1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
I know a thing or two about fig trees.
When I was a teenager, living here in El Paso in the upper valley, we had a fig tree in the side yard next to our garage. It was my job to take care of it. I say fig tree, but really it was more of a fig bush—its branches grew long and wide, close the ground, thick with leaves. And honeysuckle vine, which is a weed that will eventually kill a fig tree. My job was to get in there in pull out all the honeysuckle vine twined around every…single…branch. Did I mention this fig tree had a lot of branches?
In the process of getting in there and pulling out the vines, I would usually get pretty scratched up, whipped in the face with a fig branch or two, and wind up sticky, dirty and angry. I hated that job, and I came to hate that fig tree. One day I tried to kill it. I “watered” it with the can of gasoline we used for the lawnmower. I figured, no tree… no honeysuckle… no problem.
Well that didn’t work. The fig tree drank all the gasoline I had to give, and kept right on growing, honeysuckle and all. The second time I tried to kill the tree, I actually lit the gasoline, but believe it or not, that fig tree still didn’t die. All the leaves turned black and fell off, but the next spring it bounced right back, full bloom. It’s probably still there today.
I know a thing or two about fig trees.
Years later, after I had gotten married, had a couple of children, and (supposedly) gained some maturity and wisdom, I was at my mother’s house again—a different house this time, in Austin. And as usual, she had a list of things for me to do around the house. One of them was to tie back the branches of the tree in the front yard so it wouldn’t grow into the roof of the house. I got out there in the front yard on a ladder with some twine and began to tie back branches. It did not go well. I fell off the ladder a couple of times, got slapped in the face with a few branches, scratched up on the arms, and ended up a dirty, sticky mess. After I was done, I went inside and said, “Mom, what kind of tree is that?”
“It’s a fig tree, dear. Why do you ask?”
I hate fig trees. Somehow, they must communicate with each other across the miles and the years.
Just a few days ago, I was at a place in Turkey called Arvalya, in a garden with winding paths, beautiful flowers, and a peaceful atmosphere. I wanted to find a place in the garden to sit, to think and to pray. It was also pretty hot outside, so I found a bench in the shade, and sat down there. It was nice, out of the sun, cool breeze. I looked up at the tree that was providing the shade and…you guessed it. It was a fig tree. Some of you warned me that Turkey might be dangerous—maybe that’s what you were referring to.
But, I made it out of the garden alive. Refreshed, even. And perhaps for the first time in my life, a little grateful for the presence of my old enemy, a familiar fig tree in a foreign land. After that day, I saw fig trees pretty much everywhere we went in Turkey. Some tall, some short, some heavy with fruit, and some with no fruit at all.
And that brings us to our text today, to Jesus and the parable of the fig tree. But right before Jesus launches into this parable, we get this brief segment in verses 1-4 that references some tragic news headlines in 1st century Israel: The first refers to some Galileans who were brutally murdered at their place of worship by their own government, and the second is about some people who die in a freak accident when a building collapses. Either of these two incidents sound like they could plausibly be found in our own world news headlines today.
Then Jesus tells the parable of the fig tree. So what’s the connection? Is there a connection? I think there is, and I’m going to come back to that, so I want you to keep it in mind. But first, let’s look at the parable itself. It’s short, and there are three characters: A landowner, a gardener, and a fig tree (yes, the fig tree is a character—trust me, they have personalities!).
The landowner comes to see his fig tree, notices that it has not produced fruit for three years, and tells the gardener to get rid of it. The gardener asks for more time, and promises to do everything he can to get this tree in fruit-bearing shape. The end.
It’s interesting that we don’t even get to hear the land owner’s response. We have no idea whether he agrees to the deal or not. There is no ending to this story (happy or otherwise), no resolution, and I’m going to suggest today that that’s exactly the point Jesus is trying to make. More on that later, too.
In all of our parables thus far, we’ve been asking ourselves the question, “Who am I in this parable?” Am I the landowner? Am I the gardener? Am I the fig tree?
Two weeks ago, I would have relished the idea of standing in front of you and proclaiming, “I am the landowner.” The one who says, “Chop that fig tree down—get rid of it! It’s a waste of good soil.” But that would be me speaking from my own personal biases. And, in any case, I’m not so sure I still hate fig trees.
I don’t think that we are the land owner in this story. The landowner has complete control over the life and death of the fig tree. It’s his land, his tree, and the gardener works for him. Most of us don’t have that kind of complete control over the lives and deaths of other people. No, I think the landowner in this parable (and in most parables where there is an all-powerful landowner) is God.
