The Barren Fig Tree
St. Paul uses words like “grace” and “love” to personify Jesus, as in Titus 2 and 3. There is another word which hasn’t been overly used or abused yet–the word “kindness.” Paul’s use of it in Titus and Ephesians 2 reminds one of Nehemiah 9 and Isaiah 54–where this tender expression is used for God’s Gospel.
Jesus came as the very visible reality of God’s “kindness.” There wasn’t a mean bone in His body. Or, as someone else has said: “The meanest meanness of God is more tender than the kindliest kindness of men.” And this for two reasons. First, viciousness is not an attribute of God. Second, God has an ultimate and underlying goal in His dealing with mankind–He wants to rescue us, save us, deliver us.
To deliver us He plants us in His Word. There we receive His grace; we receive Him, His tenderness, His love. We learn to trust Him. And serve Him. We abide in Him. And whoever does that bears much fruit. Not just John 15, but Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17 also testify to this.
The certain man who planted the fig tree knew what the fig tree was supposed to do. You would think that the fig tree also knew–but (see Jeremiah 17 again, verse 9) the heart being so desperately wicked as it is, it seems that the fig tree had other ideas. Basically, it did not intend to bear the expected fruit.
Somewhere there should be a congregation named “Macedonia Lutheran Church”–because of the example in 2 Corinthians 8. It seems to have heeded well the admonition given two chapters earlier, the one “not to receive the grace of God in vain.”
The grace of God is there in His Word and sacraments. Not to use these for their intended purpose is to “use up the ground” like the barren fig tree did. Other New Testament usages of the concept “use up the ground” are not complimentary. Waste is implied–rendering the Word of God powerless, exhausting it, abolishing it, making it of no effect, bringing it to nothing, despising it.
The church of Jesus’ day did just that, even as He neared the end of His ministry. The “kindness” of God will face the judgment of God on the Cross. Zacharias’ “tender mercy” of our God will continue long after the Cross and Resurrection. Groundskeepers will continue to dig and fertilize around the trees.
The church of Jesus’ day in its self-righteous impenitence did not realize the times. Despite John the Baptist’s warning (Luke 3:9), it had no sense of the axe being so near and so sharp. The Word of God was abused and twisted in the service of spiritual pride and self-glorying. Neither warning nor nourishment made any impression.
“Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness,” says St. Paul in Romans 11. “Otherwise, you also will be cut off.”
God amply gives the means to repent and bear repentance’s fruit. Impenitence stands under the threat of being chopped down at any moment. So we rejoice in the kindness of God, which is still at work to save us from doom.
Every verse of Hymn 340 (The Lutheran Hymnal) ends on this note. Sing it soon to yourself. It’s hard to sing it standing up or sitting down–you pretty well have to be on your knees.
–Pastor Warren Fanning