At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.4Or 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?5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6Then 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.7So 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?’8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
We spend a lot of time trying to make this faith thing make sense, don’t we? We try to offer reasons for what happens in our life, the good and the bad. After all, we surmise, everything has a cause and every cause has an effect. And so we live under the illusion that somehow we have control over things, that somehow everything in some way has got to make sense. But truth be known, we really don’t have the answers. In fact, our lives are really pretty precarious when you think about it and sometimes the answer is just that we have to wait and wonder and be willing to just let God be God. And repent…
And then we read this parable of the fruitless fig tree. The owner waited and waited and no fruit appeared. So, he got tired of it and told the gardener to cut it down. After all, nothing was happening. It was just wasting soil. But the gardener stopped him, offering to nurture it just a little bit more than it had been, putting fertilizer around it, and waiting just a little bit longer.
Now, granted, this is not one of our warm and fuzzy passages. Jesus is not healing or welcoming or feeding a crowd. In fact, this is downright hard, probably because we find way too much of ourselves in it. We, too, want so badly to find answers to things that happen in our lives that we often lapse into that same notion of God rewarding and punishing based on what we do that these first century followers did. After all, what other answer could there be? And then, the fear factor…if we don’t bear fruit, we get cut down? If we don’t repent, we’ll die?
Well, do you remember the Book of Job, the quintessential story of all in life that makes no sense at all, that has no answer, that comes to us from the margins of faith, those places where we’d rather not go? You remember it…Job, righteous and reverent, loses everything he has. And most of the book is about his so-called friends and even Job trying to figure out why. After all, God doesn’t just pull life out from under someone for no reason. Job must have done something. He must have not been who he was supposed to be. The truth is, Job and his friends, like us, I’m afraid, inherited a somewhat myopic world of retribution and distributive justice. It is hard to imagine a God who loves us just to love us and who, when bad things do happen, when life begins to feel like a whirlwind, appears into the depths of our being to help us stand, to help us walk, and to wait…just a little bit longer.
The Greek word that is usually translated as “repentance” is metanoia. In Classical Greek, it meant to change one’s mind, one’s heart, one’s soul, one’s life. Penance was not a part of it until later. We did that to it! It simply meant to follow a different road. But, as Jesus said, unless you repent…unless you change course…unless you let go of the life that you’ve created and the image of this string-pulling God that you’ve somehow concocted, and listen to the road that beckons before you, you will remain comfortable and secure and right where you are. And you will, surrounded by comfort and answers, die! But, oh, what you will miss! Frederick Buechner says, “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,” than to the future and saying, “Wow!” ( Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1973), 79.)
You know, it’s an interesting thing about figs–the common fig bears a first crop, called the breba crop, in the spring on last season’s growth. The second crop is borne in the fall on the new growth and is known as the main crop. But the fruits cannot happen without the first crop and, likewise, without the last season. Essentially, the fruit sprouts from a seemingly fruitless crop. Maybe the gardener saw that. I think God certainly does. See God sees things that we miss, things that our eyes, unadjusted as they are to the light, have not seen yet. God is good at leading us through our darkness and nurturing us over and over again. The truth is, God is pretty incredible at patiently waiting for figs.
And yet, with all the omnipotence that we imagine God to have, God cannot pull strings. Because there is one thing that the Almighty cannot do because God in God’s infinite Wisdom placed the power to choose in our hands. And so God cannot coerce us to love or to serve or to respond. God cannot force us to see what God is showing us. And so God waits for figs to bloom and the world to change. And God holds us and guides us and picks us up off the bottom of our existence time and time again. There’s always another season.
We read this passage in our Lenten season because it is our season to wake up, to open our eyes, to turn, to love, and to learn that sometimes the world that we see does not make sense. But it’s not all up to us. God is waiting patiently for our response. God knows it’s hard. After all, it just doesn’t make sense. We wish it made sense. G.K. Chesterton said “to let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” You see, God just desires that we love. And for that God waits. God knows that there’s always a little bit more time to wait for figs.
So in this Lenten season, turn toward God and wait for figs.
Grace and Peace,