A classic tough-guy movie scenario goes something like this. One macho type says to the other, “Is that a threat?” The other one, swaggering and hitching up his pants, replies with a menacing glare, “No, that’s a promise.”
Today’s New Testament readings could be said to have both a threat and a promise in them. Although I’m not so sure that we don’t usually hear the promise as a threat, too.
In the gospel reading, Jesus starts out by dismissing the threat that says that God inflicts suffering on people as a judgment for their sinfulness.
We know that way of thinking. Bad things aren’t supposed to happen to good people. Remember Job? Job’s friends sought comfort in this idea when they see disaster upon disaster piled upon their friend. “There must be something you have done to deserve this,” they insist. “Repent of your sin.” But Job maintains that he’s innocent. When God finally shows up, even though we hear nothing to explain why Job suffers, God’s response to Job’s friends was (and I paraphrase): “Shut up you idiots!”
Jesus likewise showed little patience for pious speculation on the suffering of others. In response to the story of Pontius Pilate’s cruel violence against some Galileans, mixing their blood in with their ritual sacrifices, and the report of eighteen people killed by a falling tower, he asked, “Do you think because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? And he answered his own question: “No.”
Despite Jesus’ rejection of this kind of judgement, we know that in some Christian quarters, that kind of thinking is still around. Some of us may remember how after the 9/11 attacks, Jerry Falwell – co-founder of the Moral Majority – quickly blamed LGBT people and feminists for bringing judgment upon us. In 2005, televangelist John Hagee claimed that Hurricane Katrina was the result of New Orleans’ toleration of homosexuality. And who could forget the tornados that ripped through Minneapolis on August 19, 2009 as the ELCA was voting to do away with the ban on openly gay clergy? When news that the steeple of the church hosting the assembly had been damaged, the warnings flew. A Baptist minister said on the news that evening, “The tornado . . . was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA: turn from the approval of sin.”
Funny how these judgments are always about sexuality. Doesn’t God have any warnings for us about war, or gun violence, or economic disparity? But Jesus dismisses all of this kind of judgmental blaming: “Do you think the people who were killed by the falling tower in Siloam were more guilty than anyone else? No.” Oh, whew! We’re all off the hook.
Except then he says, “You’ll all come to the same end unless you change your ways.” Uh oh, definitely a threat implied there. But then, he goes back into “promise” mode. In the parable of the fig tree, he offers hope to those who haven’t been living up to God’s expectations. But then again, the twist: If it doesn’t bear fruit next year, then cut it down.” Uh oh again. We’ve got a real mixed bag here of threat and promise. Same with Paul in the Corinthians text. He does veer awfully close to the threat side in his letter to the recalcitrant Corinthians: “Don’t test God like those ancient people did. Remember how they were killed by snakes?” He, too, comes back around to the good news, but I’m afraid that oftentimes the promise part of what he and Jesus say is overshadowed by the threat. It’s like when you have an employee evaluation and hear nine nice things about yourself and one criticism. What do you remember most? The one criticism, right? I think it might be the same with threat and promise here.
That’s why I’d like to spend a little more time with this fig tree parable. Parables are curious things. They’re stories that are intended to make us think. Jesus often used parables to get a point across. The problem with parables (the challenge) is that the point is not always obvious. Actually, when it seems to be obvious, we’ve probably missed the point. Another problem is that we’ve become so familiar with the biblical parables that we stop listening: “Oh, right, Parable of the Good Samaritan, got it.”
When we know the end of the story, we’re no longer surprised. When our interpretation of it boils down to a nice moral platitude, the parable has lost its edge. We don’t allow Jesus to challenge us or to provoke us with hard truths. So, let’s see if we can find any challenges or surprises in this parable.
It starts out on a promising note. A gardener intervenes on behalf of an unproductive fig tree, asking for a year to try to get the tree to produce fruit. If his efforts fail, then he’ll cut it down. The end.
Oh no. Wait a minute. What happens after a year? Does the tree produce figs? Or did it end up being compost for another, more productive tree? We don’t find out whether manure and a gardener’s tender care end up making any difference whatsoever. But let’s say that it does. Our fig tree survives.
(Does anybody have a fig tree?)
It turns out that fig trees are pretty interesting. They’ve been around since ancient times, and from what I’ve read, they’re pretty adaptable plants. They can grow in dry and sunny areas, with deep and fresh soil, but also in rocky areas and places with nutritionally poor soil. Another kind of fun fact about fig trees is that they require pollination by a particular species of wasps to produce seeds.
As metaphors go, there’s some good stuff here. Our faith is able to thrive in the good times, in places conducive to nurturing hope and trust. But it can also grow quite well in the rocky times. In places where there’s little spiritual nutrition, we’re able to put our roots down deep to find what we need.
