Measuring The Fig Tree

March 24, 2019
Luke 13:1-9; Isaiah 55:1-13

HWB 485 (sing)

Teach me the measure of my days,
            thou Maker of my frame.
            I would survey life’s narrow space
            and learn how frail I am.

These ominous comments in Luke from Jesus and the subsequent parable have me scratching my head every time I hear them. Maybe it is the context that is confusing; if we were more familiar with Galilean history we would recognize the conversation here. Then again maybe that wouldn’t help at all. The horrific vignettes in this passage in Luke are not historically verified.

It might be hard to suss out but in this short passage we have one of the most often asked questions by people of faith – and people of no faith: Why do bad things happen (to good people?) In our time we might tell Jesus the story of 50 Muslims shot and killed while at worship – in a safe country like New Zealand. It is not unlike the story the people tell Jesus. “People gathered for prayer and Pilate’s men slaughtered them.” What do you think of that Jesus?

Or what about the people who got caught by the falling tower at Siloam? Or the people in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, who already live in tenuous economic situations, to put it mildly, why does Cyclone Idai hit them? Or the flooding in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri? We could go on and on listing the latest tragedies. Probably the people in Jesus’ day could too. Today we are connected globally which means we not only hear about the local calamities, we daily take in tragedies from around the world. It is hard to know how to even process it all. Compassion fatigue is real. Sometimes a wall starts to sound like a good idea, a wall so we don’t have to be exposed to so much pain. So why Jesus, why do these bad things happen? Tell us how to think about all of this.

I mean, we know why these things happened. Because of the spread of terrorist white supremacy. Because of global climate change. Because of faulty building and poverty and inequality.

But that is not the “why” we want answered. Jesus anticipates the real question before it is even asked. “Do you think they deserved this?” Of course not. And Jesus echos us – “Of course not – And any of you could be next.” Did the Galileans targeted by Pilate deserve it? Or the people crushed by the falling tower of Siloam deserve that? Or the Muslims in Christchurch or the children in Zimbabwe and Mozambique? Or the families in the midwest of the United States?

No, none of them deserved it. Jesus is adamant about that and we are too. Sometimes bad things are random and sometimes they are deliberate and sometimes they are part of a system of injustice. The people crushed under these systems and circumstances do not deserve this!

You might have read about some Jesus followers that persist, to this day, in thinking otherwise. They even preach that the particular people they don’t like deserve to experience hurricanes and other calamities. They preach that God causes the storms because God doesn’t like their enemies either. But Jesus says no. No one deserves this kind of tragedy: not the guilty, not the good.

And, Jesus says, any one of you, any one of us, could be next. So be ready. Change your ways. Repent. Stop focusing on the awful possibilities and instead watch for what good might be coming your way. Live your life now as if the next day might be your last.

Teach me the measure of my days,
            thou Maker of my frame.
            I would survey life’s narrow space
            and learn how frail I am.

Jesus goes on to try and help the listeners understand what it means to change your ways, to repent. He tells a short fig tree parable:

A small fig tree grows in a vineyard.

Let’s stop right there. Why is a fig tree growing in a vineyard in the first place? Isn’t it out of place? The vineyard owner certainly thinks so. Out for a stroll with his head gardener, the vineyard owner notices that this pathetic fig tree has not produced fruit, even after three years. This is a problem for the owner who looks for results, who looks for profit, this season and every season. The owner is ready to be rid of it, ready to chop down this useless tree.

It may be that the vineyard owner does not know how to tend a fig tree. His specialty is grapes, not figs. He prunes his grapevines every year, really cuts them back. That makes them stronger, and they produce more grapes. Maybe, he thinks, that is what the fig tree needs as well. If pruning works for grapes, why not for fig trees? But the text doesn’t say the owner wants the fig tree pruned.

Turning to the gardener the owner says: “I have been watching this weed of a tree grow in my vineyard for three years. If there are no figs, what good is it? Chop it down.”

The gardener knows her plants. She knows that fig trees often need to grow longer than three years to bear fruit. She knows that fig trees don’t need to be pruned like grapes. She knows fig trees need to be fertilized. And so she asks for one more year, to nourish the roots, to tend to this tree, until it can bear fruit.

Call it the “Gamaliel” method. Gamaliel is the rabbi in Acts 5 who suggests to the religious authorities that they should just leave Peter and his radical Jesus followers alone. If they are of God they will bear fruit, they will survive. If they are not of God, they will die out like the other false prophets. Gamaliel has authority when he says, “Just leave these people alone and see what happens.”  In the parable, the gardener has to plead for the tree saying to the vineyard owner: “Please, give me one more year to fertilize and hoe around it. If it bears fruit next year, great; if not, then let it be cut down.”

How is this fig tree parable at all helpful or connected to towers falling and crazed killers? How is the fig tree connected to the bad things that happen to people?

