Luke 13:6-9 – 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. 7 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?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”
Question: In the parable of the not-yet-productive fig tree, which character would you say most represents your image of God?
It’s a little dangerous to be assigning parts to every character in a parable in the first place. Parables aren’t necessarily always allegories, with each person and item in the fictionalized story intended to refer to something in the real world. The point isn’t to figure out who is who in a parable, and therefore figure out the parable.
One of the primary roles of parable is to surprise, even shock the listener into a new way seeing. Jesus was rather fond of doing this.
When Rachel Smith and I were meeting to plan the Lent worship series, we had the idea to have a Beatitude for each week of Lent, based on the scriptures for that week. When we were looking over the passages for this week, we were especially drawn to the actions of the gardener toward the fig tree in this parable, and the idea of leaving it alone. Giving something time that we have been impatient about. Or letting some area of our lives where we are trying to get some results, just sit there for a while, in idle, and see what comes of it.
Blessed are those who leave it.
As I studied the passage more this week I wondered about how much our willingness to do this is connected to our God image, which seems to be the subtext behind the text here.
The parable follows an exchange Jesus has with the crowds who are following him and listening to his teaching. I’m going to be poking around in this Luke passage and doing some referencing of other parts of the Bible, so if you want to do your own poking around you’re welcome to open your Bibles up to Luke chapter 13
In my mind, this is one of those times when those headers over the chapter that different translations provide, which can be quite helpful, do us a disservice. One reason is because they tell you in advance what the passage is supposed to mean, according to the committee of translators, and the other reason is because they break up a continuous flow of narrative, which can give the impression that they are chunks of unrelated text.
In this case, for Luke 13:1-9, which was read, the header for the first five verses is “Repent or perish.” The header for verses 6-9 is “the parable of the barren fig tree.” I have a couple alternative headings that I’d like to suggest, which I’ll mention later.
The beginning of chapter 13, which says, “at that very time,” is a continuation of what has been happening previous, going all the way back to the beginning of chapter 12, which begins, “Meanwhile, when the crowd gathered by the thousands, so that they trampled on one another, he began to speak first to his disciples…” Since that time Jesus has been teaching on what it means to be a disciple at that time and place. Toward the end of chapter 12, he calls the crowds hypocrites, because they pay closer attention to the weather forecast than the other realities around them. In verses 54-56, Jesus says, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’: and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
Interpreting the present time is exactly what is at stake in chapter 13.
“At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” In verses 1-5 there are two instances of tragedy that are brought up, neither attested in any other ancient source, but both very much in line with possible events. The first is brought up by the crowd, asking Jesus if he had heard about how the Roman governor Pilate had killed some Galileans while they were offering up sacrifices. The second is brought up by Jesus, mentioning the tower of Siloam in Jerusalem, which had fallen down and killed 18 people. These were current events of the day, the evening news, All Things Considered, headlines of interest to the people. The present time. “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” You wonder, with all the people in the crowd around Jesus trampling each other, if there’s about to be another tragic incident.
This is where things start to get a little counter-intuitive. One would think that Jesus would be likely to assign some kind of divine meaning to these events, give some theological commentary about human and architectural caused disaster. But instead he does the opposite. He steers people away from such an interpretation – specifically, the interpretation to put any kind of moral framework over the victims and the survivors. This would have cut against the popular understanding of the day that still lingers with us, that tragedy is somehow connected to divine intent, or moral punishment. No, Jesus says about the victims, “do not think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem.” That’s not what this is about at all. Roman governors can be cruel, sometimes they kill people. Towers can be designed or built poorly, or deteriorate over time. Sometimes they fall. It can be simple as that.
But, Jesus says, this could be a good reminder of your own mortality, to ponder the fragility of life and how none of us are exempt from life’s hardships. A good chance to ponder repentance, a change of mind, for how you want to go about life.
All of this has a much different tone than the NRSV heading, “Repent, or perish.”
In this exchange Jesus is trying to wean the crowd off of the idea that God is out to get them. Similar to his whole ministry, he is ushering in an image of God completely pruned of violence. Jesus has demythologized current events.
So if God is not the one behind the scenes causing all this to happen, where is one to find the divine presence?
This is what sets up the parable, which, despite a heading cutting it off from that exchange, is directly related.
It’s a parable about a landowner and his gardener, and a fig tree that is not producing any fruit. The landowner wants to cut down the tree. The gardener lobbies for more time.
