We began our gathering with an object lesson using Fig Newtons. I told everyone that “Today’s story features a fig tree in it, and the best thing I can think of about figs is that they are used to make Fig Newtons.”
I asked, “Does anyone like Fig Newtons?” A bunch of hands shoot up, apparently Commoners really like their Fig Newtons. I let people know that we are going to hand out some Fig Newtons to eat while I read a story with a Fig Tree in it. I pass out a package of Fig Newtons to Jeanette (who seemed the most excited about this treat) and she opened up the package and she was a little surprised to only find leaves inside.
I feigned ignorance and exclaimed, “Wow! That is really disappointing.” A number of people agreed that they were indeed disappointed, and I went on to say “I should ask for my money back, that shouldn’t be in there, we were expecting Fig Newtons!” I then pulled out a container with all the missing Fig Newtons and passed them out and read the parable of the Unfruitful Fig Tree. This parable comes from a story found in Luke 13:1-9,
“At that time some people were there who told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices to God. Jesus answered them, “Because those Galileans were killed in that way, do you think it proves that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No indeed! And I tell you that if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they did. What about those eighteen people in Siloam who were killed when the tower fell on them? Do you suppose this proves that they were worse than all the other people living in Jerusalem? No indeed! And I tell you that if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they did.”
Then Jesus told them this parable: “There was once a man who had a fig tree growing in his vineyard. He went looking for figs on it but found none. So he said to his gardener, ‘Look, for three years I have been coming here looking for figs on this fig tree, and I haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it go on using up the soil?’ But the gardener answered, ‘Leave it alone, sir, just one more year; I will dig around it and put in some fertilizer. Then if the tree bears figs next year, so much the better; if not, then you can have it cut down.’””
This passage at first glance seems a little disjointed. We start with all the bad & shocking news from the local paper and end with a parable that we often simply equate with being productive, but the two are really two halves of the same teaching.
Back in Jesus’ day people believed that bad things happened to bad people. If something bad happened to you, God must be punishing you for some terrible sin you or your family committed. Jesus is aware of this bias, so when people tell him the terrible story of murder in the temple, Jesus names the elephant in the room by asking, “Do you think those poor people were worse sinners then you?” Jesus even pulls out his own disaster story and asks “Do you think those people who died when that high rise tower collapsed were being punished because they were bad people, way worse than any of their neighbours?”
Jesus then flips this whole theological blame game on its head by saying “Those people who died were no worse than anyone else. And I’ll tell you one more thing, if you don’t change your ways, if you don’t turn from your sins, if you don’t learn to repent, you will all die as they did.” Wow! That is some pretty inflammatory stuff.
Jesus might have felt that he was losing his audience so he switches gears and tells a parable, a story about a tree.
Because our story today features a tree, I started thinking of other tree characters. Since I’m a little nerdy I went first to Treebeard from Lord of the Rings and Groot from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. I was watching some videos, and stumbled on one that was about a theory of why Groot is such a popular and relatable character. How could a character that only has one line of dialog steal the show?
The idea is that we can relate to a tree character because it is so far removed from us that we can more easily see the tree as us. The video used a book called Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud to explain how a CGI tree could be more relatable then a person. The idea boils down to something called “Amplification through Simplification” Here is how McCloud explains it in his book:
This theory of cartoons is very similar to parables. We are more willing to see what Jesus is saying as applicable to our own lives in the context of a story or a parable rather than a more direct message. Stripping away the specific details doesn’t make the message or the point harder to see, it makes it easier to relate to.
Jesus tells us a story with three characters in it:
- Land Owner
- Fig Tree
Right away we put ourselves into the shoes of the Tree.
The Gardner is a person with the power to judge, he is the big untouchable God, and he judges the Tree to not even be worthy of the soil it is planted in because it hasn’t produced any figs in 3 years. Now an environmentalist or arborist might remind us that this tree is still making oxygen, providing shade for people, it gives shelter for birds, and even keeps the soil from eroding. All that is true but it is still very disappointing to come to a tree that was planted to harvest some delicious food and it refuses to give up the goods.
