Sunday, February 21, 2016

Luke 13.1-9: Chopped

Lent 3C brings us Luke's telling of the parable of the fig tree (Luke 13:1-9). It's a reasonably straightforward parable on the surface: if the tree doesn't produce fruit, cut it down. It is a parable that has probably been enacted thousands of time. The landscaping just doesn't work out. The one azalea just won't grow like the other half dozen in the row. My father once had a "come to Jesus" moment with two gardenia bushes at the house where I grew up. They were planted by the carport of our house, and they just didn't bloom one year. So the following spring he walked out to the yard between our house and our neighbors, the Gilbertsons. He turned toward our house...and the gardenia bushes...and said, "Here's the story. Bloom this summer or you're out on the curb."

Two thousand years before, the man in Jesus' parable had a similar conversation. Perhaps the man offered the plant a little more tender loving care than my father did, but the idea was the same. If there isn't a change, if there isn't some fruit being produced, then it's all over.

It's interesting, then, that French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes made a pair out of a fig tree...and John the Baptist. Twice.

The two compositions are related but certainly not the same. In the National Gallery painting (top) five figures fill the canvas. At the left is the executioner and at the right are Salome (in white) and Herod (in red). A second female figure sits at the back of the composition hiding her face in her hands. John kneels in the center, his back to the executioner, holding a cross in his left hand. In the Barber image, Herod has been removed, Salome is now wearing a blue cloak and red tunic, and though the executioner's stance is much the same, the blue cloth in the National Gallery picture has been replaced by a cloth with an animal print. In both pictures Salome holds a gold platter on which to carry John's head.

The figure of John is changed in the two images. The National Gallery image shows John as relatively pale, with his animal-skin clothing about the same value as his skin. His hair is a reddish-brown, and he looks to the right of the canvas. The Barber painting lights John more dramatically. You could even say he glows. A halo of light encircles his head, and he looks directly at the viewer.

Where these paintings cross paths with the gospel reading from Lent is in the background. The beheading, rather oddly, takes place outdoors in a courtyard that is anchored by...a fig tree.

If it doesn't bear fruit in a year, then you can cut it down. But how does that relate to Jesus' cousin John? Surely he was bearing fruit.

John was. Others were not. John preached for three years, calling people to repent and be baptized. He called people to "bear fruits worthy of repentance" (Luke 3:8). In the next verse he reminded them that "Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

During this season of Lent, the connection between John and the fig tree may be repentance. As we move toward the cross, the pairing may remind us that there will always be things in this world that oppose God's message. But the story also reminds us that there is a chance to repent and bear fruit. That's the message John brought. That's the message Jesus brought. That's the choice that brings life. Life to people and, at least once, to gardenias. Because those plants that heard my Dad's ultimatum...well, they never bloomed more than they did that next summer.

(top) Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Beheading of John the Baptist. c. 1869. National Gallery, London. (bottom) Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Beheading of John the Baptist. 1869. Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, England.

Look! Another fig tree! But this one doesn't look nearly as healthy as the one in Herod's courtyard in the painting above. What is the subject? Where is the tree? Why is it there? Click here for this week's Facebook post.

For thoughts on Isaiah 55.1-9, click here.

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