, but he has told us the things that must happen before his return.  By being aware of them, we can know that the End is coming, and use this knowledge to spur on our drive for readiness, or fuel our efforts to reach those around us with the Gospel, or however else we need to prepare for Coming of the Lord.

But do not be deceived into thinking that watching for these things means that we shouldn’t strive for readiness, or be diligent in our efforts to preach the Gospel, or prepare and make ready every day for Our Lord – several of the things that Jesus points his disciples to as the “fig tree” events have already happened.  The reading this week doesn’t cover it, but refer to Mark 13:1-23.  The Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70.  There have been, and continue to be, wars and rumors of wars, and earthquakes, and famines.  There have been, and continue to be, persecutions that split families apart.  There have been false prophets that have led millions astray.  There are antichrists that attempt to replace the God-given graces with secular values and say that if each person attends to their own desires then everyone will turn out all right.  The Gospel is being preached to all nations, and the time is coming when surely there could be no one on Earth who has not heard of the God-man Jesus who died in our place and conquered death by being raised again.  The plain fact is that we are living in the End times, and have been since the first century.

There is a difficult verse at the end of the section on the fig tree: “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”  The interpretation of this hinges on your understanding of who “this generation” is and what “all these things” are.  There are several different possibilities, and the ESV Study Bible (which I use as a key source in my studies and preparation for writing) illustrates five that I think are plausible.  It is not profitable to go into all the different possibilities in the space of a blog post, and scholars better than me have presented good arguments for one or another interpretation.  The bottom line is that we are living in the End but the End has not come yet, and we should be watchful and ready – not running after each errant call from the latest would-be prophet, but also wary and waiting for the signs that we are told will happen.

This is the first Gospel reading of the Advent season.  Advent is the time when we prepare our souls for the Second Coming of Christ by remembering the events surrounding the Incarnation.  Pray for ready hearts and open ears, that by keeping watch we may all heed the sign of the fig tree.

Grace and Peace in the Name of Our Lord Jesus.

C.S. Lewis, Teacher of the Faith

If I find in myself a desire that no experience in this world can satisfy; the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
-C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

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22 November is the anniversary of Clive Staples Lewis’ death, and his “unofficial” Saint day.  This blog is normally dedicated to the reflection and meditation on the Scriptural excerpts that make up the ACNA Lectionary for Sundays – however, since the works of Lewis have been highly influential on my life and development as a Christian, I felt that it was both necessary and appropriate to briefly reflect on one of my favorite forebears in the Faith.

Lewis is the one modern-day Christian author with whom I have found a particular fascination, with his practical approach to theology presenting the Gospel in a fashion that is accessible to any and all comers, and especially to the intellectually minded.  I firmly believe that Mere Christianity is a must read (after the Bible, of course) for every Christian of an intellectual stripe.  Where many pastors and ministers might shy away from “tough” questions, or rely on pat answers, Lewis thinks through these potential stumbling blocks in an engaging manner that highlights that logic is just one tool which God gives humanity to know him in studying the nature of His creation.  The work that I feel most exemplifies this is Miracles.  His works of fiction, especially the Chronicles of Narnia, are among the best Christian allegorical fiction in the modern era.

On this 54th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ Heavenly birthday, I ask you to join me in thanking God for giving us writers and orators like Lewis.

Almighty God, you gave to your servant C.S. Lewis special gifts of grace to understand and teach the truth as it is in Christ Jesus: Grant that by this teaching we may know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

The Least of These My Brothers

(Year A, Sunday closest to November 23, Gospel Reading from Matthew 25:31-46)

“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”  Matthew 25:37-40

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An etching by Jan Luyken illustrating Matthew 25:36 in the Bowyer Bible, Bolton, England.

This is one of the most iconic of Jesus’ teachings about the final judgment.  It is also a bedrock teaching for what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in a world filled with selfishness and discord.  We cannot get away from the teaching in this parable that Christ calls us to be more than just rule followers, or just “good people.”  When Jesus tells us “love [our] neighbor as [ourselves]” he means it.  It will be one of the things which proves out the heart we have for him.

This parable is one of those that gives me the most pause.  It is the one that most calls me to sobriety about my relationship with my fellow human beings, and how callous and disinterested I can be at times.  People that know me know a well-mannered, even-tempered man that is well spoken.  This isn’t me bragging – these are things people tell me, so I am just repeating them back.  But I know someone that is better at plastering on a fake smile, reciting scripted pleasantries, and thinking AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE that I just want to be left alone.  While I have felt the Holy Spirit working on me in this regard, I am very conscious of the miles I have left to go.

I am also the most uncomfortable with this parable, because on the surface it seems to advocate a works-based salvation – visit the prisoner, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, feed and water the hungry and thirsty, and you go to heaven!  Fail to do any of these things even once, and it’s to the fire with you.  And I think many of my fellow brothers and sisters in Protestant Christianity see it the same way – otherwise, why is there such an emphasis on evangelism in “everyday” Christianity, but compassion and mercy seem to belong only to the class of Christians that go out on missions or belong to special ministries?  This may be too harsh a judgment, and if it is, I beg forgiveness.

Certainly, evangelism is a part of our Christian walk, and we should be ready to give an account of the Gospel to any who should need to hear it.  I’m not calling for a deemphasis on sharing the Gospel.  But the Gospel can be shared by works of mercy and compassion as well – as someone once said, “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.”

The truth is, this isn’t works based salvation at all – pay close attention to what the Sheep say to the King: “When did we see you hungry and feed you?”  And they say the same for all the other charitable deeds.  They aren’t doing them for the hope of reward, they are doing them because it is part of their nature.  In some sense, it seems to me that they aren’t saved for the sake of their deeds but for the fact that the King had to explain how their deeds were for his favor – they fed, watered, clothed, welcomed, and visited with no knowledge of the gravity or importance of those they served.  It is like James, who says “faith without works is dead.”  Faith and works go together, they aren’t opposites; works are a fruit of faith in Christ Jesus.

So then, who are the “least of these”?  Certainly, the examples from the parable of the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the wandering, the suffering, and the captive are the “least of these,” but what about others who are oppressed and neglected?  What about the youth who is kicked out of their home because their parents know Law but not Love?  Or the man who drinks to forget his pains?  What about the woman who was forced upon and assaulted by a powerful man, who wrestles with the secret for decades before confessing the wrong done to her – only to be violated over again by a rapacious public opinion? Anyone who is weighed down by the scorn and derision of their fellow humans is “least” on Earth, and when we neglect to advocate for them, we miss the call of the Gospel.

When we who claim Christ prioritize our politics over justice, as some have done in recent days, we run a considerable risk of trading sheep’s wool for goat’s horns.

Lastly, we must remember what else the King says about the “least” – he calls them “my brothers.”  They are not objects for the patronage of the Righteous, nor a means for their reward.  They are kith and kin of the One who rules us, for the Lord says: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.”  Our compassion for the poor and oppressed must be borne of true love and empathy for them, lest it become its own form of scorn and oppression.

I ask you to pray for the welfare of the poor and the oppressed around you, and for opportunities to serve and minister to all who need the compassion of our God – both low of station and high.  Pray also for a heart that seeks after and reflects that compassion to the world around them.  And pray also for me, for I am also human and subject to the same selfish callousness that threatens and plagues all of us.

Grace and peace to all, in the Name of Our Lord Jesus.

“And He Will Have an Abundance”

(Year A, Sunday closest to November 16, Gospel Reading from Matthew 25:14-30)

“But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.  So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.  For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.  And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” – Matthew 25:26-30 (ESV)

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Parable of the Talents, By Andrey Mironov – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Of all of Jesus’ parables, I heard more sermons or Sunday School lessons on this one and the Sower than any other growing up.  Typically, this parable was used to teach me that God has given me gifts and talents, and I must use them effectively so that I will reap a good reward.  So, that’s it!  That’s the message – use your talents wisely, and God will welcome you as a good and faithful servant.  Tune in next week when I’ll tell you about how everyone who reads this blog is certainly among the sheep, and everyone who doesn’t Like my Facebook page must be goats.

All kidding aside, I think that this parable is far weightier than we are typically taught.

