Sunday, March 3, 2013

Hope for the Fruitless Tree

Sermon, The Rev. Leah D. Schade                          Lent 3; Luke 13:1-9

I stand looking at that tree, shaking my head.  How could this have happened?  A perfectly good tree gone bad.  No fruit.  A complete waste of soil and space.  A hopeless case. 

What does that tree represent?  Most biblical commentators will say that the tree represents us, and that this parable warns us that you had better bear fruit, or God will cut you down like a fruitless tree.

It’s a plausible explanation.  Consider the previous verses.   Some people come to question Jesus.  What do you have to say about those Galileans killed by Pilate?  About those people killed by the Tower of Siloam? 
I stand with those people and I ask similar questions.  What do you have to say, Jesus, about those millions of people killed and left homeless by those earthquakes in Haiti and Chile? 

Now the ones questioning Jesus have a slightly different motive.  They don’t question why this terrible thing happened.  They want to know what these people did to deserve it.  They worked under the assumption that bad things happened because you did something to deserve it.  Their question to Jesus is laced with a poisonous self-righteousness.  

That assumption still exists today, even among some famous Christians, such as Pat Robertson whose analysis of the Haiti earthquake has led him to pronounce that it was a result of their forefathers supposedly making a pact with Satan centuries ago.  In other words, they brought this on themselves.  And aren’t we blessed that God hasn’t punished us with his wrathful vengeance?

And what is Jesus’ response?  Jesus will have none of that.  You think those people got what they deserved?  And that you’re somehow better than those people?  They were no better or worse than you.  You deserve to die just as much as they do because of your holier-than-thou attitude.  Unless you repent, you too shall perish.

And then this parable about the vineyard owner and the fig tree.  Like Jesus’ parables, this is a cryptic little story that leaves us hanging in the end.  “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but found none.  So he said to the gardener, Cut it down!  Why should it use up the soil?
Wait, says the gardener.  Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.  If it bears fruit next year, fine!  If not, then cut it down.”

And that’s the end of the parable.  That’s it?  It leaves you wondering, doesn’t it?  What happens in the end?  Does the tree come back to life?  Is there fruit next year?  Or will the axe cut it down?

If the commentators are right, and we are the fig tree, we are left in a very precarious place, aren’t we?  It makes you wonder . . . Jesus is talking about repentance here.  Can a tree really repent?  Can a tree make a decision like that?  Is it the tree that really needs to repent?

What does it mean to repent?  The Greek word is metanoia.  It means to change one’s mind.  Jesus says to those questioners, You will perish if you do not change your mind.  If you do not change the way are thinking about this.  You need to change the way you are thinking about sin, about God’s wrath and judgment.  You need to change how you are seeing things.

I wonder if we need to change how we are seeing things in this parable?  Jesus’ parables are cryptic for a reason.  He says more than once that he tells parables in order to hide his meaning on purpose.  These parables are rarely as straightforward as they might seem at first.  Jesus tells parables to create a crack in the worldview of his listeners, a crack through which can be seen a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.  And once having this glimpse, your vision is changed, things shift, reality is altered just slightly enough to change your mind.

And whose mind needs to be changed in this parable?  Who is the one looking at the tree and seeing nothing but a fruitless, waste of space?  Who is the one ready to pronounce judgment on the tree, chop it down, see it as deserving nothing but death.  It’s not the tree that needs to change.  It’s the owner of the fig tree whose mind the gardener is trying to change. 

Those questioners are not the tree – they are the owner of the tree!  They are the ones looking at people affected by tragedy and making a judgment on them, ready to chop them down, seeing them as deserving nothing but death because of their fruitlessness, their sinfulness, their stupidity, their skin color, their economic level, their immigration status, their sexuality, their mistakes.

Don’t you see?  The owner of the tree is not God.  The owner is us.  We are the ones whose minds need to be changed.  We are the ones ready to chop down that tree without a second thought.  We are the ones impatiently making demands, ready to destroy the tree because it is not meeting our standards.

I have to admit, I am that fig tree owner with an axe in my hand, ready to start chopping.  I see nothing good coming from this tree.  I’m angry and I’m sad, and I’m ready to start making wood chips fly.
My questions are coming hard and fast.  Why did you let this happen God?  Don’t you love us?  Do you not care?  Do you even exist? 

Or rather - What did I do to cause this to happen?  What could I have done differently?  How could I have missed the signs?  Why did you let this happen, God?  Why did I let this happen?  What did I do to deserve this?  How did we end up with such a barren, wasted tree?  Hand me the axe, I’m ready to chop it down, I’m ready to give up hope, because I when I look at that tree I see nothing but emptiness.