Is it about what is deserved? Does the fig tree deserve to be cut down because it is growing in a vineyard and not in a fig orchard? Does the fig tree deserve to be cut down because it has not yet grown enough to bear fruit?

Teach me the measure of my days,
            thou Maker of my frame.
            I would survey life’s narrow space
            and learn how frail I am.

In Jesus’ tradition, in Jewish tradition, the fig tree is often a symbol of Israel, as is the grapevine. So maybe symbolically there is nothing wrong with a fig tree growing in a vineyard. They both represent the same chosen people. Or is this a way of stating the obvious, that it is not easy for a new tree to grow in an established vineyard?

The bold gardener grabs my attention. She has the nerve to stand up to her boss and plead for the fig tree, to ask for more time. The gardener is willing to put in overtime to fertilize and dig around the tree, to help create the possibility that it will bear fruit. Who is this gardener that she is willing to speak up for time and grace. What kind of mind shift does it take for her to think that the fig tree ought to be in the vineyard at all?

What if we listen to Jesus and change our ways? Are we ready to put in the extra time using the messy manure of life, digging in the discarded, decomposing compost of life, so this tree stands a chance of bearing fruit? Or maybe we want to take Rabbi Gamaliel’s approach: wait for growth, time will tell. Could either of these options be classified as changing our ways, so we are not part of the tragic chopping down of the tree?

Or perhaps in this analogy we are the tree, in need of more time, in need of nourishing fertilizer. Maybe we are not fruitful right now but with a little help and a little time we have potential, we might be useful, might even extend nourishment to others. Who is the gardener that reaches out to tend us?

In the parable, it is a tree that needs more time. In much of Christianity today we focus on the individual, one tree = one person. But in the biblical tradition, the fig tree represents not a single individual but a community, the whole community of Israel. What does it mean for the gardener to plead on behalf of a whole people? A whole congregation? Even a whole denomination?

Take the fig tree named Allegheny Conference. I confess I have not had patience nor interest in seeing if the tree would bear fruit. Over the years it seemed to me that the fig tree that is Allegheny Conference has had ample time to grow fruit and ripen but this tree was barren to me. The past three years there have been voices that asked us to give the Allegheny tree more time. So many congregations have exited, it is a new tree, in essence a young sapling, give it time. I was skeptical. I was not convinced.

And yet today, I have been converted. I have come to see the value of digging around in the manure, taking old painful scraps and turning them into compost; loosening the roots, caring for the tree and giving it some time. It can be a messy process but then who doesn’t like to play in the mud?  And look! The conference seems to be putting out shoots of new growth: strong relationships between pastors; growing relationships between congregations; new courage and purpose with the credentialing of Michelle even as we try to maintain ties with a small rural congregation whose pastor was recently credentialed; the conference minister is now permanent, no longer interim. And while we have been hearing this for a while, I am starting to believe it – there are several other congregations that show genuine interest in joining the conference. This fig tree called Allegheny Conference is bearing fruit.

There are other examples of fig trees, or organizations, with which I have gotten impatient. You might have fig trees you are ready to take the axe to as well. Waiting seems useless and the commitment to fertilizer and a shovel seems too onerous. Because let’s be real – How do we know when time, or fertilizer will make a difference? How do we determine the number of shovels full? What is the recipe for success? If we give up too soon, if we chop down the tree, we will never know. And then there is this – Do we even want the tree to bear fruit? Is there enough grace in my heart to hope for fruitfulness?

This may be the hardest change of all to make, if we are paying attention to Jesus asking us to change our ways. If we have gotten used to shriveledness, it is not always easy to rejoice when there is fruit. If we are accustomed to a fruitless tree, it can be hard to shift and celebrate when there is new growth. It might seem easier to approach the world with an axe, than to be patient or gracious or get involved with a shovel.

Luke gives us a prime example of this in the episode after the fig tree parable. When Jesus goes to worship on the Sabbath, he sees a woman who has been been unable to stand upright for 18 years. Jesus reaches out to her, and heals her. She is restored to health and height and to the community in a new way. The religious leaders are incensed that Jesus would do this “work,” on the Sabbath, in the house of worship. The woman waited and struggled for 18 years – and the religious leaders are concerned only with the boundaries around the tree. They seem to have no appreciation for the fruit that has suddenly appeared, fully ripened.

Jesus says, “You will all come to the same end unless you change your ways.” Of course Jesus, we will all come to the same end, we will all die. We know that.

And, we can change our ways until that time.

We can choose to live life fully. Better yet, we can choose to engage with those trees that struggle. We can use a shovel and take the risk to get our shiny, clean clothes dirty with that stinky, nourishing compost and manure.

We can acknowledge that we are part of the barren tree. We can graciously receive the shovel and compost when it is offered and do our part by sending roots down into life giving soil. We can choose to live life fully, not just waiting for tragedy to strike but living with joy, bearing fruit.

Now I forbid my carnal hope,
            my fond desires recall.
            I give my mortal int’rest up,
            and make my God my all.