References to repentance appear frequently in Luke-Acts. If that makes you uncomfortable as a preacher, you can always seek cover in John’s Gospel for a while. But hopefully I can change your mind.
Repentance sounds like a retrograde religious idea to some people. They think it’s inconsistent with preaching about a gracious God, or it’s a topic that attracts bullies and meanies to the pulpit. Moreover, wouldn’t talk about repentance be best directed toward the people who didn’t come to church on a Sunday morning? Won’t it annoy the ones who actually attend, or worse, tempt them to enjoy a little judgmentalism?
The thing is, Working Preachers, you’ve probably been asking your listeners to repent all along. All of your sermons, to some degree, call for repentance. At least, they’re supposed to call for it. That’s because sermons are occasions of persuasion. A sermon’s context and rhetoric should urge people to adopt a new point of view and a new (or renewed) understanding about God and God’s reign, the world at large, and their place in it. That’s repentance. To repent is to encounter life, God, and your purpose in a new way, in a truer way.¹ It’s to be jolted into discovering a different reality. That’s not about trying to satisfy an impossibly demanding Deity; it’s because we’re trying to discover peace and joy when those things are proving hard to find.
The context of Luke 13:1–5 guides us to read the parable of Luke 13:6–9 as a story about the pressing need for repentance. The parable of the fruitless fig tree might strike you as harsh at first blush. It’s got images of judgment: a frustrated vineyard owner, a speechless tree down to its last chance, and a promise that the clock is running out. No matter that the tree has been granted a reprieve and has an advocate in a gardener who’s willing to provide support, somehow many preachers have made the mistake of spurning the Lukan assumption that God can be loving and have criteria at the same time.
I don’t think Jesus is issuing threats so that you’ll visit more people in the hospital or plan one more event for the youth group. Relax. Nor is he trying to get you to preach against the folks spending Sunday morning at the bar or on the soccer field. Jesus doesn’t devote much effort in the Gospels to criticizing or condemning individuals, except for villains like Herod Antipas (last week) and Pilate (this week). They and other rulers deserve it not only for their proclivity for violence but because the evil fruit they produce as leaders poisons countless lives of others.
To appreciate the urgency of Jesus’ parable, imagine fruit-bearing less as manifesting personal virtue (à la Paul’s approach in Galatians 5:22–23) and more as providing sustenance and vitality to others. That’s the purpose of planting fig trees in the first place.
Imagine when religion stops bearing fruit. Imagine a faith tradition that cannot or will not do anything to contribute mercy and beauty to the world. Imagine a congregation so out of touch with the needs and shifting demographics of its community that its worship functions as isolationist cultural self-adoration. Imagine ecclesial hierarchs who endorse a despot’s unprovoked war. Imagine church leaders who refuse to take serious action to remedy entrenched misogyny and homophobia in their organizational structures. Imagine churches that stay silent when school boards censure books and politicians pass laws that endanger the lives and well-being of trans youth. Imagine a theological system that exists mostly to perpetuate itself and the privileges of its adherents, just sucking nutrients from the soil without doing anything to curb people’s hungers.
Count me among those eager to see God cut all those things down so something else can grow in their place. I’ll help sharpen the ax.
Working Preachers, the challenge you face with a passage like this is making sure that your sermon describes the parable’s crisis—a fig tree on a prolonged fruitless streak—as indicative of God’s priorities. This is not a passage about people needing to prove themselves worthy of divine favor. It’s not a depiction of a trigger-happy or unsparing God. It’s about a God who aches when the things—whether people, groups, or systems—that are supposed to provide fruit and healing fail to do so.
For some preachers, the passage might be an encouragement to find a new place to plant yourself if you’re going to be able to live out your calling.
Wherever you are or want to be, let this passage speak a word about judgment so it can, like many biblical passages about judgment, speak about life. Spring is coming into view; this year is already well under way. Consider what generative life looks like in the place you’ve been planted to preach. What does it mean for people to flourish and to promote the flourishing of others? What vision of life resides at the heart of your tradition? At the heart of your congregation’s hope for itself and the world? In your own faith?
The pulpit is a great place to explore those questions and to work for change. I’m glad you’ll be there on Sunday. Remember to feed yourself first, along the journey.
- For more on repentance and how it figures into this passage, see a commentary I wrote several years ago: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-3/commentary-on-luke-131-9