The error in the way I typically remember this being taught is not in the drive toward good stewardship – this is certainly a noble and God ordained concern.  We should examine our lives, and the graces that come from God, and be ready to account for how we have used them.  The error is in teaching that this is the main thrust of the parable.  The confusion comes from a superficial similarity between a term of weight used in the parable and the word we use in everyday English to refer to our vocational gifts and skills.  In the parable, the word “talent” refers specifically to a term of monetary weight that is equivalent to about 20 years’ worth of wages for the day laborer.  Think about the servant who was given 5 talents, and think about the amount of trust you would have to have to let someone invest 100 years’ worth of income.  I am aware of the vocational gifts God has given me, and I am also piteously aware that they do not come close to measuring up to this sum.

Interpreting and teaching this parable as being merely about good stewardship with innate (even God-given) vocational gifts or material blessings is also problematic in that it necessarily sets up an error of works-based salvation.  Why?  Well, because Jesus starts off the parable as a continuation of talking about the coming of the Kingdom.  The end of the parable is a vision of judgment, so if the parable is teaching right use of skills and abilities as being what God will reward us for, and inadequate use of those same “talents” the basis for our condemnation, then a conflict exists in Christian theology and understanding of our salvation.

If the word “talent” in the parable isn’t talking about our “talents” (in the modern day colloquial sense), what then is it talking about?  There is one gift that I do believe is referred to here – namely, the gift of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  This is the only gift, treasure, or possession that could be understood as being as valuable as a talent of money.   It is important then that the talent is given to the servants from the master – it is such a lavish sum of money; a servant could not hope to muster it on their own.  This additionally puts paid to the notion of any works-based soteriology arising from this parable – the sum is so great that it can only refer to something that I am incapable of producing myself, and therefore it precludes looking inwardly to satisfy the judgment.

The rest of the parable then falls into place:  the master is Jesus, who leaves the disciples for a time, after teaching them and giving them in trust the Good News about himself.  The servants are the disciples, and include all the crowds that followed him around Judea as well as those that have done so over the 2000 years of intervening history to the present day.  The servants who do something with the master’s money are rewarded, by being placed over much after being entrusted with “a little.”  This refers to the faithful Christians who seek to carry out the Great Commission as well as following the commands of Christ, for the gift of grace that they have been given will return a great yield in charitable works, love, and other souls who in turn also receive the same gift and carry out the same works.  The one servant who did nothing with the money is rejected, and even what he has is taken away from him, to be given to the one shown to be the best manager of the money.  This represents the one who hears the Gospel, and for whatever reason either never accepts the gift, attempts to accept the gift without passing it on, or tries to “return” the gift by denouncing the Gospel and ultimately leading others away from it.

I believe that this parable should resonate strongly with us Christians in the modern West.  We are 2000 years from the time of Christ, and presented daily with casual rejection of our beliefs.  It has been “a long time” (Matt 25:19) and could still be longer.  We are surrounded by people who know a “gospel” that has similar characters and mentions similar events, but either through misapprehension or the idolatry of the will they cannot hear or understand or accept the true Gospel.  The temptation to give in is great, and it will become greater and greater until the master comes again.  And that, I believe, is the final message of the parable, the true heart of its message – the servants who invested the money kept faith that the master would return, because they knew his character, and that they would be well treated.  The one who buried the money acted without faith, because he did not know the true character of the master – and even if he had he acted unwisely.  Our charge, therefore, is to keep the faith until the master’s return.

As we prepare for the Advent of Our Lord, I encourage you to pray for faith and perseverance to the end.  Pray also that all who claim Christ would know and share the true Gospel, that the great treasure entrusted to us would yield far and above what we can imagine, in mercy, love, and kindness toward one another, and – above all – in redeemed souls presented to Our Master when he returns.

Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus.

Be Ready!

(Year A, Sunday Closest to November 9, Gospel Reading Matthew 25:1-13)

“And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.  Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’  But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’  Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” – Matthew 25:10-13 (ESV)

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Parable of the Wedding Feast, By Andrey Mironov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
As we approach the Advent season, and as our world spins seemingly closer and closer to war, famine, and disaster, it is natural for our minds to turn toward what the End of Days will look like, when it will be, and how we are to prepare for it.  It is fitting then that we read this parable a few short weeks out from Advent, when our hearts, minds, and Lectionary will turn toward the anticipation of Christ’s Second Coming as we prepare to read about and celebrate His first.  This parable is packed with eschatological implication, and has been debated by scholars based on various facets of interpretation.

