Charles Dickens is said to have said, "Train up a fig tree in the way it should go, and when you are old sit under the shade of it."
This phrase has been adopted by greenhouses, landscapers, and environmental movements; it has been employed as an exhortation to patience1, to prudence and planning, and even used as motivation for job interviews. I cannot say just what Dickens had in mind, but for the biblically literate it may be clear that Dickens is borrowing from (and riffing on) the book of Proverbs: "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6 KJV). What, then, is the commonality (if there is any) between the raising of children and fig trees?
Answers may abound. I have never planted a fig tree and am still trying to figure out children. But one thing, at least, seems certain: training a child or a fig tree will be a labor of love, with the emphasis falling equally (one hopes!) on "labor" and "love."
The Parable of the Fig Tree and the Coming of the Son of Man At the center of the reading from Luke for this week is the parable of the fig tree. This parable is not, probably, what we normally think of when we think "parable." There really isn't a story, per se, which is what we might expect -- no little old lady searching for coins, no sons, or servants, or stewards. There isn't the point (or skewer) that is the trademark of the parable hidden in the palm of Jesus' hand as he tells it, where the reader is caught (and stuck) at the end.
This "parable" is really more of an observation and a warning. It heralds the coming of the Son of Man, calling the listener to have eyes to see the signs, and the good sense to be ready. Jesus tells us that there are signs that indicate the arrival, the advent, the presence, and the power of the Kingdom of God. Like leaves on a fig tree (or pimples on the brow of an adolescent), such signs can show us our redemption, and our Redeemer; this is an important part of what we need to be about as children of that Kingdom: looking for its signs.
Luke 21 tells us that people will know fear, that earth and heaven will traumatized, and that "'Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and glory." A difficulty, of course, is that there have been (and presumably will be many more) times when there is distress among the nations and the heavens appear to be shaken. How will we know, when will we see, and how long must we wait?
Patience, it seems, may be exactly what is at issue for the fledgling Christian community as it awaits the day of the Lord. The need for patience, endurance, and trust may well have been amplified when to all appearances the promise that "all things have [will have] taken place" (verse 32) during that first generation, has proved untrue.
Patience in this life is often the key issue for us as well. Patience in the face of promises yet to be kept; patience in the meantime of enduring illness, broken relationships, and unrealized expectations or hopes; patience after all our patience has run out.
One thing I remember clearly from my own childhood is that parents are not the only ones who need patience. Children, too, need to learn to be patient with their parents, and with the progress of their own growth. As we seek to be raised as children of the Kingdom, patience is key in watching for the signs, in living into the Gospel, and in our daily lives as congregations and as individuals.
The Concept of "Nearness" in the New Testament The central promise of the parable of the fig tree -- that the Kingdom is near, now -- is a promise that the church needs to here regularly. Watch for the signs, Jesus says, and you will see that your redemption is drawing near, and indeed is already near.
The Greek word here is engizo, a verb which expresses the immanence, the "coming nearness" of someone or something. In the New Testament there are many things that might "draw near," from the Word (Romans 10:8; cf. Deuteronomy 30:14) and the proclamation of the Kingdom (Luke 10:9,11), to appointed times (Revelation 1:3; 22:10; Matthew 26:45; Romans 13:12) including the end (1Peter 4:7), to that which is shown to be drawing near in the leaves of the fig tree, the promised redemption of all who believe (Luke 21:28; Romans 13:11), to whom God draws near in Christ Jesus (Hebrews 7:19; James 4:8; 5:8).
Here, in this unusual parable and its visualization of this vital New Testament idea of "nearness," we find the imperative of the gospel, its life-giving assurance -- the Kingdom is not far off; it is not waiting; it is not an undiscovered country; it is right here in Son of Man, and in his proclamation. Luke's parable echoes the summary proclamation of the gospel in Matthew's John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Twelve (cf. Matthew 3:2; 4:17; 10:7): This is the good news: the kingdom of heaven has come near. Our preaching of the parable can do the same.
Luke 21:28, 36 One final note: I noted earlier that the parable lies at the center of this selection from Luke 21. The two verses that introduce and, in a sense, summarize it, serve as something of an exhortation to the Christian calling, and a primer of what it means to be patient.
"Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. Stand-up! Raise up your heads! ... Be alert! Pray for the strength to stand! Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."
1 The Greek Philosopher Epictetus (55-135 CE) clearly had patience in mind when turned to the fig and the fig tree as an illustration, saying, "No great thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen."