Third Sunday in Lent, year C
March 20, 2022
The parable of the fig tree.
The fig is the very first fruit mentioned by name in the bible.
Not for its sweet crunchy flesh or the nutrients it provides, but of course, the fig tree is regaled for its broad, wide-reaching leaves.
Surely you remember the modesty of Adam and Eve.
Now I love a fig newton. My brother used to tease me, saying
that the little crunchy pieces of this cookie were crushed up wasps, but I didn’t fall for that….much.
At least it didn’t stop me from delighting in the taste of this sweet cookie. I still treat myself to a fig newton whenever I give blood— that and a twice a year coca-cola…. I’ve tricked my brain into thinking this replenishes me. You don’t need to tell me it’s all a sugar rush.
The love that the people of God have for the humble fig is recorded throughout scripture.
I know a few of you cultivate figs here in Scottsboro—
I’ve been the grateful recipient of your fig jams—
and each time I bite down into this gooey fruit,
I am taken back to the world of the ancient foods our forebearers ate.
I think of all the fig cakes in the bible,
and the symbolism the Hebrew people gave this admirable fruit.
In the book of Judges, there is a wonderful fable told to the people
about what kind of person they would choose to rule as king over them.
It goes like this….
“Once the trees went out to anoint a king over themselves. They said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king.’ But the olive tree answered, ‘Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and humans are honored, to hold sway over the trees?’ “Then the trees said to the vine, ‘Come and be our king.’“But the vine answered, ‘Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and humans, to hold sway over the trees?’
“Next, the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come reign over us.’ “But the fig tree replied, ‘Should I stop producing my fruit, so delicious and sweet, to hold sway over the trees?’
“Finally the trees said to the thornbush, ‘You come and be king over us.’
In the end, it was the arrogant, dangerous thornbush who accepted the appointment, and I’m sure you know where that led.
The olive, vine, and fig tree were content in who God made them to be.
They wanted to remain altruistic, providing for others the blessings of fruit God gave them.
We also hear about figs in King David’s time.
At a terrible point in his rule, David had to escape Jerusalem because Absalom had plotted against him. Absalom was about to besiege the city. As David was getting away, walking up the Mount of Olives, toward the Dead Sea people brought him and his family saddled donkeys, bread, and figs to sustain them in the desert.
The Donkeys were Transportation, fit for a king
The bread was both nourishment and
a symbol of the bond between God and God’s people,
The figs, were symbols of god’s blessing and well-being.
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Nehemiah, Hosea….all the prophets
see the Fig tree as a sign of future peace and tranquility.
Micah captures their sentiments in a superlative prophecy.
He depicts the reign of God for people in this way,
“They shall sit every person under their own vine
and under the fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.”
Jesus lived within the words and imagery of Hebrew scripture
as did the people around him.
When Jesus was calling his disciples,
you may remember him referring to the fig tree.
“Once he saw a man named Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, ‘Here is a true child of Israel. There is no duplicity in him.’
“Nathanael said to him, ‘How do you know me?’
“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘I saw you under the fig tree.’
(ah, now we see the symbolism—Nathanael was living the kingdom life)
“Nathanael answered him,
‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.’
“Jesus answered and said to him,
‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?
You will see greater things than this.’
All of the fertile, peaceful, fruitful imagery and meaning of the fig tree is why the barren fig tree is so reviled— and so ripe for teaching.
Jesus powerfully uses the metaphor of the fruitless fig tree.
God’s adorns us with fruit: we are to be ready to bear it.
Jesus asks, are we like that fig tree? Producing no fruit?
Then like the fig tree we are just taking up space—
In Luke’s gospel that we heard today, the parable is set in a fascinating context. These Galileans come to Jesus wanting some clarification about their lives.
Plainly said, “They want to know if violence and suffering are random, or according to divine law.” (Fred Craddock)
They are asking about a horrific incident
in which their compatriots were killed,
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way,
they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?
Emphatically Jesus says, “No!”
He rejects their attempt to draw straight lines from one thing to another.
Jesus sternly reprimands them, saying frankly,
‘You want to use this to justify yourselves
and deflect attention from the real matter at hand: trusting God.’
We are not to link our trust in God
to the ups and downs of life’s sorrows or life’s joys.
We know it doesn’t work that way in this life—how many good people do we know still suffer—how many dastardly folk seem to get away with murder?
It doesn’t work that way in the kingdom of God.
Jesus says, this is not a game where we gain God’s favor for good deeds we do, and lose it when we fall short.
God’s grace is a gift, none of us could ever earn.
This sums up the WHOLE argument of the Reformation.
I suppose it is still the argument today, even though Jesus settled it long ago.
We have a tendency to read parables and assign who is who.
Am I the fig tree, (barren)
or am I the gardener who is supposed to nurture the tree?
We wonder, who is Jesus in this parable-maybe he is the gardener?
Who is the manure, for that matter?
As many smarter people than I have taught,
we can learn much more if we don’t read this with one-to-one assignments.
Just as Jesus tries to teach to those who question him,
we are called to listen to this parable
within the whole body of teaching of our Lord.
Our lives are not merely judged based on matters of sin,
if it were so, then we all deserve to be cut down.
By the grace of God, we all have the opportunity to bear good fruit.
Jesus lets the gardener’s plea just sit with us,
‘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.'”
Jesus leaves the parable open ended for a reason….
Truthfully, friends, He’s already answered it.
We are to live reflective lives,
trusting God will accept us if we are honest
about things done and left undone;
trusting God will accept our work to
bear the fruit God has so generously given us.
Thanks be to God.