The Fruitless Tree

Seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. When the disciples saw it, they marveled. — Matthew 21.19-20

Christ extended grace to sinners, showed mercy to the guilty, and walked patiently even as his closest followers struggled to understand who he was and what he was doing. Then the Son of God cursed a tree.

This is, of course, far more than Jesus lashing out in frustration because he couldn’t get what he wanted for lunch. Charles Spurgeon calls the moment a “miracle and a parable,” explaining:

Fruit is what the Lord earnestly desires. The Savior, when he came under the fig tree, did not desire leaves; for we read that he hungered, and human hunger cannot be removed by leaves of a fig tree. He desired to eat a fig or two; and he longs to have fruit from us also.

At first Spurgeon’s rhetorical turn from “eat a fig” to “fruit from us” seems forced. Yet this is likely the type of challenge Matthew wants his readers to face. Jesus condemns the self-serving traditions the religious elite attached to worship. Jesus condemns the rich man’s relentless pursuit of self. Jesus condemns those who receive forgiveness and do not extend it.

Any kind of faith that looks alive but bears no fruit falls under his condemnation. Spurgeon sees two reasons for Christ’s passion for fruit, concluding:

[Christ] hungers for our holiness: he longs that his joy may be in us, that our joy may be full…. He would see in us love to himself, love to our fellow-men, strong faith in revelation, earnest contention for the once delivered faith, importunate pleading in prayer, and careful living in every part of our course.

What did he die for but to make his people holy? What did he give himself for but that he might sanctify unto himself a people zealous for good works? What is the reward of the bloody sweat and the five wounds and the death agony, but that by all these we should be bought with a price? We rob him of his reward if we do not glorify him, and therefore the Spirit of God is grieved at our conduct if we do not show forth his praises by our godly and zealous lives.

Today’s Reading
Jeremiah 7 (Listen – 5:18)
Matthew 21 (Listen – 7:10)

Faith and Science :: Weekend Reading List

“Highly religious Americans are less likely than others to see conflict between faith and science,” according to recent research from Pew Research Center. The findings, however, may reveal less about Americans’ understanding of science and more about the role of individualism in modern faith. Nearly six in ten Americans believe that faith and science are often in conflict—though only half that number, just 30%, say that their personal religious beliefs conflict with science.

To be fair, the incompatibility of faith and science is a relatively modern issue. In a short historical overview, Peter Harrison, the Australian Laureate Fellow and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland, reflects on the not-distant era of human history where theology was recognized as a science—and, therefore, impacted other scientific fields:

Many scientific innovators throughout history were explicitly motivated in their scientific endeavors by religious considerations. To name just two, Johannes Kepler regarded his astronomy as a form of divine praise, while Robert Boyle characterized scientists as “priests of nature.” Other scientists saw their work as having religious goals, including Isaac Newton, who hoped the principles outlined in his famous Principia Mathematica might promote “belief of a Deity.”

Much of the tension between science and faith is a result of modern attempts at reconciliation. Science, for centuries, was used to explain what had been discovered, tested, and proven. Religion was relegated to explaining what science could not. Mother nature could be known—acts of God demanded only our awe.

Advances in mathematics, physics, astronomy, chemistry, and other disciplines have left little for religion to explain. And since we’ve lost our ability to be in awe of something known, God seems to have been replaced by our understanding of the intricate world he created.

Yet, philosopher Ray Monk explains, science and faith don’t have to be irreconcilable worldviews:

There are many questions to which we do not have scientific answers, not because they are deep, impenetrable mysteries, but simply because they are not scientific questions. These include questions about love, art, history, culture, music-all questions, in fact, that relate to the attempt to understand ourselves better. There is a widespread feeling today that the great scandal of our times is that we lack a scientific theory of consciousness. And so there is a great interdisciplinary effort, involving physicists, computer scientists, cognitive psychologists and philosophers, to come up with tenable scientific answers to the questions: what is consciousness? What is the self?

One of the leading competitors in this crowded field is the theory advanced by the mathematician Roger Penrose, that a stream of consciousness is an orchestrated sequence of quantum physical events taking place in the brain.… The theory is, on Penrose’s own admission, speculative, and it strikes many as being bizarrely implausible. But suppose we discovered that Penrose’s theory was correct, would we, as a result, understand ourselves any better? Is a scientific theory the only kind of understanding?

Finding an articulate path forward for religion and science is more critical now than ever—not only for the sake of understanding our world, but for sharing the story of the loving God who created it. Harrison concludes:

The persistence of religion and the apparent inadequacy of the secularization thesis—whether celebrated or lamented—represent a serious challenge to the nineteenth-century conviction that all human societies are destined to divest themselves of the trappings of religion and smoothly transition to science-friendly, secular modernity.

“Science Must Destroy Religion” is the mantra of Sam Harris and the new atheists. This is a moral imperative: Harris urges scientists to relinquish their sentimental religious tolerance and devote themselves to “blasting the hideous fantasies of a prior age.” This view is both naïve in its understanding of the historical process and sinister in its vision of the future.

Weekend Reading List

Today’s Reading
Jeremiah 4 (Listen – 5:23)
Matthew 18 (Listen – 4:25)

This Weekend’s Readings
Jeremiah 5 (Listen – 5:04) Matthew 19 (Listen – 4:04)
Jeremiah 6 (Listen – 5:10) Matthew 20 (Listen – 4:22)

Seeing Christ :: Throwback Thursday

By Thomas Wilcox (1621-1687)

Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. — Matthew 17.7-8

If you have seen Christ truly, you have seen pure grace, pure righteousness in Him in every way infinite, far exceeding all sin and misery. If you have seen Christ, you can trample upon all the righteousness of men and angels, so as to bring you into acceptance with God.

