Jesus tells a story about a tree:
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down’”(Luke 13:6-9).
If it is a fig tree, it should produce figs. Where are the figs?
Isaiah pictures God’s nation as a vineyard from which he expects to receive fruit (Isa 5:1-8). Jesus borrows this image and makes it individual. God has placed each of us in a certain position—with certain gifts and talents and relationships—because he expects us to do things. He wants us to serve others. He wants us to bear the fruit of his Spirit in our lives, consistently growing more loving, patient, and self-controlled. He wants us to tell others about Jesus and his kingdom. After a certain amount of time (three years in the story), it is perfectly appropriate to ask: where are the figs?
God is patient with us. He understands that we need help and work. He knows our weaknesses. But there is a point at which laziness crosses the line into rebellion. At that point we are only “using up the ground.” This story is a warning that there is an urgency to actually obeying God.
What if I am like this tree? God has made great investments in me. Am I fulfilling his vision for me? Am I bearing the fruit he created me to produce? Where are the figs?
Let’s be a people who don’t merely talk about serving God and others, but who actually produce the fruit.
Jesus repeatedly tries to expand the viewpoint of his audience—to push them toward a broader mind.
The Sadducees, who reject the concept of resurrection, think they have a foolproof “what-if.” If a woman has been married to seven different men, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Jesus responds: “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?”(Mark 12:24). When God states “I am the God of Abraham,” he is implying that Abraham is still living. Just because the Sadducees do not understand how resurrection works doesn’t mean it isn’t true. They need a broader view of God’s power.
When Jesus tells the disciples that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” they recoil. “Who then can be saved?” Jesus responds, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”(Matt 19:24-26). The disciples believe that if the rich—whose wealth is seemingly an indicator of God’s favor—can’t be saved, no one can. They need a broader view of God’s grace.
Jesus tells his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith”(Matt 21:21-22). He wants them to pray bigger, more audacious prayers and trust that God is willing to back them up. This teaching is not full of qualifications and reservations. He wants them to have a broader view of God’s intervention in his world.
Jesus warns the Sadducees about putting God in a box. By trying to understand God and systematize their theology, they miss him. God is so much greater than our attempts to understand him.
Jesus warns the disciples about assuming they know whom God will save. By trying to understand how they can gain (and know they have) God’s favor, they exclude and include the wrong people. God is so much more gracious than we are.
Jesus warns the disciples about limiting God’s possible activities. By trying to know what is allowed and forbidden, they are tempted to fall back on “safe” requests. God is so much more active and powerful than we can imagine.
Faith involves being open to the limitless power—and infinitely good will—of an Almighty God.
Most people like to find a certain way of living and stick to it. We make our choices—politics, religion, friends, money, career—and rarely reexamine them. We would prefer to just live happily ever after.
But Jesus wants us to be willing to change.
“‘A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” And he answered, “I will not,” but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, “I go, sir,” but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him’”(Matt 21:28-32).
Jesus praises the tax collectors and prostitutes who changed in response to John’s preaching. He criticizes the chief priests and elders because they refused to hear John. “And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.” Jesus targets an unwillingness to change, even when we know we need to.
The stories of significance in the gospels are change stories. Peter, Andrew, James, and John leave behind their fishing business to follow Jesus and become fishers of men. Matthew leaves his tax office at Jesus’ call. Zacchaeus reworks his business model to be more ethical. One woman (Luke 7:36-50) leaves behind a life of sin to show love to Jesus.
Meanwhile, the tragedies in the gospels are those who refuse to change. Most of the Pharisees refuse to even consider that Jesus might be the messiah. The rich young ruler come to the cusp of following Jesus, only to go away sorrowful. Many tell Jesus they would love to follow him—but want to do other things first (Luke 9:57-62).
Would you change--
Jesus opposes the hardened, intractable, set-in-its-ways heart. Are you willing to change?
We have all experienced the sensation of innocence lost. We know what it is to carry guilt—for goodness and purity to feel farther and farther away—like we’ve permanently soiled something.
We usually don’t sit static with that feeling. We try to wish it away. We explain it away and justify ourselves. We seek other remedies, like the distraction of pleasure, substances, or companionship. We try to escape it. We try to outweigh it with good works. We try to do better. Yet this feeling of contamination lingers.
This is why it resonates with me to hear the leper say to Jesus: “If you will, you can make me clean”(Mark 1:40).
God taught the Jews about cleanliness and defilement for this reason: to keep them aware of the spiritual and moral dimensions of all their choices. Yet even when the Jews performed the sacrifices, that feeling lingered. There was still awareness of sin and defilement. These “gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper”(Heb 9:9). More simply, they ask questions like “What do I still lack?”(Matt 19:20).
The leper follows a different path. “You can make me clean.” He seeks cleanliness not from sacrifices, but from Jesus. To be sure, he is primarily speaking about healing from his leprosy. Yet the New Testament repeatedly describes the purity and cleanliness Jesus brings. “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name”(Acts 22:16). Baptism is “an appeal to God for a good conscience”(1 Pet 3:21). We are saved “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit”(Titus 3:5). All of these passages express that we come to Jesus and say, “You can make me clean.”
Seeking Jesus’ cleansing means I abandon my efforts to make myself clean. I acknowledge my need and inability. I trust his power and goodwill. In Jesus, my innocence is restored. My conscience is clear. I follow him from gratitude, not guilt or fear.
Are you clean? Jesus can make you clean.
Jesus calls his disciples to self-denial. “And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’”(Luke 9:23).
