What Kind of Shadow Does the Fig Tree Cast?

A Reflection on the Gospel for

January 18, 2015

The Second Sunday after Epiphany

by David Somerville+

                  There is a fig tree in this week’s upcoming Gospel lesson, and like the best of most good trees, it is now, as it was in Biblical times, associated with the satisfaction of hunger, and a cooling shade with which to enjoy its fruit. It shields us from the heat of the world’s anxiety. The tree’s shadow is a key to a deeper understanding of what must be in place in order for us to be grounded in our vocations to discipleship.

                  I invite you now to begin this reflection by remembering the amusing quotation, “Don’t confuse me with the facts! My mind is made up!”

                  I always thought it was the Peanuts character, Lucy that originally made this demand. But these words were actually said by the late Indiana State Senator, Earl Landgrebe when he got the news on August 5, 1974, that President Nixon had no choice but to release the documents with his orders to stop the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate burglary. Landgrebe was an ardent defender of the president. Ardent to a fault – the fault of insanity, that is. Upon hearing the news that Nixon’s presidency would be over in a matter of hours, the gentleman from Indiana stood his ground on the senate floor, adding that he would be loyal to his president “…even if Mr. Nixon and I have to be taken out of this building and shot!” A day or two after Landgrebe’s stand, Mr. Nixon left Washington by helicopter. Later that year the senator returned to Indiana. His constituents had voted him out of office.

                  Only briefly did Nathaniel in the gospel story resemble the personality of Senator Landgrebe. It was the moment when he expressed his certainty that he, Nathaniel, would not be “confused with the facts!” In not so many words, the future disciple let it be known to Jesus’ friend, Philip, that “Nobody significant enough to be spoken of by Moses could possibly be someone from that Dog-patch, Nazareth! And that was that…. End of discussion!

                  But that wasn’t the end. Later in the story, we learn that Nathaniel had spent some time “under the fig tree”. Not any fig tree. The fig tree. What is the fig tree in this context? A known symbol of the covenant of God with his chosen people, especially the people of Judah, the elect. The sacred tree’s leaves stand for the law of God, and its fruit the divine mercy and love that cannot be expressed by law alone.

                  Nathaniel was probably a well-bred, urbane, cosmopolitan gentleman of culture. He would not have been happy confined to the simple life of the farming and fishing occupations of northern Israel. And yet, as well educated as he was, Nathaniel still had a few blind spots at the onset. But then he changes. He responds to Jesus’ recognition of Nathaniel’s righteousness by faith (“I saw you under the fig tree”). It is fascinating to see how fast Nathaniel shed the blind spots of preconceived prejudice, and revised his attitude toward that village of scruffy souls, the fisher-folk of Galilee. Because he was grounded well by what the fig tree stands for, the faithful righteousness after the model of Abraham, Nathaniel immediately recognized the Christ as immediately as Jesus could see the spirituality of his character.

                  New York is another city in a very different time where there are lots of Nathaniel’s of both genders, each being challenged daily to revise their opinions by a rapidly evolving society. It is a twenty-first century world. One thing that has happened is the immediate and complete communication of ideas and influences around the world. That has brought the effective end to horizons. We may still see the sun rise in the morning, and set and in the evening, but still, there are really no horizons as horizons once were. Anything that happens in one hemisphere is seen and heard just as clearly in another. But with all that, we still have blind spots.

                  On New Years Day 2014, Bill DeBlasio was sworn in as mayor of New York. His platform included a promise to end a controversial policy: Random friskings of African American and Hispanic men on the streets.

                  Until recently, I carelessly accepted the impression that prejudice against the non-white public of our country was rapidly becoming a thing of the past. (It is not the sixties any more. We can relax). Moreover, I had assumed that law enforcement was getting much better at reducing street crime in our cities, and that all people were happy about the improvement including the African American community, which, I believed, was benefitting from a drop in black-on-black crime. During New York’s Rudy Guliani administration, gritty Times Square had become a safe place to take the whole family, maybe not quite as squeaky-clean as Disney World or Williamsburg, Virginia, but close.

                  I had become rather unaware of any real bias problems in New York, or really anywhere else for that matter, during the years before February 2012. Then popular press coverage exploded with the fatal shooting of young Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watchman in Florida with the subsequent acquittal of the guard, George Zimmerman.