The people in the crowd knew their Hebrew Bible, and so they knew that the landowner with the vineyard and fig tree is always God.
If you want to turn to Isaiah 5, this is where we find that prophet’s famous song of the unfruitful vineyard. The basic gist is that God plants a vineyard on a fertile hill, with choice vines, and hopes for good grapes, but gets wild grapes instead. Verse seven gives an interpretation of that parable. “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.”
Other prophets carry the metaphor along. In Jeremiah 8:13, that prophet says, about Israel, “When I wanted to gather them, says the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree.”
Hosea (9:10) and Micah (7:1) make similar references. This was also a common motif across the Ancient Near East. There is a collection of stories from ancient Babylon or Persia, about 500 years before Christ, about the wise man Ahikar that contain this story: “And I spake to Nathan thus: Son, thou hast been to me like a palm-tree which has grown with roots on the bank of the river. When the fruit ripened, it fell into the river. The lord of the tree came to cut it down, and the tree said: Leave me in this place, that in the next year I may bear fruit. The lord of the tree said: Up to this day hast thou been to me useless, in the future thou wilt not become useful.” (Ahikar 8.25, Armenian, in RH Charles, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament.)
So Jesus is drawing from well-known imagery in his parable. The listener would naturally associate the landowner who wants to chop down the unfruitful fig tree with God, the lord of the tree. Except there are a couple reasons to give the listener pause about who this landowner really is, and who this mysterious gardener might be.
The first is what just happened prior. Jesus has just steered the people away from thinking of destructive events as being willed by God. The second is that within the parable it is noted that this landowner has been looking for fruit on this fig tree for three years, found none, and wants to cut it down so it doesn’t waste soil. The three years period is important, because of an instruction given in the book of Leviticus. In Leviticus 19:23-25, the Israelites were given this instruction:
“When you come into the land and plant all kinds of trees for food, then you shall regard their fruit as forbidden; three years it shall be forbidden to you, it must not be eaten. In the fourth year all their fruit shall be set apart for rejoicing in the Lord. But in the fifth year you may eat of their fruit, that their yield may be increased for you; I am the Lord your God.”
In the parable that Jesus tells, the landowner is in direct violation of Torah, for demanding fruit in the tree’s first three years. The Torah had taught patience, tree grace, letting the tree get established for three years, then have the fourth year committed to ritually celebrating its fruitfulness, and only after that to enlist the tree in the production/profit economy.
With the supposed God figure now suspect, attention shifts to this gardener. This caretaker. This unnamed, unknown character who has been with the tree all those years. The gardener, with her hands and knees covered with dirt, asks the owner to give the tree time, another year at least, while she digs around it, and puts manure in the soil. Keeps tending to this tree.
I have read this parable a number of times, but this time that last line really caught my attention. The gardener concedes that after another year the tree could be cut down, but never says that she’ll do it. “If the tree bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
This extended period of grace beyond three years gets pushed even further in the story that immediately follows in Luke. Jesus meets up with a woman who had been crippled and bent over for 18 years. And Jesus calls her over to him, reaches out and puts his hands on her, and says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” She stands up straight for the first time in 18 years and begins praising God.
If I were to put different headings over this section of Luke, one possibility would be to put one big heading over verses 1-9 which would be “God is not out to get you. On the contrary…” The other possibility, building on the importance of manure for the gardener, and changing the common phrase a little to make it more appropriate for a church setting would be that the heading for verses 1-5 would be “crap happens.” The heading for the parable would be “crap + time = fertilizer.”
But can we really make this shift? Are we ready to embrace this underling gardener as the image of God that permeated Jesus’ imagination and thus could permeate our own? Advocating for more time. Leaving it, even protecting it, even nurturing it, until it can produce fruit. Getting hands in the dirt, taking the crap, and using it as fertilizer. Refusing to be the one who gives up. You can cut it down, but the gardener won’t.
Blessed are those who leave it.
I want to end with a quote from Richard Rohr, who has been writing a fair amount about our God Image in his daily meditations. This one comes from last Sunday:
“Your image of God creates you—or defeats you. There is an absolute connection between how you see God and how you see yourself and the whole universe. The word “God” is first of all a stand-in for everything—reality, truth, and the very shape of your universe. This is why theology is important, and why good theology and spirituality can make so much difference in how you live your daily life in this world. Theology is not just theoretical, but ends up being quite practical—practically up-building or practically defeating.” Richard Rohr, Feb 24, 2013 daily meditation