But those wasps. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like wasps. They sting; they’re to be avoided. Except, for the fig tree they’re necessary for regeneration. That reminded me of the time a spiritual director encouraged me to see difficult people as gifts from God who could teach me about patience, compassion, and other spiritual gifts. Hmm. Could these people and even situations that sting be like those wasps? I admit that I didn’t like hearing that advice any more than hearing that wasps are beneficial to the web of life. But there it is. Gifts from God. Every one of them.
Another reason I’m fascinated with this story is that Jesus wasn’t saying anything particularly shocking about the fig tree. We know that in nature things that are useless eventually die out. Take for example blue whales (another fun fact). Blue whales used to have teeth. But they don’t anymore. In their evolution from land to sea mammals, they’ve developed something called baleen combs in the front of their mouths, which filter the plankton, krill, and small fish they gulp in with the water.
So the owner of the vineyard was simply expressing the truth of evolutionary biology. He wasn’t seeking to punish the plant; he was simply acknowledging that the tree wasn’t fulfilling its purpose.
What that says to me is that we each need to consider why God has put us here. In a book called The Evidential Power of Beauty, Thomas Dubay elaborates on this. It’s a bit philosophical, but bear with me: “Form is the deep root of a being’s actuality, which gives it its basic whatness. It is the actualizing principle of a thing, the mysterious taproot that makes that thing to be what it is, and thus why it is diﬀerent from every other kind of being. The inner form . . . of a palm tree makes it diﬀerent from an oak, a corn stalk, indeed, a squirrel—even though all are made of atoms.” In other words, you have a basic and unique whatness?
Do you know what that is? And can you say how are you making use of the gifts that God has given only to you? There are no easy, cookie-cutter answers to that question; it’s a matter of discernment – that applies to congregations as well as individuals.
Another lesson from the parable is that the fig tree took nutrients from the soil but didn’t give anything back, and nothing that only takes can ultimately survive. So it is with us. More than the usual moral sins that are hauled out to accuse others, maybe a bigger sin is failing to strive to give back and make the world a better place. I was at an event recently where two people who have had very serious challenges in their lives spoke eloquently about how they had been called upon to do things they hadn’t anticipated, yet these challenges have turned out to be extremely life-affirming.
After their talk, I had a long conversation with a young man sitting next to me. He’d been very moved by the two speakers and now was questioning his own “whatness.” He was on a very successful career track, which he enjoyed. However, he ‘d been feeling drawn to doing something completely different – perhaps not as lucrative, but something that would be more about giving back. Although he never mentioned God or used any kind of overtly spiritual language, he seemed to be moving into the realization of something more. I would describe it as a Divine lure going on within him. You could say that he’s like the fig tree, perhaps not failing to produce fruit, but being drawn to produce fruit of a different kind.
Now, to be perfectly honest, the process of discernment can be long and it can be unsettling. Having been through a few of these myself, I think maybe that’s what Jesus was referring to with the fertilizer – the process can sometimes stink, but it’s often what leads to growth. And the pruning (not mentioned in this text, but elsewhere) can be painful – that’s just how spiritual growth works.
This may sound just as harsh as the threats we infer from Jesus in the gospel. But now we come to the gospel of the second chance. The fig tree should have flowered within the three years, but it didn’t. Nevertheless, it was given a second chance. As are we. Even a third, a fourth and so on. Our baptismal promise is that each new day, we rise anew, past sins forgiven, with a new day in which to live out our basic whatness, as first of all beloved children of a loving God.
Yes, we sin. Lent is about sin and repentance. But not in the sense of some kind of Divine behavior modification program with punishments and rewards. Rather it’s about turning and returning to our source of life. And in the process of being faithful and loving disciples, in following the beckoning of a holy lure, in opening ourselves to being pruned and fertilized, in bearing fruit in service to the world, the Divine whatness that is all around us grows and thrives.
The theme for today within the wider theme of “Our Whole Hearts” is “Tending to the Heart.” And I see our calling is to tend to the ‘basic and unique whatness’ of ourselves.
One of my very favorite quotes is from the author Frederick Buechner:
“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
Perhaps today we could revise that just a bit: “Tend to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
As a symbol of the hardy fig tree and of our own discipleship, I’ve brought Fig Newtons today. We’ll have them here for coffee hour. And for those on Zoom, so you think I don’t give a fig, I’ll have them here for when you can stop by. And for those not in the area, here you go; get a screen shot and keep it with you as a remembrance of the promise – not the threat – of your evolving spiritual journey and of all the good fruit you will continue to bear for the sake of the world.
At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them–do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Then 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. So 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?’
The gardener replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”