And so I tell you the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the proper fruits.
[This is the first installment of a four-part discussion on this scripture.]
Jesus, the chief priests, and the elders have been doing some verbal sparring on Days 182-185. And now, Jesus ends the exchange with a very direct statement –“And so I tell you the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the proper fruits.”
This statement, or prophecy, or whatever you want to call it is a direct reference back to the fig tree incident on Day 181:
On his way back to the city early next morning, Jesus was hungry. He saw a fig tree by the side of the road and went to it, but found nothing on it except leaves. So he said to the tree, “You will never again bear fruit!” At once the fig tree dried up. (Matthew 18-19).
The problem, Jesus says, is that like the fig tree, the religious authorities they are not doing their job. They are not doing the will of God. They are not doing what priests are supposed to do – acting as intermediaries between God and man, standing in the gap, reconciling the entire world with God. They are not like the responsible shepherd who searches tirelessly for the lost sheep (See Day 161). The Temple and the religious traditions are not bearing good fruit, and so they are going to be replaced.
I’m sure the chief priests, the elders, and all the rest of the religious authorities never saw this coming. They feared being overrun or overwhelmed by outsiders and their foreign religions, but I’m sure they never considered that God himself might take away their jobs which they executed with such efficiency and painstaking attention to detail. After all, they were meticulous about obeying the letter of the Law of Moses. Why wouldn’t God approve of their hard work? Why were they less useful now than they were in the past? I’m sure they dismissed Jesus’ prophecy as ridiculous. I’m sure they thought Jesus was some kind of pompous jerk.
After all, any changes in the Temple, the priests, and atonement through animal sacrifice would represent a seismic shift in the religious and cultural life of the Jews. Unimaginable. It was a far greater change than anything that has ever happened within Christianity, where the splits and schisms are all based on relatively minor disagreements. Today this would be comparable to the elimination of church buildings, paid pastors, and the cross as a symbol of atonement. Pretty directly comparable, actually. Like I said, pretty unimaginable. I doubt that the religious authorities felt threatened. There were thousands of years of tradition on their side, and the whole thing ran like a well-oiled machine. Kind of like a lot of churches nowadays. Except that the machine isn’t running so well these days. In fact, many assert that it’s about to conk out.
That is not what authorities of Jesus’ day wanted to hear, and it’s not what any of us who love today’s churches want to hear. If you have followed this blog for very long you know that I worry about the church and whether it is really doing its job. It’s pretty clear that the church has been declining in numbers over the last few decades, even though people continue to believe in God. They believe in God, but not in church. So is God letting his church die, or is it just getting pruned a little to prepare it for new growth?
The people in today’s churches have the best of intentions. We want to see the Kingdom of God established here on earth, and we want God to be pleased with us. We definitely don’t want to see God take away our churches and our ministries and give them to someone else. Just as people go through periods of self-examination, I think it’s essential for churches to do the same if they want to bear fruit and remain viable. So, I begin this examination by looking at the fruit of the ministry of Jesus and what he did to cultivate that fruit. It seems like the logical first step.
Jesus says on Day 140 that he came for the lost sheep of Israel. It seems to me that the main fruit of Jesus’ ministry was revealed in his ministry to the outcasts – including the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the children, the blind, the crippled, the possessed. They were ignored by the religious institution and society in general because they were flawed, diseased, or regarded as inferior. They had fallen between the cracks. They were separated from God with no hope for reconciliation. They were also separated from their fellow Jews.
So how did Jesus reach out to these people? How did he approach them? Did he preach tough love, fire, and brimstone to these outcasts? Did he require them to shape up and obey the Law of Moses? Did he encourage them to conform to societal norms? No. He was kind to them. He was a true friend. He said they were more important to him than his own family (See Day 124). He invested in them emotionally. He poured his life into them. He ate with them and talked with them and healed them and told them about God’s love and expressed his confidence in them. He didn’t give them stuff. He empowered them by teaching them about the wonderful things they were capable of doing if they exercised their faith. By doing this he was able to get these outcasts to open up their hearts, connect with God, and connect with each other. This was the good fruit of Jesus’ ministry. Relational healing. Reconciliation with God and one another. Connection. Love. Love is the fruit that Jesus’ ministry produced.
So Jesus told the religious authorities that what they weren’t producing enough good fruit. There wasn’t enough love. Are today’s churches really doing the work of Jesus. Are they producing the good fruit of love, or will their fate be the same as fig tree and the Temple? Will God curse them and move in another direction?
This discussion of this same scripture continues for the next three days as I examine today’s religious “fig trees” to see if I think there’s any good fruit out there.
What does this scripture say to you?