                  Discontent reawakened last summer with the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The rallying cry in New York that lasted throughout the remainder of 2014 and into the holiday season was Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe” as he struggled for life under a policeman’s chokehold. The rhythmic chant galvanized the fervor of the demonstrations all over New York during the holiday shopping season. Then one of the city’s precincts became the setting for another event, the axe attack on two police officers, which then led to words of praise for the axe yielder by the Black Panther Party. Another unfortunate event followed. Just a few days before Christmas, two young N.Y.P.D. officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, were assassinated in their patrol car.   At their funerals several of the police gave their commissioner, William “Bill” Bratton, a political black eye by turning their backs on their commander in chief, Mayor DeBlasio, during his eulogy. Bratton had no choice but to publically reprimand his troopers.

         Mayor DeBlasio’s first year in office saw some consequences of his decisions and policies, as something like a wound that had been closed over as if it were an untreated infection, and, to continue the metaphor, the infection led to swelling and blood poisoning throughout the whole body. The public safety forces of the city began to perceive their mayor as one who was not interested in their well being.

                  Having had many personal experiences in doing ground Zero volunteer work in New York, I have no doubt that almost everybody who chooses law enforcement as a career path does so with the good intentions of desiring to serve their fellow human beings. How adequate is their training in cultural sensitivity, individual behavior, and group psychology? How many of these men and women could benefit by having personal therapy and anger management training? I do not know. In any case, for many of these folks in blue, and the good people of God, who are of color, there is much spiritual pain. It cries out for a ministry of reconciliation, but effective ministry needs theology based on reality!

                  Now (until very recently) if someone asked me, “David, do you believe that racism, or any other form of negative feeling toward a particular group different from yourself, affects your thinking about the members of said group, I would probably have said, “No! Of course not”! But then I stumbled across something in the January 4th edition of the Sunday New York Times. (www.nytimes.com/…/the-measuring-sticks-of-racial-b). Harvard economist, Sendhill Manaithan, addresses in his report, Racial Bias Even When We Have Good Intentions. Manaithan gives several examples in his documented observations. For instance: He describes how identical resumes were sent to a statistically dependable number of human resource managers. Typical African American names, e. g. Jamal, were on one group of resumes; Common Euro-American names, like Brendan, were attached to the other group of resumes. The “Brendan” Type resumes got fifty percent more call backs than the “Jamal” types. Responses to apartment rental ads were similar. Manaithan also did a systematic study of all white juries convicting black criminal defendants in court in comparison with juries with at least one black juror. Manaithan’s article covers several other similar studies, ranging from one investigation of college admissions committees to another inquiry involving Craig’s List. These studies’ results were all fundamentally the same. A significantly higher percentage of African American inquiries were ignored, discounted, or passed over. The reactions to the article by people in the human resource management fields were very interesting. To their credit, they were shocked and dismayed at the findings, but unable to refute them.

              What shall we do in response to the Manaithan article? At this point I do not know exactly what to do, and I am beginning to loose some sleep over it.

                  Perhaps we who are committed to Christ and his Church can discover a real prophetic ministry here. We could begin by pausing, as Nathaniel apparently did, when confronted by the power of Christ’s presence invading his life by the action of his friend Philip. At first with Philip he had done some “quick” thinking (He thought, “Those Nazarenes are a bunch of good-fer-nuthin’s. You seen one, you seen ‘em all). Such is the way of “quick thinking”. Arguably it is not thinking at all. But it is certainly a convenient mental process because it is automatic. It is what a lot of us end up doing in a world like ours that demands so many quick decisions to keep up with the speed of our milieu. The trouble is that it takes us too far out and away from our stand under the fig tree, not just any particular fig tree, but the tree that cannot be found in any particular place. It is a transcendent idea, a picture-symbol, representing the society Jesus wants to have take root in his Father’s world. It can be found in our Sabbath moments; it is something one is more likely to find in a moment than in any particular place.  

              I believe that this Gospel passage, with its powerful symbol of the fig tree, challenges us to outgrow the mindless thinking that leads to such judgments as the following: “Well all things being equal, I just have this gut feeling that if we call this guy, Brendan, we will fill that department head vacancy, and move on! After all, that’s what the chairman of the board wanted done by the end of the week, and here it is Thursday!

                  It is not our guts that make us a distinct people over ordinary spiritual gentiles. The more time we spend getting back to the cool shadow of the fig tree, the more rested and refreshed we shall be by its shade and nurture. But remember. This is not just any fig tree, It is the fig tree. Its pleasantly cool shadow is not merely the absence of light. What the tree casts under the sun is the true Light of the World. It is the light that creates our vocation to serve – just as Nathaniel’s vocation was created. Do you doubt that? Just ask Philip. He was there!


Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with accurate sources of information:

SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/

Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/


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