"If It Bears Fruit Next Year, Well and Good"
a sermon based on Luke 13:6-9
A man planted a fig tree in his vineyard. Why plant a tree there? (!) Vineyards have vines -- grapes, planted in long rows. So, why a tree? Was it to give shade to the workers? Was it used to mark the end of the row… or (perhaps) to give something strong against which one could cantilever a rope & pulley in order to drag heavy items up the hillside? Was it for the fruit – the figs? – or (perhaps) just to enjoy the beauty of a tree?
When a vineyard owner in Israel plants a fig tree, it could be a “symbolic” act -- after all, the fig and the vine (& the date palm) were the three natural items used on the coinage that was minted in the Jerusalem Temple. These three images were drawn from Old Testament prophets and psalms, suggesting that the people of Judea were (quote) “the vineyard of the Lord”, or flourishing “like a fig tree planted by streams of water”, or growing tall & heavy-laden with fruit like the palm tree. So, perhaps the landlord planted the fig tree for symbolic reasons… a symbol of his national pride.
Or it may have been planted for a much more straight-forward (mundane) reason like: eating figs! Probably so, because Jesus says that this vineyard owner came looking for fruit on the tree… and found none.
Now, some folks have suggested that I tend to look for social critique and economic commentary in the parables of Jesus. (!)
In other words, I tend to take them more seriously than I do spiritually. So, for those of you who may be looking for a “spiritual meaning” behind the mundane facts of the literal parable, may I suggest Galatians 5: 22… in which the Apostle Paul says:
“The fruits of the Spirit are these: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,
goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control.”
If the “vineyard owner” is God, and the fruit that God expects from us (the church) is more love in the world, more joy in our lives, more peace on earth… how are we doing thus far? ! If God came to First Congregational looking for people who are patient… how well would you measure up? If the head of the church (who is Jesus Christ himself) came to take an account of our kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control… would God be pleased? Satisfied?
I think so. I think there is more love in this place now than in some years past. There’s more conversation after worship; more laughter, joy and pleasure. There’s certainly an effort being made toward becoming a more “inclusive” church. Love, joy, peace… Patience? As long as my sermon finishes within an hour of the start of worship, we’re basically patient (or, if not… and I go long… you are forgiving).
Kindness, goodness … Frankly, I think God would be happy with the $5,000 of Mission Fund expenditures we gave away already this year, to support local community service organizations and human needs, showing compassion toward others less fortunate than ourselves. That money is in addition to the $1,600 of Church World Service blankets (represented on that banner with the many hearts), and the $1,400 you all donated to Heifer International for animals sent to Third-world development projects… not to mention more than $53,000 of Comstock Fund grants this year, and some SERRV Bazaar proceeds.
Oh, let’s not forget the $10,000 we contribute annually to the UCC as part of Our Church’s Wider Mission, the $1,000 we give to Olivet College, the $800 given to Neighbors in Need, and the $2,500 given to One Great Hour of Sharing for disaster recovery work… and the $770 to Strengthen the Church which supports new church starts and seminarians, and about $500 we provide in Emergency Assistance to retirees in our UCC Pension Fund. When you put it all together, that comes to more than $76,000 this year alone!
Those are deeds of kindness, goodness, & generosity of which you should be proud. (I know I am! Thank you!) So… how about “self-control”? We do that. In every way, I see “good fruit” here!
So, I hope I have calmed any fear you might have that you & I (as a congregation) would be caught up short by the owner’s sudden appearance. I think that we are bearing the kind of spiritual fruit that St. Paul says are the “marks of faithful discipleship”. Congratulations, First Church! May your generosity & good works continue to flourish now & in the future, for God’s sake in Jesus’ name.
So… now that you know that I can do a “spiritual assessment” based on a parable in the Bible, let’s get back to the story as Jesus actually tells it… and look for the twist that takes us by surprise.
The man who had planted the fig tree in his vineyard came looking for fruit on it and found none. 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?”
Uh-oh… Aren’t you glad that I took the time a moment ago to assure you that we Alpena Congregationalists will not be found wanting? I sure wouldn’t want to be in that tree’s shoes -- or… soil!
“For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should a barren tree waste that patch of land?
Well, sir… (if I might be so bold as to reply…) it might serve to give shade to the vineyard workers? It’s hot work out there in the summer. They would appreciate some shade when it’s time for a break... a picnic spot, beneath a shade tree.
And, sir, if I may… It marks the end of the row on the uphill side, and it gives us something strong against which we can cantilever a rope & pulley to drag heavy items up the hillside. -- And, y’know, boss… just look, sir: isn’t it beautiful?
“Beauty, schmooty! I want figs, not shade trees. I didn’t plant it for the worker’s convenience, as a labor-saving device. I want figs! Is it too much to ask for a reasonable return on my investment? I’ve given it 3 years (I’ve been patient, right?). Now, cut it down!”
Most laborers working for a master would simply do as they were told. It’s easier that way! Go along with the boss; do it his way. It’s the landlord’s tree, after all; it’s his capital investment, not the gardener’s. Go get the axe, Woodsman! Cut it down; chop it up for firewood! (That would be the norm.)
But this gardener makes a counter-proposal. “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.” (You can cut it down? Let’s ignore that little hint of insubordination, because there are bigger fish to fry.)
Unlike the go-along-to-get-along employee, or the lazy do-only-the-minimum-of-what-you-gotta-do worker, this gardener seems to care about the fig tree.
