Luke 13: 1-9
During my time as Pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Dover, that city hosted a New Year’s Eve celebration called First Night. Downtown businesses and churches provided space for the many events occurring throughout the evening: participants comprised musicians, actors, visual artists, restaurateurs, etc. It was a feast of many colors and flavors.
On one particular New Year’s Eve, just a week prior to my last Sunday serving that congregation, the church hosted a brass quintet. The church was vacuumed, scrubbed, and decorated for First Night: we wanted to look our best. Visitors would be coming from all over the little state of Delaware for the capital city’s festivities. As I sat in the balcony of the sanctuary listening to the music with out-of-town guests, one of my friends elbowed me and passed along something she had found in the pew rack. It was an “I Wish” card. You are probably familiar with this sort of information-gathering tool: they state such things as, “I wish to report my presence as a visitor,” or “I wish to speak with the minister,” or “I wish to become a member of this congregation”; “I wish worship would include Hymn # __________; “I wish the minister would preach a sermon on _________”
The card my friend had found read, simply, “I wish the minister would preach a sermon on POOP!” Poop? Something tells me the author of that wish card was not an adult, but even young congregants can come up with fertile ideas.
My friend suggested I use that topic as the subject of my final sermon in Delaware, but I find I have reserved the topic for you fine folks here at NACCP. I have struggled, however, to come up with an appropriate title for such a sermon. “What’s the poop?” “Sh#t happens?” “Manure Spreaders for Jesus?” “Dung, Dung the Fig Tree’s Dead?”
Both Matthew and Mark tell of Jesus cursing the fig tree but only Luke relates the story as a parable. As in Matthew and Mark, the fig tree in Luke is fruitless and, so, deserving of cursing, chopping down, or some other sort of judgement. But, it is only Luke’s fig tree that is given another chance at a fruitful future. In Luke, but not in Matthew and Mark, the fig tree is the subject of a parable, a response to a question about the slaughter of Galileans and the falling of towers in Siloam. The synoptic Gospels have no parallels to this dialogue.
At the end of chapter 12, Jesus says to the crowds he has been teaching, “You don’t know how to interpret the present time.” Chapter 13 begins with Jesus pausing, perhaps for a breath or a drink of water, and “some”--we don’t know who, but perhaps “some” who had difficulty interpreting the present time-- “some” telling him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
We don’t know who the “some” are and we don’t know what they are talking about, specifically. Despite much research of historical, non-biblical sources, there seems to be no other mention of this event in history. We do however, find many examples of Pilate’s cruelty, so, perhaps, we do not need to look farther a field to divine the significance of Luke’s words.
We live in a world—as did Jesus--where towers fall and where rulers torture and cause suffering and death. Tragedies happen daily. But Jesus, in addressing the realities of calamity and misfortune, also addresses our underlying, perhaps unacknowledged, concerns about why bad things happen. Do they happen because people are wicked? Do tragedies stem from God’s judgement?
Jesus says, emphatically, “No.” The Galileans were no worse offenders than any others. Those 18 upon whom the tower fell were no more sinful than anyone else. Sin does not determine who suffers or how much. For Jesus, the question is not, “Why do people suffer and die the way they do?” but, rather, Why are we given life in the first place? How are we to live life abundantly?” Instead of calling God into question and asking, “Are the misfortunes of life God’s doing?” Jesus asks, “What are you doing with the life you have been given? What are you doing in the world?”
Jesus points to the story of the fig tree to illustrate his point. Are we living barren, fruitless, useless lives? Are we, rooted in the life-giving earth, bathed by life-giving rain, and lit by the life-giving sun, stunted and withered? Jesus, rather than focus on the fig tree’s failure to thrive, takes a different tack. He suggests that when we are barren or unfruitful, things be stirred up around us, our branches pruned, and nourishment offered us with tender, loving care.
The fig tree has one job: it was created to bear fruit, but it has wasted its life to date. The gardener says, holding out hope, “Give it one more year. Maybe it will yield. Maybe. Anything is possible.”
In his story, Luke uses a Greek word for fruit which is different from the Greek word for fig. The noun “karpon” means “fruit, grain or harvest. It also means “return, gain, advantage, consequences, or result. It can mean progeny, and offspring. Jesus is referring to far more than just figs. He is speaking figuratively and metaphorically.
We have been given a day, today. The question is not will a tower fall on us tomorrow but, rather, how will we live today? Jesus implies that fruitfulness is a result of repentance. I don’t know about you, but I generally find the word repentance cringeworthy. Makes me think of televangelists or sweaty, bearded street prophets warning us to get our lives in order. However, truth be told, repentance is more a term of hope rather than one of warning. I don’t believe Jesus would call us to do something we are unable to do. There is no sense in preaching repentance unless there is a possibility of getting it right. We can’t preach repentance unless we truly believe we can be better, the world can be better.
The very word Re-pent, spells out what we know all too well, that we need to do it again and again: rinse and repeat. Those of you who are gardeners know that one dose of fertilizer doesn’t guarantee unending fruitfulness. The fertilization has to happen year after year with the hope that regularly repeated tender care and nurturing will produce fruit.
Repentance may just be the most hopeful word you will ever hear. Change happens, which means we don’t have to be chained to the burdens, the fruitlessness, of the past. We don’t have to be weighed down by the same anger or hatred, the same fruitless failure of days gone by. Repentance, change, requires hope. How can one consider such a thing without believing that a tired, old, barren fig tree can bear figs? How can we begin to talk about repentance unless we believe our old barren lives can burst forth into love and hope and life abundant? This takes us back, I think, to Jesus’ words spoken just prior to this text, “You don’t know how to interpret the present time.” When we know how to decipher the present moment, we know to repent, to live this moment clinging to the hope that our lives will be worthy of glorious results, that we ourselves might bear the fruit of abundant life.
I used to love to go out on the tractor with my grandfather after the morning milking of the cows. That red International Harvester seemed huge as I sat on the wheel well with Grandpa in the driver’s seat, the manure spreader attached to the tow hitch. Spreading manure is a mundane, everyday job for most dairy farmers. When you live on a farm, cow manure is a part of everyday life. You may take your boots off before coming in for breakfast, but that doesn’t keep the pungent smell out, as it permeates your clothes and is diffuses throughout the house. My first love was the son of a Dairy Farmer and when he would pick me up in his old brown Plymouth, freshly showered from doing chores, the smell of his cologne mingled with cow manure was almost intoxicating to this farmers daughter. When you are 16 and in love there is no sweeter scent: deep down we all register the smell of life.
Living in a culture where manure was everywhere and seemed to be a natural part of all things, fertile soil, green growth and abundant life, the idea that a fig tree might be denied fertilizer seems alien and very sad. And yet, when I look around, really look around, I see that those lacking what they need for growth surround me in their multitudes.
We need to address our fundamental needs. Perhaps what we most need is what we are kicking off our boots. We may be trying to avoid what seems messy or unpleasant. And yet, isn’t it true that when we go through it, we grow through it? In those moments, the muck may seem repulsive - especially when dark things are being “stirred up,” and spread about. And yet I believe we are called to live every minute with grace and hope, because the truth is, it is after those dreadful moments, that fruit happens.
For many of us the startling power of Jesus’ teachings derives from his reliance on parables.
The parable of the fig tree is one such open-ended parable.
Let me just tell you one more thing today. In the Greek the word parable means “throwing beside.” In other words, Jesus in his parables threw down first one image, and then another, right beside the first, asking listeners to notice a relationship they had not considered before. Every Sunday following the master’s lead, this is what I and so many other preachers may be found doing.
If we are successful, we may on occasion link manure to fruit. And more fruit will happen.