At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Then he 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.’” -- Luke 13:1-9
I have the worst luck with planting tomatoes. I used to have visions of growing my own food, feeding my family and sustaining the earth with my simple organic home agriculture. When I lived in Connecticut, I bought reputable heirloom seeds called Silvery Fir. Silvery Fir is an heirloom from Siberia, bred to grow in cold climates with a short growing year. I figured, if they can grow in Siberia, than I can grow them in Connecticut. I tended them, watered them, and transplanted them. I even sang to them (they liked Russian opera). I rejoiced when they popped out of the soil. And they grew and grew -- into small, leggy, spindly, and wispy, fruitless plants.
Sure there were bigger, sexier, tomatoes on the market that made mine look puny -- like the Burpee Best Boy. Best Boy was born to be a star in the garden. Best Boy’s maturity produces large, firm fruits on compact plants, with excellent uniform coloring disease resistance. I had a landlord who used to buy these beautiful hybrid plants. We lived in a two-family house near Boston, Chris and I lived above our landlord’s family. The landlord and I shared a garden patch in his yard. Every Memorial Weekend, I would plant my tender seedlings. He would come home from a garden center with a two-foot tall hybrid tomato, small green fruit already forming on thick vines. He was competitive like that – a vegetable bully. I bet he didn’t even like tomatoes. He just had to have the biggest and best tomatoes in the garden.
Jesus has some stories about spindly plants, too. In today’s reading, it’s a fig tree. The owner of the tree wants to see some fruit from this thing, but it won’t produce. “Chop it down, the vineyard owner says.” He’s like my old vegetable bully landlord. In his economy, if something is not a fruitful member of the garden, or if someone is not being a successful member of society, get rid of it. Put the resources somewhere else – something bigger and more alluring. But there’s this gardener. And the gardener says, “Give it another year, boss. I’ll give it extra nurture. I’ll take care of it. Something wonderful will happen. You’ll see!”
The gardener understands. Thirsty, withered times call for more resources, not less. Parched souls need to be filled, not shrunk. And we live in some parched times, don’t we?
The standard interpretation of the parable of the withered fig tree goes something like this: The three entities in the story all have clear symbolic significance. The vineyard owner represents God, the one who rightly expects to see fruit on the tree and who justly decides to destroy it when there is none. The gardener who waters and fertilizes the tree represents Jesus, who feeds his people and gives them living water. The tree itself has two symbolic meanings: the nation of Israel and the individual. The lesson: Get your act together, and let Jesus change your life because if you don’t, God is going to chop you down.
Today, I want to propose a different interpretation – a reading of this text for parched souls and a thirsty world. Luke 13 opens with the story of 18 Galileans who worshipped in the old Temple in Jerusalem near the Tower of Siloam. The tower fell on them and in the disaster their blood was mingled with the sacrifices on the altar. Some said it was an act of God. Conspiracy theorists claimed Pilate engineered the collapse of that Tower onto those worshipping Galileans who were resistant to the new and improved temple. Because the Galileans chose to worship at the old Temple built by King Solomon in the Old City instead of the new Temple being constructed by Herod in Romanized Jerusalem, because of their stiff-necked refusal to embrace Herod’s building projects, they were killed as a warning and a threat to the Jewish people. They got the warning loud and clear. And they were angry. Ancient, holy values had been violated: the altar in the old temple; the ritual practices held there; the sacred place reserved for priestly anointed hands; the animals, made holy by prayers, and making them holy in their offered lives; the murdered Galileans who had been standing at that altar. In a single stroke Pilate humiliated the nation and its culture, and the very presence of God and a spinal shiver went through Jerusalem.
I know that spinal shiver. Sikhs at worship, near Milwaukee, WI. The Old Order Amish school children in their classroom in Lancaster County, PA. Newtown. Aurora. Columbine. Rwanda. Syria. We can only begin to name the desecrations that have happened in the past 15-20 years. And then there are the natural disasters. Sandy. Katrina. The Japanese tsunami. Or human-made disasters like the BP oil spill. The catalogue seems as if it does not end. Madness looms larger than life itself. Life is desecrated. Where is God? Are these altars devoid of the powers they praise?
So Jesus tells a story. About a fig tree and a landowner and a gardener. It’s about repentance and nurture to those who are burned out, dried up, and fruitless. I don’t think the landowner is God. I think Jesus has someone else in mind. Luke is writing to a congregation of marginalized, persecuted Christians – perhaps a congregation of Gentiles who have converted to Christianity. In Luke’s time, landowners and vineyard owners were members of the urban elite. They owned large estates which produced great harvests. Most of Luke’s readers would not be the landowners. They would be exploited by the landowners. They would be like the fig tree, devoid of economic resources, feeling parched and fruitless, threatened to be cut down, thirsting for justice. The landowner supported an economy in which laborers worked long hard hours for pay. The economic principle here is people who are rich and successful are the ones who have succeeded. They have reached the top through hard work and sacrifice. The ones who aren’t at the top didn’t try hard enough. It’s an economy that says that those who need special care are less human. They are the people to whom Luke is writing. In the parable, the landowner is the villain. And when Luke needs a villain, he turns to the Herod. Herod is the owner of the vineyard who wants to cut down the fruitless tree. Herod is the iconic bully who represents lust for power, economic exploitation, and hunger for power on the backs of the working poor. Do you remember our scripture from last week? It comes right after this parable. Luke sets Jesus and Herod against each other. Herod is the consumer who devours resources for his building projects like the new Temple. Herod is the sly fox who destroys for his own desires. Jesus is the nurturer – the mother hen. And in this parable, Jesus is the gardener who tends to the needs of the tree instead of the landowner. Jesus, the gardener, represents a different economy. In Jesus’s garden, those who are successful are those who have been compassionate.
Where is God when we feel like parched trees or wilting tomato plants? Where is God when we see despair and violence in a world thirsting for justice? Where is God when we see nations slake their thirst in the blood of war while children literally die of thirst? What is the point of the church, if the church insists only on serving itself? What is the point of our worship, if things do not change? What is the value of the nation, if the flag is wrapped around corruption? Where is the justice in a system that cannot set us free of these terrors?
Jesus says repent. The word literally means. “to turn.” The temptation is to disbelieve in the powers of truth, in justice or wisdom, or the hand of God at work or the love of God in this world. Jesus knows this temptation is at work in us, and he presses for turning, for nourishing, for growth, for second chances. Turn toward the warm altar of hope. No, life is not always fair, but you can be fair. No, life is not always beautiful, but you can be beautiful in your living. No, life is not faithful, but you can be faithful. Humanity may be powerful in hate. And you can be powerful in love, which will step your feet into the kingdom of heaven, here and now.
Christ also feels this temptation, this despair. Christ argues about that feeling with those who see life only one way. We are all the gardeners with Christ, working to sustain a withering world and water it with compassionate justice. God is the gardener, and the tree, the fruit and the bare waiting branches, the one with empty hands and the one who owns it all. And God is always arguing for a little extra time, for our sakes.
And here we are, not cut down. We have a little more time. Fruitfulness is ours to choose, an act of faith, an act of beauty, a work of justice, extending time into another season. And this is our choice, not how it makes us feel, but the meaning we choose to give it. It requires repentance -- a turning, of the soil and a turning of the soul.