More than that, this person asks for an extra year of grace on behalf of the barren tree: “Let it alone, sir…” And then this gardener volunteers to commit extra time and energy, going the extra mile, adding his own sweat-equity to the master’s investment: “Let me dig around it, and put manure on it…”
I suppose the skeptic among us might say: “Well, weren’t you doing that all along? You’re the gardener, after all! Didn’t you know that fruit trees need extra attention when they are young -- when they are mere saplings?” Yes, we may want to blame the lowly gardener… as though the barrenness of the tree was the worker’s fault, not the Master’s impatience.
We might also speculate that the workers had (perhaps) picked the fruit as it ripened… enjoying a sweet little snack while sitting in the shade in the middle of a long day of labor in the master’s vines. They might have even thought nice things about a vineyard-owner who cared enough about the workers to provide for their needs. But now (they realize) the piper must be paid. The tree wasn’t for them, after all; it wasn’t planted for their convenience -- their food, their shade. No; all along, the master had intended the fruit for himself! If they pilfered the fruit as it became ripe, they may end up losing it all.
George M. Lamsa -- a native Assyrian who spoke Aramaic at home, whose family lived a simple pastoral life much like in the days of the patriarchs, who was educated in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s College in Persia after the First World War, and then taught at the Virginia Theological Seminary (Alexandria, VA) -- in his book “Gospel Light” (Philadelphia: AJ Holman, Co., 1936, page 291) writes:
Leasing a vineyard (from an absentee landlord) is not always profitable. Droughts and unseasonable rains often cause heavy losses, and the workers have to pay whether the vineyard produces or not.
They must meet the terms of the agreement at any cost; otherwise they will lose their reputation as vineyard workers. For when their contract expires, no man would be willing to rent them another vineyard, or trust them with anything.
Some vineyard owners, even though they have leased their vine- yards to the workers, expect their fruits from them free of charge. Workers who desire to retain the goodwill of the owners during the season send baskets of grapes and other fruits to them, especially fruits of the trees which the owner of the vineyard had planted with his own hands. When they fail to do this, the owner does not hesitate to send his servants to the vineyard to pick as much fruit as they wish without the permission of the laborers, because he feels the vineyard belongs to him and he has a right to its products. Some leasees who are humble and generous men raise no objection, but others resent such interference.
During bad years, vineyard leasees are very careful and try to make all sacrifices possible in order to meet their obligations, and would not even allow their own children to pick grapes. In such hard times there is nothing that would arouse ire against the owner of the vineyard more than to see his servants walking in the vineyard, eating and filling baskets with grapes to take away…
Even though [the owner] knows the vineyard has not produced sufficient fruit that year, he still wants to get the fruit without paying for it. Then again, soldiers and government officials also take whatever they please and this adds to the annoyance of the husbandman.
(There is something contemporary about the plight of the field- worker in a bad economy, whose rent agreement must still be paid, in which not only the owner, but the military & government, take their share off the top. But let’s not get started on that!)
Returning to the story as Jesus tells it…
The worker intercedes on behalf of the hapless tree, and promises to do extra work, aerating the roots & mixing manure into the soil, in hopes of a better harvest next year. It has a second chance; if that fails, well, the tree is lost.
(For those of you who are looking for a spiritual interpretation, imagine that the gardener represents Jesus, who is an advocate to God for grace & mercy for the undeserving, fruitless ones. That works for me, if it must be seen as an allegory.)
For the biblical allegory, however, in which the fig-tree represents Israel, we go to the Prophet Hosea (Hos. 9:10):
“Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel (says the Lord God).
Like the first fruit on the fig tree, in its first season, I saw your ancestors.”
So, if the owner, coming to find the “first fruit” on the fig tree (like the grapes in the wilderness) is meant to be the Lord God, the judgment to “cut it down” is going to be bad news for Israel! The interceding grace of Jesus Christ to win it another year -- together with the commitment to redouble his effort on its behalf, so that it may yet become fruitful (& thereby be saved), is admirable on his part. With this gracious opportunity for repentance -- with the soil churned up, dug around the roots, being fed extra nutrients by God’s own hand – they have a chance! However, if the rulers fail to respond to Jesus’ initiative, their fate would be their own responsibility.
But the prophet Hosea is not the only biblical text that might have been in the mind of Jesus. He probably is also thinking about the Law (Leviticus 19:23-25): “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.”
Are those old rules of tree-conservation valid? Had the owner of the vineyard waited the assigned three years? If it was Torah- Law that taking any fruit from the immature tree was forbidden, his comment (“For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none”) may be a breach of the moral code! Furthermore, in the fourth year -- the year in which the gardener promises to make extra effort on the fig tree’s behalf -- all of the fruit is to be dedicated to rejoicing in the Lord! Party time.
It is only in the fifth year that the vineyard owner would have permission from God to pick and eat the fruit for himself. (I suspect that the absentee landlord in Luke’s Gospel was not a religious Jew, or he would have treated the tree with more reverence.)
The advocacy of the underling standing up to the big boss on behalf of a fruit-tree was a bold move, a gutsy thing; but it was also faithful to the Biblical tradition & would be a good thing for the other field-workers, and for the tree. I think Jesus wants us to care about the natural world -- as well as care about “the Law & the prophets”… the fieldworkers & farmers, & yes, even the landowners. (So, yes, I see in this little Parable a critique of society and our patterns of “market economy”, not just a “spiritual” story about Jesus and the Kingdom of God.)
As it regards bearing “fruit”, I think Jesus wants the whole world to experience more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, & self-control. I also think Jesus wants us to do everything we can to give second chances. It’s worth the extra work, the extra time & effort, to bring new life out. (!) That, after all, was Jesus’ whole Gospel message. Let’s be like that Gardener!