The Repenting Fig Tree

February 28, 2016

Bible Text: Luke 13:1-9 |

Jesus tells a lot of parables that have become very famous – so famous that they’ve been absorbed into mainstream culture. If you say that someone was a “Good Samaritan,” everyone knows the type of person you’re describing. If you talk about someone being a “prodigal son,” we know just what you mean.

I suspect, though, that the “Parable of the fig tree that will repent when it gets good fertilizer” is not so high up on people’s familiarity list. Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve ever spent much time thinking about this parable – which almost made me overlook it completely for today’s sermon. I was certain I’d spend all our time looking at Moses and the Burning Bush. But after the discussion we had about it at Monday’s Bible study, I would like to spend our time looking at this pathetic little fig tree.

To start with, notice how Jesus didn’t tell this parable. He didn’t say:

A man planted a fig tree. And for three years he came looking for fruit on it and found none, so he ripped it out and burned it.

Now, that would be a reasonable parable. Jesus does say something similar to that elsewhere. And it would certainly reflect the picture of God that many people hold: God has a standard for what’s expected of us and – at the end of our lives – those who don’t meet the standard are rejected and sent to hell.

But that’s not the parable Jesus told. Nor did he tell it this way:

A man planted a fig tree. And for three years he came looking for fruit on it and found none, so he yelled at the fig tree and threatened to destroy it if the fig tree didn’t get its act together and start producing figs.

That, of course, would be a stupid parable. It makes no sense at all because you can’t yell at a plant to make it change its ways. It’s not the plant’s fault if it’s not producing. It’s either not getting enough sunlight, or it’s not getting enough water, or it’s not getting enough nutrients from the soil. (Or, if you live in Gig Harbor, the deer came through one night and ate all the leaves off your tree.) The point is, you don’t blame the plant for not producing, you blame the conditions in which it’s struggling to grow.

And if this a parable about repentance – which it clearly is – then the fig tree’s ability to repent, as it were – to change and become fruitful – is attributed primarily to the gardener, this gardener who stands up to his boss and says, “Please, wait. Give it another year. Let me tend it and see if we can’t get some fruit out of this tree yet.” The hero of the story is the gardener, because he’s willing to advocate for the fig tree and to do what it takes for a year to rehabilitate it.

So what does this look like in our world? What does it mean to care for the fig trees? Well, first, Who are the fig trees? Who are the unproductive ones who don’t live up to their potential? Who is undesirable and worth eliminating? Or, if that’s too strong a term, who do we disregard, ignore, or dismiss as hopelessly irritating and annoying?

What I find so moving about this parable is the recognition that the problematic person can’t just be told to repent and suddenly they’ll start producing fruit – suddenly they’ll turn their life around and stop being annoying or whatever their brand of problem is. That never works. If someone is failing to live up to their human calling as image-bearers of God, they need to be nurtured, not scolded. And never ignored.

And although we are culpable for our own actions, it is a charitable spirit that recognizes that – to one degree or another – we are all fig trees who have been formed in the soil in which we were planted. Who we believe God to be and who we believe ourselves to be is the product of our relationships and life experiences. How could it be otherwise? The trajectory of our childhood becomes the pathway of our adulthood. To change what we believe about God and ourselves is terribly difficult.

None of us will ever repent of the way we’re living until we have become convinced of a better way. And if God is love, and the Kingdom of God is love – is mercy and grace and a priority for the other’s good – how can we know that if we aren’t shown that? No one will be talked into repenting. They can only be loved into repenting.

So what does repenting mean? Does it mean saying, I’m sorry? Yes, certainly, it requires acknowledging our faults and accepting forgiveness where it is offered. But these are only the first steps. True repentance means we then begin living a better way.

To be a gardener, then, is to invest in another’s well-being, and not just your wife’s and kids’. It is your co-worker, your neighbor, the person beside you in the pew. Or, more to the point, the person whose pew you avoid. To be a gardener is to recognize that if I want to see someone change their life towards a greater god-likeness, then I must enter their life with that same spirit. But be clear on this: We don’t need to change them. God forbid; that is never our responsibility. We simply need to love them, even if our love is only so much cow manure. God knows how to transform it into life.

So that’s one way of understanding this parable: that the fig tree is repenting through the ministrations of the kindly gardener. And I think it’s a good way to understand it.

But there may be another way to read it. Perhaps it’s not the fig tree that is repenting and becoming fruitful. Perhaps it’s the gardener who is repenting.

After all – like we said – it’s not the fig tree’s fault that the soil’s no good. Whose fault is it then, that year after year there’s no fruit? Well hello, it’s the gardener’s. Maybe, when he says, Give me a year to work on this tree, what he’s saying is, Give me a year to make up for what I’ve failed to do all along.

Which means: perhaps the first step towards the fig tree’s fruitfulness isn’t simply us coming up with some do-gooder project. Rather, the first step is our own repentance. After all, if we are going to begin choosing another’s good, it means that, until now, we haven’t been choosing their good. We haven’t been living out the godliness to which we ourselves are called. We have been blind and calloused to the suffering around us. The heart of much dysfunction in our world, I believe, is rooted in our own self-absorption – whereas Christ showed us a true humanity that lives for the other’s good.

I used to belong to a Christian community in Northern Ireland that was committed to reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants. It was formed during the early seventies, at the height of the Troubles, as it was known – when the violence between these two communities was frequent and deadly. But the Christian Renewal Centre emerged as a contrary witness to that violence: Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, living together, praying together, and welcoming others to join them. But as beautiful as their witness was, it didn’t just emerge from good intentions. It began with repentance – with a recognition of their own complicity. They might not have been terrorists planting bombs, but they had been silent. And they had held suspicions and prejudices against the “other.” So if they were to join together as the body of Christ, each had to repent of how they had not lived out, or even desired, such unity before. But it wasn’t just a once-off event. As the years went by and they continued to pursue their formation in Christ, repentance remained a common practice of their life together.

That is how it is in the journey of spiritual formation. Day by day, year by year, we continue to peel back the layers of our un-Christlikeness, repenting as we go. None of us has made it yet. None of us has arrived as the True Eric, the True Laura, the True Mary. We’re still on the journey towards truth – the truth of God, the truth of life, the truth of our own selves. With each closer step,

we repent of what we have failed to do or to be.

We soak in God’s mercy.

And then we redirect our path alongside the footsteps of Christ who – above all else – has shown us the Kingdom of God to which we are all called.

This rhythm of repentance is the pattern God has given us for wholeness and growth.

As we are drawn further into the heart of Christ, the principles by which we live will change. Our values will shift. Old priorities will recede and new ones will emerge. What we rehearse in each Sunday’s liturgy should seep into our souls and inform how we live each day of our lives. The more we are aligned to the Kingdom of God, the more that will affect everything.

And certainly, with the election brewing this year, it is our principles that will guide us in how we participate in the political process – what we vote for and who we vote for. It should also convict us in our treatment towards those who differ from us.

Because here’s the thing: We can be passionately committed to causes, but if this passion is becoming increasingly rooted in the heart of Jesus, it will never allow us to despise our neighbor. Love God. Love your neighbor. This is the heart of the gospel. If our guiding principles ever give us permission to hate, mock, and dismiss our neighbor, then something has gone wrong with our principles.

If we want to see the fig trees laden with fruit in our land, it will begin with our own repentance for the ways we have failed to live out the Kingdom of God in our lives. And then it will mean actively loving those we think are “wrong” or “fruitless” or “don’t belong.”

That is the way of the kingdom, and I know for myself that I will have plenty of repenting to do in the upcoming season, because I do want to see the fig trees covered in fruit.