And then I look at that gardener.  What does the gardener do?  Does he sit around fretting about why God is allowing the tree to be cut down?  Is the gardener questioning the justice of the universe, falling into deep existential angst about the fate of the tree?  No!  He springs to action!  He does everything within his power to prevent the owner from giving up on the tree.  He pleads for the life of the tree, enthusiastically hauls out the shovel and wheelbarrow; lays out his plan for replenishing the soil with nutrients from the fertilizer; makes his case for giving the tree just one more year to bear fruit.  It may be a lost cause, but he’s not ready to give up yet.  When that gardener looks at that tree he sees life, he sees hope, and does everything he can to preserve whatever potential may be left in that tree.  The gardener sees that tree with the eyes of faith, despite all evidence to the contrary. 
The gardener does not get distracted wondering about why things are the way they are or what the tree might have done to deserve this.  The gardener does not write off the tree as a lost cause.  He gets in there, down in the muck and gets his hands dirty.  He grabs a shovel and starts digging.  He rolls up his sleeves, grabs a handful of that smelly fertilizer, and starts filling it in around the base of the tree. 
Because the gardener knows, if you throw in the towel every time something bad happens; if you write off a person, or a race, or a culture, or a prisoner, or a refugee, or a gay or lesbian, or an entire country because you think they deserve what they got; if you’re ready to chop down the tree every time it fails to bear the fruit you think it should, pretty soon you’ll find yourself surrounded by nothing but a bunch of dead stumps.

I know that it is a normal part of the process when tragedy strikes to wonder, why?  Why did God allow this to happen?  What did they do, what did we do to deserve this?  But don’t linger too long on those questions, because that is where the devil lurks to pull you into the quicksand of despondency or the fire of despotism , and you will be like those questioners who came to Jesus.  You will perish if you allow yourself to be dragged down by those questions.  

Listen to the gardener trying to change your mind, showing you a new perspective, trying to get you to see this tragic situation through the eyes of faith.  It matters not how or why we are in the mess.  What matters now is what we’re going to do about it.  The gardener says, Trust in God, even in the face of fruitless branches.  Don’t try to formulate a theory of illness, get in there and minister to the sick.  Don’t attempt to explain why the demons made the stones fall.  Get in there and cast out the demons as you’re hauling away the rubble.  Don’t try to develop a hypothesis for how prayer works.  Just get in there and pray.  This is a very practical, down-to-earth faith we’re talking about here.  We’re not interested in trying to explain evil, we’re here to overcome it. 

The gardener says, don’t despair when bad things happen to you.  And don’t get self-righteous when bad things happen to others.  Don’t get on your high horse and gloat that you think you’re better than others.  And don’t cower behind closed doors waiting fearfully for the onslaught.  Wake up each morning and say Okay, world, whatever you have in store for me today, bring it.  My joy will be magnified because I stand in the light of Christ.  My sorrow will be transformed because I stand in the light of Christ. 

I fear no evil, for thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.  I fear no evil because I look forward to seeing what God is going to do about it, how God is going to take a dead tree and throw manure around it and bring it back to life.  How God is going to take a crucified Jesus, hanging on that dead tree, and effect a miracle of transformation the likes of which the world has never seen. 

And so I stand here looking at that dead tree.  I stand here shaking my head.  And I watch that gardener fervently, foolishly digging, digging, digging around that tree.  And then the gardener beckons to me, and hands me a shovel.


  1. 8 "`Sir,' the man replied,`leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig round it and fertilise it.
    9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'" (Luk 13:8-9 NIB)

    Your interpretation is powerful and insightful, but works only right up to this point. Yes, they are self-righteous, hoping that the galileans had done something to deserve it. But they aren't to give the galileans one last chance, dig round with manure, then judge them next year. They aren't to judge them at all.
    Rather, this teaching surely follows on the back of Luke 12- warning to be ready to meet with God.
    God is giving us one last year to yield the fruit of repentance and faith. To judge others as sinners deserving judgment is to miss that we too deserve judgment, and God has delayed all our deforestation for one last chance.

    1. Thank you for your comment and engagement with this provocative text. We are in agreement that judgement is to be avoided when work is to be done. I think that point is clear throughout the piece. In terms of the warning to be ready to meet with God - what you offer is certainly another way the text could be interpreted. The deliberate ambiguity of the text invites multiple approaches. But again, making the tree the equivalent of human beings is fraught with risk. A tree can only be as fruitful as the environmental conditions in which it exists. How wonderful that we have a God who seeks every opportunity to protect and nourish us, giving us every chance possible. May we, as apprentices to The Gardener, learn to do likewise.


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