The Rev. Melanie McCarley
God gives good gifts; fig trees are among them. In ancient Egypt, pharaohs believed that when they died their souls would encounter a Ficus sycomorus fig tree at the edge of the desert, and that the goddess Hathor would emerge from the foliage to welcome them to heaven. Fig trees and heaven—it’s not too much of a stretch. In fact, the fig tree is the only tree mentioned by name in the Garden of Eden.
Fig trees have been around for at least 80 million years. These plants are providers of medicines and materials, and of course, tasty fruit. They are also ecological linchpins, sustaining more wild birds and mammals than any other fruit trees. Is it any wonder that they are mentioned repeatedly throughout Holy Scripture.
In the book of first Kings, we are told that “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all of them under their vines and fig trees.” (1 Kings 4:25) Later, the Prophet Micah proclaims: “but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4:4). In the third chapter of the Book of Zephaniah God speaks to Joshua of a future time of peace and says: “On that day…you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.” (Zechariah 3:10) This sentiment is echoed in the first Book of Maccabees which proclaims that “all the people sat under their own vines and fig trees, and there was none to make them afraid.” (1 Maccabees 14:12). So, to sit under a fig tree is something of a declaration. It is a place of security, safety and forgiveness. It is a place of blessing and peace.
But what if your fig tree is languishing? What if your fig tree refuses to bear fruit? This is the situation our Savior presents us with this morning in the parable of the fig tree. Given the people of God’s understanding of the symbolism of the fig tree, it’s not too far of a stretch to say that no fruit equates with no peace, no forgiveness, no safety. And that tree—well, it’s not simply a recalcitrant piece of wood, it’s symbolic of Israel, of the people of God. It’s an indication that there is no peace in Jerusalem.
Today’s parable comes at the end of a cascade of disastrous images—the blood of Galileans mingled with their sacrifices and the collapse of the tower of Siloam. These are illustrations, provocations and pictures meant to poke and push the listeners (ourselves) forward, to wake us up and challenge us to live out the fruitful lives of peace that God has created us to live—and to do it NOW! There’s an urgency to this parable that should not be missed.
In today’s story Jesus asks us what we would do if we owned an orchard filled with fig trees, and discovered one of our trees is no longer bearing fruit. Would you let it sit there, taking up space? Or, would you rip it out and replace it with something that would earn its keeping? According to the parable, the owner comes to check on his orchard. He does this for three years. He’s observant, and each year he notices that this particular tree has failed to bear fruit. This owner is a person of business, he’s concerned with the bottom line. And so he tells the gardener to rip it out. Makes sense, particularly if you’re a person tallying up the quota at the end of the day. How many of us would do the same? This tree is just taking up space in an otherwise productive orchard. But the gardener isn’t ready to take this ultimate step…not quite yet—and proposes extra attention be given to the fruitless tree. The gardener suggests that if he were to dig around the tree and put down fertilizer, this might induce fruit—this tree might yet come back and become productive. The gardener pleads for patience. Don’t cut it down, give it time. But here’s something of which to take note—the gardener, patient, attentive and generous as he is, isn’t giving the tree forever. Ultimately even the gardener has expectations that this tree get down to the business of bearing fruit.
Give it time. Peace takes time; so does forgiveness. Sometimes, in our impatience and cynicism we say that we don’t give a fig—meaning that we just don’t care. We’re not invested. In these moments, our words sound a good deal like the land owner rather than the gardener.
But what if we were to be more like the gardener—more like Jesus. What if we were to invest extra time and attention in the tree to ensure that it has every opportunity to bear good fruit? What if we treated our world in the same manner that the gardener tends to the fig tree? What difference would that make, to everything from our personal relationships, to our climate, to war? Imagine that we (individually and corporately) are the ones who need to give time and attention to our world to ensure peace and well-being.
There’s an old movie, dating back to 1977 that some of us will remember: “Oh, God.” At the end of the movie, the character played by John Denver says to God (played by George Burns) something to this effect: “Oh, God, one last thing. You know all the evil in the world, wars, hunger, genocide, prejudice. Are you going to do something about all that?” God answers: “I was waiting for you to do something.” And here’s the thing—God is still waiting. God is patiently waiting for us to clue in and consider if we want to tend to our own tree, so that we can sit under its shade, not with frustration and disappointment, not with fear, anger and disillusionment, but with all of the joy of the people of God who have gone before us. Visualize it—sitting under the refreshing shade of a fig tree, it’s ripe fruit surrounding us with its gentle fragrance. It’s a place of joy, a place of satisfaction, a place of peace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
(some of the ideas for today’s sermon came from Bob Elden and his reflection on 3 Lent – Year C preachingtip.com)