Revd Dr Robert S. Kinney reflects on Luke 13.1-9, the challenging lectionary Gospel set for this week, drawing in the Old Testament reading, Isaiah 55.1-9.
Fecundity is an uncommon term. In human demography, it generally refers to the ability of a population to replenish itself and it is currently an important subject in Europe. For many years, according to Eurostat (the EU’s statistical office), the fecundity rate in each European nation has fallen below what is needed to keep the population even. This means that, apart from immigration, the population of each European nation is declining. Of course, that brings with it a multitude of sensitive topics, from the tragedy of infertility in individuals to national migration policies and the preservation of national culture.
In the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (a tough passage!), Jesus tells a parable centred on the fecundity of a fig tree in order to explain a concept that is no less sensitive.
In Luke 13.1-5, Jesus is addressed by some unknown audience members. Having heard Jesus talk about the coming eschatological judgment—even chastising them for not seeing it coming—the audience introduces additional information to Jesus. They tell him that some Galilean Jews had been slaughtered by Pilate in the course of making sacrifices (a horrific act that is sadly consistent with what is known about Pilate). It is as if they are asking if these murdered Jews deserved the specific judgment that came upon them.
But Jesus quickly rejects the notion. He even cites another event (the tower of Siloam falling) to suggest that these people were not killed because they were worse sinners than anyone else. But then his logic takes a delicate turn. Like the lengthy discussion throughout the book of Job, Jesus challenges the notion that disaster comes only to those who deserve it. That is, disaster is not only for those who did something in particular. Instead, disaster – m judgment really – is universal. This universality is emphasised in the repeated use of all (in verses 2, 3, 4, and 5). Judgment is universal—except for those who repent: ‘…unless you repent, you will all perish as they did‘ (v.3 and v.5).
In Luke 13.6-9, then, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree. Like this apparently unrepentant audience, the fig tree is bearing no fruit. In an act of universal judgment, it is time to cut it down once and for all. But the gardener prevails upon the fig tree’s owner to let it have one more chance. And so, Jesus’s audience has one more chance to repent and begin bearing fruit—an echo of something John the Baptist had said earlier in the Gospel: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3.8).
The final judgment of perishing that Jesus promises will be worse than the grave consequences of population decline in Europe. And so, the fecundity that matters foremost is not that of population stability, but of spiritual growth. We are in need of the spiritual fecundity that comes with repentance. The Isaiah reading paints a glorious picture of what abundant life in God looks like, and then similarly exhorts the reader to seek it:
‘Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.’ (Isaiah 55.6-7)
Abundant life comes through repentance and God’s mercy. If we hope to come into that life and be spared the judgment that is to come, we must repent. Jesus, just like the gardener in the parable, intercedes for those who do so. Indeed, he gave his life in order that we might have time to bear fruit. And so, in this season of Lent, we do well to consider the examples Paul gives in the 1 Corinthians reading—the example of the Israelites in the wilderness and the sins from which to repent. We do well to consider the invitation of the Isaiah reading, so that we may “eat what is good” (55.2). We do well to consider the warning of Jesus, for the time to bear fruit is short.
Robert S. Kinney serves as a priest (with PTO) at Christ Church in Vienna, Austria. He is the Director of Ministries for the Charles Simeon Trust. He acts as an educational mentor for the Diocese in Europe Ministry Experience Scheme.