The secrets of the Kingdom of God are these:
- God loves who Jesus is and what Jesus does.
- Jesus does what our Father says to do by the Spirit’s power.
- Jesus calls us right now into the Kingdom that is right here.
- The law of the Kingdom is the law of love. Do the good you know to do right now: no excuses.
- When others are following this law of love, doing good to others, recognize them as Kingdom people.
- Recognize that obeying Moses’s law won’t be enough; you need to understand your need for God’s help.
- God calls those into the Kingdom who know they need God; and God wants Kingdom people to help gather these other folks.
- God heals, makes clean, forgives ALL THE TIME, as does Jesus (see 1 and 2). God wants us to do these things ALL THE TIME too as we follow Jesus. We are God’s children doing God’s will.
We also see from Part I that the parables teach that God is in charge. God sows the seed, and God in Jesus is the seed. Small beginnings lead to big changes, and the changes are positive. Beginnings are natural, and they start in dirt, or in human flesh. The beginning is a death, but immediately after is a resurrection into life, just like a seed. Our main effort is spent staying close, pressing closer to Jesus and through Jesus growing closer and closer to our Father as we obey the Spirit of Jesus.
These parables are about another natural phenomenon. Some plants that ought to have fruit don’t, and some branches that ought to have fruit don’t.
The fruitless tree
The immediate context for this parable is the question, “Why did disaster happen to these people?” “Not,” Jesus replies, “because they were greater sinners than anyone else, but except you repent—change your way of thinking, amend your ways—you will likewise die.”
Then the parable:
A certain person had a fig tree planted in the vineyard, and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the vineyard keeper, “Look, I’ve come three years looking for fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down. It is making the ground useless.”
And the vineyard keeper said, “Boss, let it alone this year also, and I will dig around it and fertilize it. Then if it bears fruit, good; if not, you can cut it down.”
Then the story follows of Jesus healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath, the ruler of the synagogue protesting and Jesus responding like this. “You let your ox or ass out of the stall and lead them to water on Sabbath. Should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, be loosed from the bonds of Satan in which she has suffered for 18 years on the Sabbath?” Then he told the story of the mustard seed/Kingdom (see Part I).
This parable evokes several Old Testament allegorical passages about planting a vine in which God complains that the vine is now producing wild grapes (or stinkberries) rather than good grapes (Isaiah 5:1-4); and God complains that he planted a noble vine that has become a degenerate plant, a strange vine (Jer 2:21).
“For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold, oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry” (Isaiah 5:6).
So one reading of this parable is this:
- Vineyard—Israel in history
- Fig tree—Jews at the Jesus’s present time
- Digging and fertilizing—Jesus’ own death and burial
- And then what? Was there fruit? Yes, there was a huge turning to Jesus at Pentecost from the Jews of his time.
This connects up with the incident where Jesus cursed the fruitless fig tree on his way to Jerusalem right before the crucifixion. This is a visual parable for us. But of what?
It resembles the first story, but with some significant differences. First, it is not fig season so there are no figs. Jesus is hungry and says, “Never again will this tree bear fruit,” and it dies.
So what does the fig tree represent? The nation of Israel? Yet there was fruit after the resurrection. The earliest church was entirely Jewish.
The religious system of Judaism? This is more in line with the overall teaching of Jesus, that the system set up by the religious teachers of the day was contrary to God’s Good News.
Legalism? Thinking one can get right with God by following rules or being good?
There are other ways we can make these parables useful to us personally and corporately.
- Do we have fruitless areas in our lives, individually or as a congregation, or as a denomination?
- Do we have a sense that the Holy Spirit is digging around our roots, fertilizing them, individually or as a congregation, or as a denomination?
- What can we do to cooperate with that God’s work on our behalf, individually or as a congregation, or as a denomination?
- Does the fruitlessness arise out of a misunderstanding of the relationship of being good—keeping Sabbath—and doing good—setting free those who are all bound up, individually or as a congregation, or as a denomination? Are we living by the law of love?
- Are we more willing to meet the needs of animals than of human beings?
The parable of the Sower and the Seed
Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8
Here is a picture of the secret of the way God governs:
Listen up! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” . . . The sower sows the word.
What is “the word”? It can legitimately be a number of things: a story, an event, a doctrine, an instruction, an explanation; for a follower of Jesus, it is speaking what God tells that follower to speak. Remember that the Word is the instrument of pruning in the parable of the Vine.
Some don’t understand what they hear, so they instantly forget it; some receive it with joy but don’t let it go deep in their lives, so they lose interest when times are hard; some allow the cares of the world, the lure of money, the desire for other things, the desire to be important, the need for affirmation to choke out any growing they might do, so that they don’t see any results from their belief; some are open and ready and honest; these take it seriously and act on it, and they see lots of growth and results.
I used to read it as four different kinds of people. But I came to realize that I have all four of these soils in myself. I have the part that doesn’t understand what God is saying to me, so it slips out of my mind. I have the part that doesn’t get into my deep soul, so it dies under pressure. I have the part that doesn’t affect how I live because I am worrying about money or job or who did me wrong. Thank God I also have the part that eagerly, honestly, openly welcomes God’s word and lets it affect how I think and behave by obeying it.
So is there anything I can do about worrying, shallowness, or simple hardness of heart? I think so, and that the function of spiritual disciplines is to help us move through anxiety, shallowness, hardness to press closer to Jesus.
Jesus says to his disciples then, and to us now, pay attention to what you hear. The more you listen to what God says and act on what you hear, the more you will hear; if you don’t act on what God tells you, you’ll lose the little ability to hear that you have. God doesn’t whisper things to you so that you’ll keep them secret, but so you can disclose them to others.