And this is the tie in with the current events section earlier in our scripture passage—people are coming to Jesus saying, “Look at this horrible thing that happened—why did that happen, Jesus? Did those people do something bad, and this is God’s way of punishing them? And Jesus says, “No.” They’re not any worse than anyone else. God doesn’t work that way. God does not determine the length of your life based on the quality of your character. If he did, I think a lot of us would be in trouble.
But what these two groups of people (the ones who were killed by the Romans, and the ones who died in the collapse of the tower) have in common, and what they both have in common with the fig tree, and with every one of us, is this: Eventually, your time will come. Eventually, the landowner, the owner of the universe, the one who created us and planted us in good soil, will come back to claim what is rightfully his, the life that was never really ours to begin with. We all just borrow space in this world until that day… and we cannot know for sure when that day will come.
By now, some of you are probably thinking, okay, if God is the land owner, it sounds like maybe I’m the fig tree: Waiting for my time to come, and hoping that the land owner listens to the gardener and agrees with him!
There is some truth to that. We are all in some ways like the fig tree in this parable. Although the fig trees in my own personal story have sometimes been pretty active (and abusive!), in this story the fig tree doesn’t do much. It’s passive, almost helpless. It can’t just somehow choose to produce figs, or else it certainly would. Instead it is completely reliant on the care and skill of the gardener. In the same way, despite our best efforts, we are often not capable of “saving” ourselves, of living up to the landowner’s high expectations all on our own.
At least one very old interpretation of this parable holds that we are the fig tree, and Jesus is the gardener—the one who pleads with God (the landowner) on our behalf, asking for mercy and grace, and the one who works for our salvation when we cannot.
That’s not a bad interpretation, and I think there is much truth to it. But today I want to take things one step further. One of Jesus’ favorite sayings, whenever he did something kind, or wise, or forgiving, or miraculous, was “Now go and do likewise.” In his very last words to his disciple Peter, Jesus said, “Do you love me, Peter? Then feed my sheep.”
Jesus may be the gardener in this parable, but I think he’s also calling us to step up and take on that role, too. Not to “save ourselves” but rather to work hard with the time we have left, taking care of the people around us, interceding for them, praying to God on their behalf, and doing everything in our power to help them develop full and fruitful lives.
I find it a little bit ironic that I did such a lousy job taking care of that first fig tree in my adolescence. And then God, in infinite wisdom said, “Don’t worry. I’m going to give you a LOT more fig trees to take care of. You’re going to be a pastor.” God is clearly a God of second chances, and third… and fourth… and fifth…
Some days, the fig trees in my care still smack and scratch, some days I still fall off the ladder, and we all end up a sticky, dirty mess. But other days, like that fig tree in Turkey, the fig trees in my care shelter, protect and take of me just as much as I take care of them. Many days, I have the joy of seeing full, fruitful lives, as the fig trees in my care grow closer to God and to each other. I don’t own the land, and I don’t own the fig trees. But I’m thankful to have played even just a small part. I never know how long I’ll have with any given tree, but I always pray to God for just a little bit more time.
In just a few minutes, we are going to ordain and install our elected officers for this church—our elders, deacons, and trustees. This is a beautiful and momentous occasion in the life of the church. If you are one of the ones who have been elected and are now being ordained or installed (or both), here’s my charge to you today:
Look around you. Look at all the fig trees that you are now responsible for. If you were once a fig tree yourself, today you are a gardener. Today you are called to care for the trees in this vineyard, to get out your shovel and dig. And yes, this job does involve plenty of manure. Look around you. You are called to pray for the ones you serve, and intercede on their behalf, asking for just a little bit more time. Most of all, as a gardener, you are committed to doing everything in your power to help these fig trees grow and produce good fruit.
But don’t stop there. Don’t just look at the people in this room, because honestly, many of them are already gardeners in their own right (even if they aren’t yet church officers). In fact, it is my hope and prayer that the members of First Presbyterian Church become a whole community of garderners—every last one of us. So look past these walls, because there are hundreds of thousands of fig trees in the city of El Paso, and in the world beyond. Our best and highest calling in this life is to work hard, serving them with whatever time we have left—
To love them,
To care for them,
To pray for them,
To help them bear fruitful lives of meaning and purpose,
Rooted in the rich soil of our faith,
Watered and washed by the gentle rains of mercy and grace,
Warmed and nourished by the radiant light of God’s son.
Roll up your sleeves, First Presbyterian Church. We have work to do.