I can relate to the way the land owner is feeling. A number of years ago my wife and I decided we wanted to put in a big bush or a small tree in our back yard. At first we were thinking of a rose bush but then we started talking about how cool it would be to have a fruit tree. We went to the garden center and saw this beautiful peach tree in full bloom. We thought how amazing, we could get these beautiful flowers and peaches. We planted the tree in our back yard and admired the beauty of the flowers and then later in the summer we saw little green balls appear that would grow and ripen into our delicious back yard peaches. Then the squirrels came. These terrible little thieves stole all our peaches while they were still just hard little green golf balls. They ate every last one. No peaches for us that first year. The second year we were determined to scare the squirrels away. We tried cayenne pepper, and even a solar powered noise stick that is suppose to repel squirrels and birds. We lost a bunch of peaches but one was left and it was almost ready and then it too got stolen. The third year our tree got bugs and even if a peach was left for us we wouldn’t be able to eat it. We now hate this tree! It still flowers, but it doesn’t bring us joy, we wish we never planted it and we talk about cutting it down and replacing it with a rose bush. I totally understand the frustration and the disappointment of the land owner.
I think of Jesus as the Gardner, God that walks among us. The gardner extends grace to the tree and advocates for the tree by saying “Let’s try to give this tree some help and a little more time to change.”
We aren’t told how the story ends. We are only told that time is limited for this tree to change its past record and produce some fruit. We all are as fragile as the Fig Tree in the story and our lives our short and our end date unpredictable. It is in this context that Jesus is telling us we need to repent, we need to change.
I was reading some commentaries about this passage and I found some interesting thoughts from a Presbyterian scholar named Matt Skinner. I would like to read a page from his commentary that really fleshes out this passage and connects it to the season of Lent.
“Repentance becomes less interesting when people mistake it to mean moral uprightness, expressions of regret, or a “180-degree turnaround.” Rather, here and many other places in the Bible, it refers to a changed mind, to a new way of seeing things, to being persuaded to adopt a different perspective. It means similar things in other contexts from the wider Greek literary world. In Luke-Acts, “repentance” also has moral applications (and connections to forgiveness–see Luke 24:47), but it cannot be reduced to a reengineered life and ethics. Sometimes it is presented as something given, or accomplished, by God (see Acts 5:31; 11:18). It can be more about being found than about finding oneself (see Luke 15:1-10). It refers to an entirely reoriented self, to a new consciousness of one’s shortcomings and one’s dire circumstances. Of course, this has moral consequences (on “fruit” and “deeds” consistent with repentance, see Luke 3:8; Acts 26:20). But morality is hardly the horse that pulls the cart.”
“In this passage the need for repentance is assumed and so it takes a backseat in emphasis to the urgency of Jesus’ call. Tragedy and hardship have their ways of nudging people toward God, but these verses suggest that tragedy and hardship come so suddenly that they often mark the end, not the beginning, of our opportunities to live lives inclined toward God. Don’t let the introspective and pensive nature of Lent divert attention from the exigency [that which is required] of our condition.”
“Jesus’ words about judgment and repentance are scary, yet they depict human life as a gift, albeit a fragile one. Vulnerable creatures that we are, we can presume little and do little to preserve ourselves. Too many Lenten observances assume that taking our humanity seriously requires morose expressions of piety. But the Christian outlook on repentance arcs toward joy. And it finds grace experienced within the awful precariousness and strange beauty of our fleeting existence.”
Listen to that last bit one more time, “the Christian outlook on repentance arcs toward joy. And it finds grace experienced within the awful precariousness and strange beauty of our fleeting existence.” Life is too short not to repent, to move towards the person (or tree) God has created you to joyfully be. Repentance is the darkness of Lent and death that moves us into the joy of resurrection, growth, and renewal.
The curriculum we are using for Lent this year always pairs our Jesus story with a Psalm. I would like to end again this week with a Psalm. It is Psalm 63:1-8. There is a lot of nature imagery used to express joy in this passage but I’m going take a lot of poetic liberty with it. I want you to,
- Imagine that this passage is a soliloquy from the Tree in our parable.
- Close your eyes and imagine that you are this tree.
- Imagine that you were given a chance to grow into your true nature.
- Imagine that it is one year later, and that you are now a Fig Tree that produces some of the best Figs around, and it is all thanks to the Owner and Gardner that take care of you.
- Imagine now that you are a very special tree, a talking tree and this is what you have to say…
Paraphrased from the Good News Translation
O God, my Owner. You are my God, my Gardner
and I long for you.
Every branch, every leaf, every root, my entire being desires you;
like a dry, worn-out, and waterless stump,
my soul is thirsty for you.
Let me see you in the garden;
let me see how mighty and glorious you are.
Your constant love is better than life itself,
and so I will praise you.
I will give you thanks as long as I live;
I will raise my branches full of figs to you in prayer.
My roots, my very soul will feast and be satisfied,
and I will sing glad songs of praise to you, through my rustling leaves.
When the sun goes down, I remember you;
all night long I think of you,
because you have always been my help.
In the shadow of your care I sing for joy.
I cling to you,
and your hand keeps me safe.