Then Jesus 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?’ He 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.’ ”
MESSAGE “Cut it Down!”
Imagine that you have planted a fruit tree in your backyard. You bought it as a seedling from the nursery, dug a deep hole in the ground, and now it’s nearly big enough to begin bearing fruit. Not just any fruit, but the fruit you love the most. What would that be? Apples, pears, peaches, cherries, quince, oranges, grapefruit, papaya. Every spring you look out at the tree when it first begins to blossom, and you can already just about taste that delicious fruit that you love so much. You are filled with anticipation as that tree blossoms. It makes your mouth water.
But each season, so far, you have been disappointed. Growth but no fruit. Blossoms but an empty bushel basket. Finally, after too many disappointments you’ve had it! You decide to cut it down. It’s just taking up space, and it’s represents all of your disappointments and defeats in life. Get out your axe. Cut it down!
When Jesus told this story he didn’t mention apples, oranges, pears, or cherries, the fruit you might like, he told about figs. At the Tuesday Bible Study when I passed out some dry figs a few people wouldn’t even try one. But everyone listening to Jesus would have imagined huge, beautiful, ripe, juicy sweet figs. Peel one open and take a big delicious bite. Mmmmm. There’s nothing better. Say it again. Mmmmm.
Still don’t like figs, not even willing to try one? That’s OK, substitute your favorite tree-grown fruit into the story, because you can only understand the disappointment of the fig tree’s owner if that taste you love so much is beyond your reach.
So I had lunch at Chap’s restaurant in Elba on Thursday. There weren’t any figs on the menu, so I scanned the list of choices and my eyes latched onto the eggplant parmigiana. Mmmm. I could already taste it! But I’m a vegetarian, so I always have to ask if there’s meat in the sauce. And our server told me yes there was. Augh! What disappointment! I wanted to go back to the kitchen and yell at the chef. I wanted to burn the place down, I wanted to storm out in anger, but my friends suggested that I give the place a second chance. So I settled for grilled cheese.
But this message is about figs, not eggplant. So back to fruit. Jesus seemed to like figs, and so did the people around him. Jesus told many short little stories that involved familiar things from everyday life, we call them parables. Each parable uses familiar experiences from farming and rural life, a man planting seeds, a farmer with two sons, sheep and goats, a vineyard, and now a fig tree. But don’t think that the parable’s purpose is to teach you gardening or farming tips. Within each parable you may find something new; a tasty message, a ripe idea, a sweet thought, a beautiful vision, a new insight about the love of God. At the Bible study those around the table found all kinds of interesting things, where an ancient parable intersects with our modern lives in surprising ways.
Last Sunday, while in New York City, I took Robin to the little Presbyterian Church on 57th Street where I served as a seminary student 37 years ago. The church neighborhood is known as “Hell’s Kitchen”, which I take to mean the hottest part of hell, because a hundred years ago it was filled with desperately poor immigrants. When I arrived there in 1980 it was a struggling little church, with struggling people from at least a dozen countries, a building badly in need of repair, and a part-time minister. It’s still struggling in 2016, and they are currently without a pastor. In fact they all but offered me the job on the spot!
It was nice to visit again, to recall my roots in ministry. My primary job there was to work with a youth group that consisted of two boys from Trinidad. In spite of all the deep theology I was learning at seminary, these two boys were more interested in tips about getting a date. My second job was to lead a weekly Bible Study. Each week we read one of the parables of Jesus. So one night we read the Parable of the Fig Tree, and I began to ask questions about it. Why do you think Jesus talked about a fig tree? Why was the tree without figs? One woman, Judy, was agitated beyond belief as people shared their answers, “Jim, just tell us what it means, you’re going to seminary, just tell us, I don’t want to have to guess. Just tell us!” It’s not as simple as me telling you what the parable means. You have to find your own way into it. You have to discover it for yourself. At best, as a pastor I can point you in a fruitful direction, but you have to discover what it means for yourself. I hope that is what happened on Tuesday night here in Byron 37 years later.
Some might think of the Parable of the Fig Tree as an allegory, where each feature of the story represents something specific. The tree represents something, the figs represent something, the owner represents someone, the gardener represents someone, and maybe the soil, water, and fertilizer represent something, too. One common allegorical interpretation is that the owner is God, the tree is Israel, the lack of figs represents the failures of Israel, and the gardener urging the second chance is Jesus. Maybe.
Another interpretation involves a common feature of parables. They are designed to turn you on your head, to flip you over to leave you breathless. It’s not what the features of the story represent, it’s how it’s designed to pull you in a certain direction, and then suddenly turn the tables. A tree without figs? Cut it down! Are you with me, cut it down, rip it out by the roots, chop it up into kindling, grind it into mulch, and … wait a minute, hold on there, it’s not a lost cause at all. It doesn’t need to be cut down, it needs special attention. It turns you on your head because it wants to surprise you with a new thought: If a figless fruit tree can be revived, maybe people can be revived, too, people just like me and you!
It may be allegorical in some sense, the tree represents somebody or something, but it may especially represent you! If you were the fig tree, hearing the owner’s plan to cut you down as a waste of time and space, you would feel utter despair, the axe is sharp and ready. Oh no! But then unexpected good news, out of the blue, a reprieve, a second chance, and the axe is put away. Just when you thought you were doomed, God is going to give you another chance! Oh yes!
Who wants another fig? Enjoy a taste of what God offers in Jesus Christ, a new beginning, a fresh start, a second chance. Mmmmmm!