DO YOU GIVE A FIG?

Countless people go through life wondering what it’s all about.  Many consider it too complicated and give up.  I read a couple lines in a well-known biography that really clarified my thoughts about my place in our world.  I’ve read them before but never really pondered them. Our changing world, though, has forced me to confront a lot of things lately.  The line referred to an event in the life of Jesus and since it was just one line, the meaning may not be apparent at first. However, I expected the event had to  have an  exceptional  meaning for it to be included in an original  biography of Jesus, given that of the thousands of events that could have been chosen to recount, it was one of the relatively few actually passed on to us.  I admit at first I did not fully understand the momentous message in this simple, seemingly uneventful story.  I’ll call it a miracle though it doesn’t appear to correlate with most of the positive, exciting miracles of Jesus.  I’m talking about the miracle of the withered fig tree.  For those of you who don’t remember, you’ll find the account at Mark 11:13. This simply says, “Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs.  Then he said to the tree, ‘May no one ever get fruit from you again.’” Then verse 20 reports and assures us, “In the morning as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, ‘Look, Rabbi! The fig tree you cursed is withered!’” Period, the end, nothing more.

Here was an event classified by scholars as a miracle but related as if Jesus were acting just as an exasperated passerby, kind of like when a person pestered by a mosquito and out of irritation slaps it when it lands on his arm.  However, there was a reason Jesus picked this tree not ready to bear fruit to teach his lesson on living. The writer doesn’t give details on the circumstances surrounding this event, deciding to only record the pertinent conversation, but makes it perfectly clear what Jesus had in mind.  The tree has no reason to exist if it’s just soaking up resources and providing nothing in return; what good is it? The tree might as well wither and die and let something else use the natural resources and contribute something useful, meaningful.  What our simple Bible story relates about trees can be taken as a universal principle for all life.  All living things, including humans, have a purpose.

Jesus was demonstrating in his own succinct, masterful way that all living things have a purpose and by extension that life has meaning.  The story reminds us that a fruit tree, for example, has an ostensible purpose.  In the grand scheme of things fruit trees are here to produce fruit, fruit for the perpetuation of the species and fruit for the nourishment of other life.  Trees are an integral part of the world.  They contribute to the perpetuation of all life on earth though they appear to be an inconspicuous, small part of the whole.  However, Jesus observed this same tree, if not fulfilling its purpose, has a major affect on life around it. It’s just taking up space, using environmental resources, but providing nothing in return.  What good is it? It might as well not even exist. If it’s soaking up resources and providing nothing in return, the tree might as well wither and die and let something else use the natural resources and, at least, contribute something meaningful.

The lesson for us humans should be perfectly clear.  Existence may be a gift, but even existence requires effort.   The understanding our little Bible story suggests about trees applies to all living things, including humans. We have a purpose.   We need to “live on purpose.”  All life is part of a symbiotic whole with all pieces linked together in some, as of yet, mysterious way.  Based on Jesus’ explanation, Christians are convinced all humans are part of a grand scheme.  We rely on nature and environment for life and are intended to give back in some way.  Christians conceptualize our natural universe as a part of God.  We, being part of the whole, are intended to be a functioning part of the whole.  We not only exist, but are here to contribute back in some way to the whole. Each individual person is intended to give back, as  our “miracle” tree, is intended to give back fruit.  In fact, scripture frequently employs the analogy of a plant, tree or crop to admonish all to “bear fruit,” as if to say, “Don’t just sit there, do something!”

Unfortunately society, at least Western Society, doesn’t teach that lesson of attitude effectively. If you were to ask a parent, “For what are you raising your child,” not many would answer in harmony with the big picture. They might say, “ I just want my child to be happy,” or “They can do whatever they want when  they grow up.” But in harmony with the principle of purpose a better response might be, “ I want her to be a productive member of society” or “ I want him to make a difference in some way.”  Attitude does matter.  That’s the lesson taught in scripture.  You’re not just one meaningless tree. Realize you make a difference.  I’ve come to recognize I can’t truly be happy without that attitude… I’m here for a purpose. I’m valuable to someone or something. I feel good when I give back.  That’s the attitude Jesus taught. I think we all inherently understand this principle.  It may be that we need to bring it to consciousness and perhaps state it audibly more often.  Remind ourselves, remind our children, we’ve got a job to do.