But I’m not focused on the academic debate.  It is clear to me that the Christ is the bridegroom, and the virgins represent Israel and the nations, and those who are prepared with ready and obedient hearts will be accepted as disciples and Kingdom citizens.  Those who are unprepared, through spiritual blindness and willful ignorance, will be turned away and left to wander a parched and thirsty land.

How do we know Christ is the bridegroom?  In Isaiah chapters 61 and 62, God’s love for Israel is compared to that of a bridegroom for his bride.  The ESV Study Bible notation on Isaiah 61:10 asserts that the speaker is the Messiah, and that he “will lead his people into the romance of salvation.”  Isaiah 62:5b makes an explicit connection between the joy a bridegroom has for his bride and how God rejoices over His people.  So the bridegroom is both the Messiah AND God, which should signal to the reader that the Messiah is more than just a mighty earthly king over Israel.  By virtue of the repeated vision of the bridegroom, the reader should see that the expectation of the Messiah is that he is to be “like” God, as in, having the same substance, the same being.  It is clear to me that the parable is talking about the coming of Jesus at the end of the ages.

One of the core points of this parable is that the wise virgins were ready – they foresaw a reason to bring extra oil and therefore didn’t need to leave where they were staying to go get more.  What does this translate to in the Christian life?  One part, I firmly believe, is an acknowledgement of Jesus’ divinity.  That is a key starting point, because to seek to rob Him of that is to try to put He and I on a level playing field – and we are very much not.  If Jesus is not God, part and parcel with the Holy Trinity, begotten not made, Very God from Very God, then I might start to think that “Hey, this guy called Jesus lived a perfect life, maybe I can do that too!” and I seek to be my own “savior,” as if it was not by Jesus’ Lordship and His Spirit at work in me that I could attain to His perfection.  How can Jesus be my Lord if I am seeking equality of station with Him?  If my salvation is predicated on acknowledging that Jesus is my Lord, then I must get that He is more than I can be, in this life or any other.

Therefore, readiness can be considered as related to true faith, or, put another way, true faith will produce readiness.  Let’s think it through – if I have true faith in Jesus as my true Lord and true Savior, then I know that I have an advocate that is Very God on my side.  When I subject my will to His, I accept that all other things are secondary – my wealth, my esteem, my material wishes.  I rely on His Providence, and because He is Good, my God will provide for my needs.  Therefore, when the calamity strikes, there are only two outcomes for the Redeemed: either we are called home from the bodily life, and “asleep” in Christ until He calls us to our Resurrected lives, or God sees fit to spare us and preserve our lives.  This is readiness – that I have the depth of faith to recognize that it is only God who can provide for me in the hour of need, that I cannot, in the end, provide for myself.  So, to be ever watchful is to continually seek renewal and edification of faith.

How do we take the knowledge of Jesus as the bridegroom, and what it means to be ready, and apply it to how we approach the end times?  Well, one of the first ways is to listen to the words of the bridegroom, as the authoritative source, and understand them as one who has true faith in His Lordship: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:13)  Earlier, he says “…be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matthew 24:44)  In fact, each of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all contain this language.  Therefore, hearing that no man will be able to predict the timing of the Second Coming, we must fully take it to heart.  We are to be ready to recognize the things that happen as forerunners of that great day (“He who has ears let him hear,” the refrain throughout the Revelation of St. John), but we are to know absolutely that trying to predict or calculate the Day of the Lord is a futile effort – for only the Father knows when it is.

Meditate on your “state of readiness.”  Do you rely on Jesus your Lord for your salvation?  Do you trust in God for his provision?  Think also on the age we are in – do many of your friends and loved ones spend inordinate amounts of time chasing after false “second comings”?  Consider your own thoughts.  Do you worry too much about what the End will be like?  Take comfort that Jesus is your Salvation, and that you have a Father that delights in providing for you – and knowing these things, be assured that they are true even in the midst of war, famine, and disaster.

Grace and peace to all, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.