The issue is that we prefer self-indulgence to self-denial. Listen to advertising and you will be told how you deserve to be pampered, treated, and catered to. Almost no one is offering what is rigorous, uncomfortable, and painful.
The path of self-indulgence doesn’t lead to anywhere we want to go—not to discipline, skill, deep relationship, character, or insight. Everything good we want to pursue requires self-denial. So (naturally) Jesus puts it first. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself.”
Among other things, self-denial means:
But the path of self-denial is not merely about saying no—it is about cutting off other avenues because we have a bigger, more important yes. “Let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” We are happy to ignore other paths because we are following Jesus.
What are you denying yourself—and what are you pursuing?
Jesus wants his disciples to know that some people are bad for us.
One of Jesus’ teachings upsets the Pharisees and his disciples rush to tell him about it. “He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit’”(Matt 15:13-14). Instead of worrying about their response, Jesus tells his followers to “let them alone.”
This thread is everywhere in Jesus’ teaching. “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn and attack you”(Matt 7:6). He warns about people who are ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt 7:15) and that disciples are “sheep in the midst of wolves”(Matt 10:16). When they encounter people who reject their message, they are to “shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town”(Matt 10:14). He warns them of the “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees”(Matt 16:6). Some people are bad for us.
But this is not about elitism—or even primarily about influence. There are people who are dangerous to us. They will try to hurt us and exploit us and pollute us. We may initially think that we can influence them toward God, but repeated exposure only confirms that they continue to hurt us. They abuse our trust, ridicule our faith, manipulate us, exploit us, and hurt our feelings. They take our “pearls”—the things we value—and trample them, then turn to attack us. Listen to Jesus. “Let them alone.”
There are a few categories of people who Jesus singles out for this kind of treatment. There are those who are unwilling to listen (Matt 10:14). There are those who want their own desires and are willing to harm us to get them (Matt 7:15). There are those who are insincere in dealing with us because they have their own agendas (Matt 16:1-4). While there might be other examples of this kind of behavior, the point is that Jesus is teaching his disciples to use judgment in deciding that there are some people who need to be left alone.
Are there toxic people like this in your life? Listen to Jesus. As much as is possible, leave them alone.
Want to have better relationships? Think Golden Rule thoughts.
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets”(Matt 7:12).
What if the roles were reversed? Most of our relationships are tarnished by selfishness. We are happy to think about “whatever you wish that others would do to you.” That’s easy! But Jesus teaches us to take what we want others to do us and “do also to them.” What would I want to happen if they were angry with me? If I were my wife, would I like being talked to this way? If others were gossiping about me, would I want my friend to join in?
What is fair and appropriate? Often we use others. They are just there for us to have an object for self-expression or to gain some benefit. Golden Rule thoughts force us to think about “whatever you wish that others would do to you,” considering our sense of what is fair and applying it to our own behavior. Is my treatment of others really warranted by the situation? Am I allowing my frustration, bitterness, jealousy, or insecurity to influence my behavior? Am I doing the right thing by them?
Am I treating others well? The beauty of the Golden Rule is that we instantly know whether we have violated it. “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” Would I complain about this treatment if it was directed at me? Am I considering the impact of my behavior? Am I attempting to do good? This question—“Am I treating others well?”—is the heart of God’s revelation ("the Law and the Prophets").
Want to have better relationships? Think Golden Rule thoughts.
Jesus wants his disciples to be comfortable with a certain level of mystery that accompanies God’s work. Consider this obscure comparison:
“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come”(Mark 4:26-29).
In describing the work of a farmer, Jesus focuses on the man’s ignorance. He plants the seed, which sprouts and grows. “He knows not how.” This does not mean that we cannot learn some things by studying crop science, but that there is a mystery associated with the whole process of botanical growth. It does not rely on man’s ingenuity. Man scatters seed. Then he sleeps. And when the grain is ready, he reaps.
This is the nature of the kingdom of God. How God works out his reign, advances his kingdom, and reaches people with the message is often a mystery to us. While we are comfortable with the idea of God’s work being mysterious in realms where we have little role (such as the prenatal development of a child), it is harder when we have a front-row seat and responsibility. It is harder when we are the farmer.
“He knows not how” means that we won’t be able to perfectly engineer kingdom growth. It is not about methods and action plans. We prepare ourselves and plant seeds, then we let God do his work. And when the time is right, we put in the sickle and reap.
There is mystery surrounding evangelism and church growth. There is mystery about exactly how character is formed—whether in mature Christians, new converts, or children (Paul calls it the “fruit of the Spirit,” Gal 5:22). There is mystery in the idea of providence—how precisely God acts to care for his people in everyday life. God keeps working, but we “know not how.”
Our lack of explanation, though, doesn’t mean that we are unaware of our responsibility. The lesson is to follow Jesus in patient trust—and to have the humility to give God the glory for doing amazing things in ways that we “know not how.”
Jesus continually presses his disciples to be aware of time.
Jesus wants us to be aware of the time in which we live. This means that we know where we are in “salvation history”—between the first coming of Jesus and the second. This means that we know that we are awaiting the bridegroom, which means a certain degree of sorrow and groaning (and fasting). This means that we know the world in which we live—the spirit of our age and its unique blend of good and evil.
Jesus wants us to take each day seriously. Each day has its own trouble and demands its own attention. While we are aware of where we are in the broader scope of time, our lives are comprised of days. We must be busy in serving the Lord, loving and blessing others, and growing into the image of Christ--today. There will come a time when no one can work.
Do you know your time? What will you do with today?