I volunteer with a non-profit organization, Grace Centers of Hope, which was founded on that principle. The foundational belief is that a person can be nurtured to exercise his talents and come to discern his place in society and God’s work.  The organization was not conceived of as a perpetual “soup kitchen,” though they’d never turn someone away that was hungry. Their vision is to take those in need, offer them food and shelter, but go the major step further of offering to help them embrace the Christian attitude and become productive members of society. They first help those marginalized realize they can be a valuable member of society.  They’re needed.  In essence the group asserts, “If you’ll only make the effort to adopt the Christian attitude (that you have a purpose), we’ll help you find your place.  Come live with us, we’ll support you but we’ll be considerate of you by allowing you to maintain your own dignity by giving you work to do in our community, that way you can do your part, till such time that you’re ready to go out on your own, if you so choose”.  I personally know of many who have been assisted to finish their high school education and go on to college, then take meaningful jobs in the work force benefiting the surrounding community.

It’s all a matter of attitude, “I have a job to do.” The Christian idea is that there are two kinds of jobs we were meant for.  One aspect is to recognize we were conceived like any entity in nature, a tree perhaps,  not to just exist, but to benefit from the surrounding resources and to contribute. We’re not just taking but giving.  I like using the phrase, “being a productive member of society” since it reminds me I am a cog in the wheel, so to speak, I count on others as they count on me.  I  access my talents and preferably find a job, using my talents.  That’s one aspect of “ job”.  Then the other “job” is to consciously, volitionally, help others on a personal level.  The great Christian concept of charity, consciously looking for ways to help others in need, physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually is also a”job,” a calling.

For example, being a homemaker, raising children to find their own places in society is perhaps the most noble of all jobs one might conceive.  Getting an education and taking a position that somewhere along the production chain provides a product or service useful for someone, gives meaning, too. Even a career that entertains or a service that relieves pressure off others as they pursue their own version of a calling is laudable. Then just making a conscious effort to personally help another, even encouraging him or treating her as a potentially valuable member of the community is making a positive difference. Any occupation that is a productive link in an integrated society is meaningful, unless it’s one that is detrimental to society’s welfare.  Work contributes to one’s sense of independence, dignity, and fulfillment. Again, it’s all a matter of attitude.

The significance of attitude is so well put in another Bible verse.  You’ll find it a Colossians 3:23. “Whatever you do work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” The advice here is to be enthusiastic about working, thankful you have a sound mind or the physical strength to complete a task. As the verse is quick to point out, the advice applies to “whatever you do.” As if to say, “Whatever your job is, work at it enthusiastically, being thankful you have a job and you’re doing something useful.” And then the parenthetical thought, “As working for the Lord, {not only} for men (or women).”  Remember while working, the world was conceived so all parts, including mankind, have a place, a purpose,  a contribution.  I don’t think we can take this idea of “purpose” for granted.  Agnostics, for  example, are uncomfortable talking about their purpose or don’t know if  such a  concept is valid or even exists; this is an area where spiritual discernment is essential.   A spiritual person, from my experience, comes to realize a life without purpose is like the journey on a ship without a rudder, just going in circles or being buffeted about by the winds of change.  A person not living with the concept of an ultimate purpose is forced to guess at his direction, or invent one and then “gamble” (that’s the atheist’s operative word for hope, ”gamble,” since hope from some higher sources than himself is inconceivable). He gambles that when his life is ending he can look back and pray (pray, oh, I guess he can’t do that either) his gamble paid off.  I personally prefer to accept a purpose that has been proved to be valid for millions of people for thousands of years. Those living on purpose, divine purpose, have not had to look back with regret.   To be handed a clear purpose and meaning for life (while an agnostic is forced to invent his own purpose), is truly a gift.

I don’t know about you, but to me it’s quite gratifying to find a simple story like the withered fig or the simple verse touting, “whatever you do, recognize the purpose” and find them so packed with unbelievable insight.  I’m always amazed as to how masterful Jesus was in using any occasion to teach valuable lessons in living.  How encouraging to be reminded we, like a simple fig tree, have a job to do and   can confidently “live on purpose.” You’ve heard others exclaim, “I don’t give a fig about this or that.” But I hope when confronted with this all important concept you will “give a fig.”  I am confident each of us will discover personalized opportunities, even work, that will challenge and allow us to be fulfilled. Wherever you are now, whatever your health, whatever your circumstances, you have something you’re meant to do. My hope is that you’ll be blessed with realizing what good you’ve already done in this world and eagerly contemplate what more you have yet to do.

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