Become an Ordained Minister

These are stories about why people became ministers with the Universal Life Church. They tell about what motivated them and about what they've done with their ministries.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Four Gospels

The Fig Tree, the Vineyard and God, the Farmer
Katherine MacDowell, M.Ed.

When considering what topic to focus on after exploring The Unvarnished Gospels and the course study notes, I found myself returning to the Gospel of John’s chapter 15, which demonstrates a fascinating theological linkage between all three prior gospels’ use of the God the sower/farmer, vineyard, and fig tree parables and events. In John, Jesus states:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the farmer. Each branch of me that bears no fruit, He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He cleans so it will bear more fruit….If someone doesn’t remain in me, he’s already thrown out and withered like the branches which are collected and thrown into the fire and burned.

One of the more confusing passages in the gospels occurs in Mark when Jesus comes to the fig tree just outside of Jerusalem and curses it when he finds it has no fruit and he is hungry. The passage acknowledges that it is not fig season, so it makes little sense that Jesus would have been surprised to find the fig tree not bearing fruit given the emphasis on agrarian knowledge of his time and the internal emphasis on agrarian cycles within the gospels themselves. As such this passage must either assume the reader holds prior theological information about the Jesus and his relationship to fruit-bearing trees or later gospel writers sought to elaborate on Jesus’ inconsistent and petulant behavior. Here we can begin our journey in Matthew.

Chapter 24 indicates there is a lesson to be learned of the fig tree, whereby the fig tree is utilized to teach the disciples how to recognize the presence of God and His judgment. Here, God is likened to the cycle of spring and summer, reflecting bounty, nourishment, and harvest. In this capacity, Jesus is assuring his disciples that, not only are they learning the natural signs of God, but that when God does appear in judgment it is a time of abundance and bounty. It is a fruit-bearing time (at least for those who know the signs). If we interpret Mark through Matthew’s fig lesson elaboration, we can suggest that Jerusalem is not in season. It is not a place where God’s presence is ready to flourish and indeed, Jesus curses the tree so that it can never bear fruit. Given the fruit and flourishing reflect the presence of God nourishing those who receive Him, one way of interpreting this passage is as a reflection of God withholding His nourishment from Jerusalem. Given the gospel writers were writing after the final destruction of temple of Jerusalem by Rome, early Christians likely utilized these events as support for their belief in their new covenant with God

Yet this passage becomes even more complex as we explore the parables of the vineyards within Luke and Matthew. In both of these texts, Jesus likens God as the owner of a vineyard. The Vineyard is leased to the Jewish people (it cannot be interpreted as humanity at large as there is a distinct relationship of a contract or bond between the Vineyard owner and the tenants) who become unruly and unfaithful tenants, failing to live up to the contract or more accurately the covenant, becoming consumed with the need to possess all the wealth of the vineyard for themselves (a criticism that Jesus lays at the feet of the Pharisees). The servants are sent (likely contemporary prophets of Jesus such as John the Baptist) are beaten and killed. The vineyard owner then chooses to send his beloved son in the hopes that they will respect the heir, but they murder. In this capacity, the fig tree (a creation of God) of Jerusalem withholds its fruit from Jesus, denying him his rightful place as the farmer’s son. As such, Jesus, in his more sword-wielding role described in the texts when referring to the rapture, condemns the fig to wither and die (where its use becomes that of fire wood—recalling the themes of being cast into Gehenna). Thus we may also look at the Fig Tree incident as Jesus being revealed as the sword of God, the one who comes to deliver wrath (here I cannot help but be reminded of Steinback’s Grapes of Wrath). Thus we see Jesus theologically revealed not only as the passive sacrificial lamb, the final lamb of Passover to be sacrificed to God to reestablish the new covenant, but we see him as the lion that the Book of Revelations will eventually focus on. Jesus is both passive and submitting to God’s will; but when it comes to the will of man, Jesus is not submissive. Thus as John states, Jesus takes away the non-fruit–bearing tree of Jerusalem as God’s stand-in: the son who returns to the vineyard to check the progress of the tenants.

In considering this type of interpretation, it strikes me that it says more about the gospel writers’ relationship to the Jewish community and their growing need to appease Roman rulers (thus Pilate, whom we know historically was one of the more cruel governors, becomes a sympathetic figure, while the Jewish leaders become more and more demonized the later the gospels are written and gospels themselves, including several Gnostic texts become increasingly anti-Semitic). As such, I find it hard to believe that Jesus would overtly preach an ethic that condemns the Jews, since all gospels centrally agree that he retained and valued the Mosaic Law and felt, not that Judaism was evil, but rather that it needed to be revitalized and stripped down to its non-materialistic or cultural artifacts. Further, more statements from Jesus suggest he felt that if you were not accepted by any group, dust it off and move on—thus the wrathful vision of Jesus does not seem to be well supported, but may be an important image for early Christians facing significant bodily and social harm (hence the vineyard parable whereby God’s servants are harmed).

In this capacity, I think there is some value as to why when many of us read the Fig tree event it seems incongruent—overly harsh and judgmental. Yet as it is elaborated upon within the four gospels, it does illustrate what I do think is a beneficial conception of God as a farmer (interestingly echoing a new interpretation of the Book of Genesis, whereby Adam and Eve are viewed as the farmers of the world and God more distant), whereby God is diligent and ensures that His crops flourish and have all the nutrients they need to thrive and generate. In this capacity, we see it theologically revealed that God is close to us; hence John says that if we keep Jesus within us, we become like the vines of the vineyard and through this we directly benefit from an even more intimate relationship with God, the farmer.

by Katherine MacDowell, M.Ed.

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