The fig tree got another chance.
Not only do we need to think about repentance from the perspective of personal responsibility, not allowing ourselves to be diverted by the sins of others, or from the perspective of the resources that God has invested in us, but we also need to think about it from the perspective of grace.
The owner of the vineyard thought that the fig tree had had long enough. He’s been looking for fruit from the tree for three years; for three years he had found nothing. The tree was just using up the ground. It was time to uproot it.
The vinedresser, on the other hand, wants one more year. So he makes a proposal to the owner. There will be one more year, with all the care and attention the tree needs; one more opportunity for the tree to bear fruit. If there is no result, then the owner can get rid of the tree.
We might almost read this conversation between the owner and the vinedresser as a conversation between two attributes of God: his justice and his mercy. God is both just and merciful. In his justice he is perfectly entitled to say that opportunity has been wasted and the time is up. Just as he did with the rich farmer who was cut off in the middle of his plans for expansion.
But mercy asks for one further opportunity: an opportunity to repent.
Elsewhere in the New Testament both God’s goodness and his patience are associated with repentance. Romans 2 teaches that the goodness of God leads to repentance. 2 Peter 3 talks about the patience of God: he waits, allowing as much time as possible for people to turn to him.
There will be one more year for the fig tree; one more opportunity to bear fruit.
It’s true that God’s grace accepts us as we are, but it also gives us the opportunity to change.
I’m fascinated by the story of the day Paul and Barnabas fell out. It’s a reminder to us that, as someone once said, “even the best of men are only men at the best.” Paul and Barnabas had been an effective apostolic team. Barnabas had done much to open doors for Paul. From a human point of view, had it not been for Barnabas Paul might never have had the ministry he had. Yet one day they reached such an impasse that they fell out. They had such a sharp disagreement that they ended up going separate ways.
The problem had to do with John Mark.
He was flakey: at least that’s what Paul thought. He’d been traveling with Paul and Barnabas in Cyprus, but had packed it in and left. In Acts 15, as Paul was considering the next phase of the missionary enterprise, the question arose about whether John Mark should rejoin the team.
Paul said no. Barnabas said yes.
You can understand Paul. The cause was too important, and John Mark too unreliable, to take this kind of risk. Who was to say that he wouldn’t abandon them again?
But Barnabas wanted to have him on the team. Was it because John Mark was Barnabas’ cousin? After all, blood is thicker than water. Or was it because that’s the kind of man Barnabas was? Joseph was his real name but his friends had changed it because he was such an encourager. Barnabas means “son of encouragement.”
Barnabas was the kind of man who was prepared to risk giving someone the benefit of the doubt. When no one else in the Jerusalem dared to trust the recently converted Paul (or Saul as he was at the time), it was Barnabas who took the time to find out what had happened and who opened the door to the church for him.
Like Jesus, Barnabas was the kind of man who would not crush a bruised reed or snuff out a smoking flax. Like the vinedresser, Barnabas was asking for one more opportunity.
In terms of Luke’s story of the expansion of the church, the spotlight remains on Paul while Barnabas is allowed to slip off into the background. He goes back to Cyprus with John Mark.
Some time later, as Paul was approaching the end of his life, he wrote to Timothy (who in some ways became the colleague that Paul couldn’t allow Mark to be) and asked him to see to it that Mark is brought to him. He added this comment about him: “he is useful.”
Wouldn’t you love to know what happened in the intervening years? Did Paul change? Did he become more mellow towards the end of his life? Did he look back at the Barnabas incident with some regret? Did he realise that there was more to John Mark, after all?
Or did John Mark change? Did he just grow up? Or did Barnabas have a contribution to make? Indeed, where would John Mark have been if Barnabas had not decided to invest him?
Grace had allowed him another opportunity: and he responded. There was clear fruit in his life.
Grace accepts us as we are. But at the same time it calls us to change.