If ever you saw Christ, you saw him as a Rock, higher than self-righteousness, Satan, and sin (Psalm 61:2), and this Rock follows you (I Cor 10:4); and there will be continual dropping of honey and grace out of that Rock to satisfy you (Psalm 81:16).

Examine if ever you have beheld Christ as the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Be sure you have come to Christ, that you stand upon the Rock of Ages, and have answered to His call to your soul, and have closed with Him for justification.

Men talk bravely of believing, while whole and sound; but few know it.

Christ is the mystery of the Scripture; grace the mystery of Christ. Believing is the most wonderful thing in the world. Put any thing of your own to it, and you spoil it. Christ will not so much as look at it for believing.

When you believe and come to Christ, you must leave behind you your own righteousness, and bring nothing but your sin: (Oh, that is hard!) leave behind all your holiness, sanctification, duties, humblings, and so on; and bring nothing but your needs and miseries, or else Christ is not fit for you, nor you for Christ.

When the clouds are blackest, even then look towards Christ, the standing pillar of the Father’s love and grace, set up in heaven for all sinners to gaze upon continually. Whatever Satan or conscience say, do not conclude against yourself, Christ shall have the last word. He is Judge of quick and dead, and must pronounce the final sentence.

His blood speaks reconciliation (Col 1:20); cleansing (I John 1:7); purchase (Acts 20:28); redemption (I Peter 1:19); purging (Heb 9:13,14); remission (Heb 9:22); liberty (Heb 10:19); justification (Rom 5:9); nearness to God (Eph 2:13). Not a drop of this blood shall be lost.

Stand and hear what God will say, for He will speak peace to His people, that they return no more to folly (Psalm 85:8). He speaks grace, mercy and peace (II Tim 1:2). That is the language of the Father and of Christ. Wait for Christ’s appearing, as the morning star (Rev 22:16). He shall come as certainly as the morning, as refreshing as the rain (Hosea 6:3).

*Abridged and language updated from Honey Out of the Rock by Thomas Wilcox.

Today’s Reading
Jeremiah 3 (Listen – 4:40)
Matthew 17 (Listen – 3:46)

Two Ways to be Religious

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” — Matthew 16.24-26

The first way to live a religious life is to dedicate yourself to a community of observance, generosity, grace, hope, repentance, and discipline. The second, when we speak of religion pejoratively, is to leverage religious practice for personal gain (prosperity gospel), pride and judgment of others (moralism), or self salvation (legalism).

Jesus’ calling to deny one’s self is given not to the irreligious, but the religious. Will we, the faithful, stop trying to leverage our faith to get what we want? Thomas à Kempis explains:

Jesus has many lovers of His heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of His cross. He has many seekers of consolation, but few of tribulation. He finds many companions at His feasting, but few at His fasting. All desire to rejoice in Him; few are willing to endure anything for Him.

Many follow Jesus as far as the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the cup of His passion. Many reverence His miracles, but few will follow the shame of His cross. Many love Jesus as long as no adversaries befall them.

Nearly every great Christian mind has written on this struggle. Religious people in every generation, it seems, have been good at justifying the wide and comfortable road. Søren Kierkegaard believed our dedication to self-preservation is masked in any theological conversation that doesn’t bring us back to the cost of true discipleship:

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly.

Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?

Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

Today’s Reading
Jeremiah 2 (Listen – 5:54)
Matthew 16 (Listen – 3:43)

Not Just Miracles

They saw the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they glorified the God of Israel. — Matthew 15.31

Reading the miracles of Christ with modern eyes can be challenging. One option, favored first by Thomas Jefferson, is to simply remove miracles from Christ’s story. In this way of understanding the New Testament, Jesus becomes a moral exemplar. His miracles, because they are inconsistent with modern science, simply vanish (Jefferson cut them out of his Bible with razor blades).

Yet understanding miracles is not simply a matter of taping them back in to what we accept about Christ’s life. In order to understand what Christ was doing, and why the Gospel writers chose to record particular miracles in their accounts, we must first look at why anyone gathered around Jesus in the first place. In his book Who Was Jesus?, N.T. Wright explains:

When people downed tools for a while and trudged off up a hillside to hear this Jesus talking, we can be sure they weren’t going to hear someone tell them to be nice to each other; or that if they behaved themselves (or got their minds round the right theological scheme) there would be a rosy future waiting for them when they got to ‘heaven’; or that God had decided at last to do something about forgiving them for their sins.

Instead, Wright proposes, people gathered around Jesus because they saw the Scriptures they knew so well being fulfilled in front of their eyes. A cursory glance at the miracles recorded in Matthew parallels Isaiah’s prophecy:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.

Christ’s miracles weren’t entertainment for a crowd or party tricks to show he was a neat prophet. With each miracle Christ demonstrated that restoration beyond what our world is capable of producing will one day come through his reign. Dr. Wright concludes:

The strange thing about Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom of God was that he managed both to claim that he was fulfilling the old prophecies, the old hopes, of Israel and to do so in a way which radically subverted them. The Kingdom of God is here, he seemed to be saying, but it’s not like you thought it was going to be.

Today’s Reading
Jeremiah 1 (Listen – 3:00)
Matthew 15 (Listen – 4:23)

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