by Becca Ajer
My Godly Play kids and I spent the weeks between Epiphany and the first Sunday in Lent discovering the stories of the parables. There is quite a bit that goes into presenting the parables. The materials the story teller uses are in a gold box with a lid. I tell the kids that this box is gold, so maybe there is something very valuable inside. I point out that the box looks a bit like a present—parables are presents that were given to us a long, long time ago, before they were born, before I was born, before their parents or grandparents were born.
Finally, I draw the kids’ attention to the fact that there is a lid and that the lid is closed—sometimes parables are hard to open. They are difficult to get inside of, not easy to understand.
Today’s parable illustrates that last point rather nicely, huh? This parable of a barren fig tree can be hard to open, difficult to get inside of, and not easy to understand.
The stage is set with people asking Jesus about what Pilate had recently done to some Galileans. In essence, the subtext question being asked here is one we often ask ourselves: “Why do bad things happen? Why does God let bad things happen?” Is it because of sin? Did these unfortunate Galileans sin more than the others?
These are the questions that pop up when a hard working person is laid off from their job, or when a beloved member of the community is diagnosed with cancer. Looking at the news cycle from the past couple of months, we ask these questions when a super storm causes immense damage that still lingers, when a small town is ripped apart by a man with a gun, or when an honors student is killed because she and her friends were mistaken for someone else. We ask, “Why do these things happen? Was it because of sin?”
The questions are real and Jesus does not brush them aside…but he does reinterpret them. When the people around him ask if the events that transpired were because of sin, Jesus says “no.” Jesus says, “no,” but then he goes on. Jesus says that sin was not the cause of these tragedies, but “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Wait, what? I thought Jesus just said this didn’t have anything to do with sin!
Jesus is reframing the notion of sin. Those awful events didn’t happen because the victims were bigger sinners…there isn’t such thing as a “bigger sinner” or a “lesser sinner.” Jesus also isn’t saying that the victims were sinless. His words are neither an indictment nor an exoneration. Rather, Jesus calls for repentance. Jesus calls for repentance because we are all sinners. All of us.
And then Jesus tells the parable… A gardener plants a tree in a vineyard. The owner of the vineyard comes after three years and sees none of the fruit he is expecting. He tells the gardener to cut it down so something else can be planted. The gardener intercedes and asks the owner for one more year and if the tree still bears no fruit, then the owner can cut it down.
Hard to open, difficult to get inside of, not easy to understand…this parable is tricky. The pleading of the gardener for more time is good news, but the concession that it can be cut down in a year if there is still no fruit can make one wonder about the level of the gardener’s commitment to the tree… But maybe there is more here than we realize at first listening.
We are quick to try and assign roles to images or people in parables. The initial impulse in this parable, I think, is that the gardener is Jesus and the vineyard owner is God the Father. We, humanity, then, are the fig tree, bearing no fruit because we have not repented. Jesus intercedes for us with the Father, offering grace in the face of imminent punishment.
…But what if this parable is more flexible than our initial impulses allow for? What if we are still the tree that hasn’t borne fruit, but this time the gardener is God and the vineyard owner represents the forces of sin and death. [It’s not a perfect metaphor, but bear with me for a moment.]
We, as the tree, have not reached our potential; we are unable to bear the fruit we were created to. We are unable to serve God as fully as we would like, we are unable to love one another as fully as we ought, and we constantly find ways to say “no” to the voice of God calling out to us.
Death seeks to cut us down, points to us and says, “God! Can’t you see that these people aren’t living up to what you envisioned in creation? Can’t you see that they are unable to do what You would desire them to?”
But God, the gardener who created and planted us, the one who cares for us, steps in and says, “Yes, I do see that…but these people are not a lost cause.” God declares that good fruit can come from this seemingly barren tree.
In the parable, the gardener states he will dig around and put manure around the tree. He will give it some intentional love and attention. The translation here says “manure,” and that’s exactly what it is…but it is just excrement, just dung. There is nothing added, this is not some sort of fertilizer. The gardener states that he will dig around in dirt and dung in order to make the tree bear fruit.
God, the gardener in this parable, offers to dig around in our dirt, to get those divine hands filthy with the dung of our lives, in order to make us bear good fruit. Whatever it is that holds us back: selfishness, greed, holding grudges, inability to love God or our neighbor as we are called to…God doesn’t shy away from our sin. God doesn’t ignore our failings and shortcomings. On the contrary, God digs in, God dwells in them with us, not condemning us, but forgiving us with the love and attention the gardener shows the tree.
Left on our own, we would not be able to live up to our created ideal. We would not be able to move past our sinful nature, move past our inability to love God with our whole heart, or move past the threat Death has made to cut us down.
It’s a very good thing, then, that we are not on our own. The tree is not abandoned—we are not abandoned to attempt redemption on our own. We are nurtured by God, the Gardener, in the dirt and dung of our lives.
We don’t get to hear the end of the parable. Jesus never tells us what happens. We don’t learn the fate of that poor fig tree, whether it ever bears fruit or is eventually cut down. However, if I am forced to say whether God or Death arises as the winner in this instance, I know that God always has the last word, and not Death. The tree must bear good fruit because the gardener has taken time to work with it. We must bear the fruit of God’s reign because God has forgiven us and shown us grace and love.
When I say, “must” here, I am not saying that this is a prescription, “we must do x, y, and z to achieve x, y, and z.” Rather, I mean to say that we can do nothing else. When we are grounded in Christ’s death and resurrection, when we have experienced God’s love for us, made physical in the sacraments, when we have heard the Word speak to our lives, when God’s grace has come to us through the other, we cannot help but to then have God’s work be done through us.
This work is not perfect; it is, after all, still done by our own fallible hands…but it can be done, it is done. I look at institutional examples, in programs like Lutheran World Relief, or local efforts of specific congregations. I look at individual efforts to usher in the reign of God through volunteer hours or advocacy. I look at the support given in times of grief or tragedy. I look at the celebration of shared accomplishments or joys. I look at simple words of forgiveness which bring about reconciliation and healing. These are human actions, yes… but still human actions in which one can clearly see the face of God.
Parables are hard to open, difficult to get inside of, and not easy to understand… but we don’t need to understand every aspect of this parable in order to hear good news from God.
And the good news from this morning’s parable is: Death has not cut us down. God does not abandon us; God does not leave us on our own. We are nurtured and defended, forgiven and renewed, by the one who first created us and planted us in the earth.
Amen, and thanks be to God.