Barry Newman's Blog

February 11, 2013

The Parable of the Fig Tree (part V)

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The Parable of the Fig Tree — barrynewman @ 9:09 pm

Problems in understanding the parable and the words of Jesus that accompanied it

If the prime matter being referred to by the word “near” is the soon to come destruction of the temple, the successful siege of Jerusalem the military occupation of the surrounding land and even the persecution of the early disciples, then we readily comprehend the significance of that word.   We also readily understand the notion that these matters would be carried out with considerable force.

If however we reflect upon the reality that wars, nations rising against nations, famines and earthquakes (“floods” and “fires” are not specifically mentioned but I am sure we are meant to include them) have been occurring in the world throughout the last two thousand years and occurred before, the idea of “nearness” in association with them may seem to be a little odd. (Although one might argue that since they have always been occurring they have always been near.) We might also consider it odd that Jesus said the gospel would be preached throughout the world, if that phenomenon is to be associated with the idea of “nearness”, when we recognise that it is only in our time that one could legitimately say that the gospel has been so preached. And some might say that not even that has really come to pass yet.  (Alternatively one might view “the world” as Jesus spoke of it as being of narrower dimensions than our modern view of “world” and agree with Paul that in his time the faith of believers was being reported on “throughout the whole world” [Romans 1:8]).

Adding to our puzzlement might be that part of the interpretation of the parable given by Jesus where he refers to “when you see these things happening” (Mark and Luke) or “when you see all these things” (Matthew).  That Jesus, after telling the parable, solemnly declares, “This generation shall not pass away until all has taken place”, may only compound our difficulties. And what are we to make of “the great signs from heaven” (Luke)?  Well, presumably, whatever else one might make of this phrase, it speaks of the cataclysmic nature of the events being described.

The textual material preceding and following the parable of the fig tree is well recognised, particularly by evangelicals, to be one of the most difficult parts of Scripture with which to come to terms.  One proposal, as part of a solution, is that Jesus, thinking that the final bringing in of the kingdom with the return of the Son of man was imminent in time, was simply mistaken.  After all Jesus was not only the Son of God he was also fully a man and subject to some of the limitations of mankind.  It is arguable for instance that along with everyone else of his age he believed that the organ, the heart, was where thought was located. Additionally, as seems evident from the Gospel accounts, that he was sometimes surprised at the belief expressed in him by gentiles. (Although on other occasions he displayed knowledge that one would not have expected him to have possessed unless God had revealed it to him.) Furthermore, in the textual material under discussion he indicates something of his knowledge of his own ignorance in saying that he is not privy to the knowledge of “that day and hour”.  None the less, many are reluctant to concede that with respect to the relative imminence (or otherwise if that is the case) of his final arrival and the arrival of the kingdom in its completeness Jesus was mistaken.

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