Apparently fig trees are like the scrappy underdogs of the tree world. They have “aggressive root systems” that do whatever they have to do in order to find water and nutrients in the rocky, arid Middle Eastern soil where they grow wild. These aggressive roots have a strong need for groundwater and will find it deep down, if it isn’t readily available from rainfall or surface water. Fig trees can tolerate drought and make do in nutritionally poor soil, though they have been cultivated since ancient times and thrive with just a little tending (Wikipedia, “Common Fig” entry as of 3/1/13).
If fig trees wrote psalms, you could imagine one of them writing Psalm 63: O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water (Psalm 63: 1). I can make do with this rocky, dry, marrowless soil, but, God, I could really use you right about now. I am holding on for dear life. Can you come by here?
Don’t you think the fig tree wanted to bear fruit?
The one that Jesus tells about in the parable. It had been fruitless for 3 years and though the tree’s owner wanted to get rid of it, the gardener intervened. The gardener said, Give me a year with it. See what happens when I dig up this hard, dry, compacted soil and add some fertilizer. Wait another year and see what happens (Luke 13:6-8).
This is what happens. Figs! I’m going to pass them around so you can taste and see what we are talking about, so you can literally take it in. This delicious, chewy, nutritious, surprising fruit is what comes from a place that just last year seemed lifeless and beyond hope. Please keep passing them around – don’t be shy.
A fig tree is made to bear fruit. That’s its purpose. That’s the goal of its existence. It’s important to remember that: the parable is not about getting an apple tree or a pine tree to bear figs. It is not about expecting something impossible. It is not about expecting the tree to be anything more or less than what it is.
Again, I ask: Don’t you think the fig tree wanted to bear fruit? Its whole purpose is to make figs. It’s not confused about its purpose. It is not trying to write a novel instead. It is probably trying to work itself up to a fig. But for whatever reasons – drought, poor soil, neglect – it hasn’t been able to muster a single fig. For 3 years.
It can be a little trickier for us to figure out our “fruit.” What am I meant to bear or produce, that will show that I am fulfilling my purpose? What is the goal of my existence? How many years have I been fruitless and when is the nice gardener going to show up and help me out a little? How much time do I have – gulp – before it’s Zero Fruit Thirty?
Even when you know your major or you are a fabulous fourth year “coasting” towards May with a job offer clinched, the fruit question can linger. Is this what I am supposed to be doing? How does this degree or job allow me to live out my calling as a disciple? Is my whole purpose – my whole fruitfulness in life – measured by my work? If not, how else do I engage in fruitful living?
Asking questions like these is your first step to bearing fruit, to living out of your purpose. Remember that the fig tree had been fruitless for 3 years already? And fig trees know what their purpose is! For 3 years, this fig tree sat withering and suffering and not fulfilling its purpose, probably writing something like Psalm 63 while it waited for that gardener to finally show up and give it some help and encouragement.
Who knows what went on in the mind of the fig tree during that long wait, but you can imagine it, can’t you? You can imagine working and striving and feeling a little lost and feeling pretty parched and wondering if God is paying attention. Can’t you?
During times like that it can be tempting to look for signs. That’s what the first part of tonight’s reading from Luke is about. Were those Galileans who Pilate killed worse sinners than the other Galileans? Is that why God allowed that to happen? (vv. 1-2). It’s tempting but Jesus rejects this line of thinking. He brings up another tragic event, when people were crushed under a falling tower and he also rejects that as evidence of God’s wrath. To questions about events like these, he says, No, that’s not how God behaves. The lesson from those events is that life is fragile and unpredictable and the best path to fruitfulness is to repent – turn around – and go in the direction of God (Luke vv. 1-5 and People’s New Testament Commentary p.231).
You might say that Jesus does give a flying fig. Because after he’s gotten all that straightened out, he tells the parable about the fig tree. Fig trees don’t wait for signs. They use all of their energy to make figs. And when they don’t have enough energy left for that, they wait – sometimes for a long, long time – for a gardener who knows his way around fig trees.
We don’t like that part, either, do we? The waiting for a long, long time part. The waiting while we are thirsty beyond our own abilities to quench our thirst. The waiting when we are not sure what we are waiting for….Am I waiting to become an engineer? A parent? A volunteer at the homeless shelter? The fig tree got at least 4 years to come up with some figs – 3 years plus the year ahead with the gardener’s help. Hmmmm….What else takes 4 years? College, anyone?
How much pressure do you put on yourself to have it all figured out by the time you get your degree? Don’t you think we get at least as long as a fig tree?
And when the wait is over and the gardener finally shows up, it is still “up to the tree itself to feast on this extended care [it receives]” It’s not like the fig tree can just put its feet up and wait for figs to be brought to it and placed on its branches. The God-given work of a fig tree is to work with the God-given gardener to make figs out of itself, to bear fruit. I don’t know how long you get to become fruitful but “[t]he parable is just as clear about the gracious intervention of the gardener as it is about the possible one-year deadline if no improvement is found” (General Board of Discipleship “Lectionary Planning” pages as of 3/1/13). In other words, God is on our side. God made us for fruitful living and God does not leave us to our own devices either to figure out what fruit we are called to produce or to come up with it entirely on our own.
Neither is God inclined to thwart our fruit-producing abilities. God wants our lives to bear fruit. God sends the Gardener Jesus to give us some extra help. You are not meant to do this alone, with no resources, endlessly relying on poor conditions and your own reserves. You are scrappier than you think you are and God, with a trowel and some gardening clogs, is just waiting to dig in and help you grow, thrive, bear fruit. But you have to be part of it. You have to do something, too. You have to reach your aggressive roots as far as you can and take the life-giving assistance you find.
I don’t know that our deadline is a year from now but I do know that we all have deadlines. Towers fall, cancer grows, floods rise. Life is shorter than we think and a lot of things are out of our control. But at each and every moment of life we are moving closer to God or further away. Closer bears fruit. Every time. And you can repent/turn around/move closer even when you are still asking questions about what kind of fruit tree you are, and even when you are dying of thirst and writing psalms to God in the desert.
I know you want to produce fruit. Like the fig tree, you are aching for it. If that is all the path you have right now, then go with the ache. It will take you where you need to go. It will take you through and beyond the places that seem lifeless and purposeless. It will take you closer and closer to God. Go with that ache to be fruitful. Who knows what delicious morsel your life will yield by this time next year?
Thanks be to God!
©2013 Deborah E. Lewis