We have another rich set of readings this morning! What got my attention was the parable at the end of our Gospel. A man has a fig tree planted in the middle of his vineyard. The fig tree isn’t producing any fruit, so he decides to have it cut down. But the gardener can’t bear to do it. He pleads with the owner of the vineyard for another year, during which the gardener promises to take special care of the tree.
I start with a confession. I have never loved this parable. Without much thought, I have always assumed that the owner was God. I, we, I am the non-producing tree, standing under the judgment of God. Jesus is the gardener negotiating for one more year. If, with Jesus’ help, I start to produce, I’ll be OK. If not, I’ll be cut down. If you remember my sermon from last week, that’s a “God as policeman” interpretation, and I don’t love that picture of God.
But we used this parable in Contemplative Prayer last week, and the people there opened the parable up for me. They helped me to see that we can hear this parable in other ways, ways that are lot more consistent with what we know about the love of God. Thanks to them, I spent the week doing my best to re-imagine our parable.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a very good visual imagination. When Carrie and I were looking to buy a house, our Real Estate agent routinely would tell us some house had a lot of promise. We’d be standing in the living room, and she had a vision of what it could be. All I could ever see was what it looked like right then.
That means in passages like our parable, I can’t just picture it. I need a little visual help. So, when I was trying to picture the fig tree, I thought about the Peanuts Christmas Special and the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.
That reference dates me. I checked with my son Nicholas, who tells me that anyone his age who didn’t grow up in our house would not know the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.
For those who may not know the story, Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the rest of the Peanuts gang were putting on a Christmas pageant. Charlie Brown was dispatched to buy a Christmas Tree for the event. He ignored all the spiffy artificial trees and got a lopsided, straggly little thing, much to the disgust of his friends.
I see this as a more or less contemporary version of our parable. And I picture the fig tree as Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree: a lopsided, straggly little thing with no value for anyone.
I’m still thinking that is us. We are created in the image and likeness of God so that we can shine with God’s light and love. Unfortunately, most of the time most of us are not as shiny as we ought to be. If you picture me as a tree, sadly it is going to be a little, lopsided, straggly one.
What has changed in my reading of the parable is that I no longer see the owner of the vineyard as God. Quite the opposite. The owner of the vineyard is the voice of the world, the voice of Charlie Brown’s mean friends. The owner doesn’t see any fruit of value on the tree, so he wants to cut it down, maybe lay a parking lot where it’s standing and build a convenience store that would actually be worth some money. That might be a reasonable thing to do, but it is not good news for us.
Thankfully the gardener, Christ, doesn’t see the tree the same way the owner does. Where the owner sees something worthless, the gardener sees the tree, sees us, with love. And because the gardener looks at the tree with love, he can see beyond what the is right then. He is not limited in his imagination like I am. He can see the tree’s potential, if only the tree receives the love it needs. The gardener knows that, with his love and help, the tree could blossom and bear rich fruit.
That is Jesus looking at us.
All the tree needs, all we need, is a little manure.
Now, I have to say that I have been wrestling all week with the temptation to go into a string of manure jokes right here. There is rich comic possibility. But because I am preaching right in front of the altar to people who have gathered in the name of Christ, because Christ is here with us who have gathered in his name, I am going to resist that temptation as best I can.
Instead, I am going to make a serious point about the manure. The gardener sees this worthless tree, and he adds a lot of waste product, and what he knows is that the worthless tree, fertilized by all that waste, will bloom into what God created it to be. Where the world sees worthlessness, where the world sees waste, God see potential, God sees the raw material for great things.
I am that worthless tree. And manure happens. And some of that manure is painful experiences in the world. And some of that manure is the blessings with which Christ surrounds me.
And over time, with Christ’s nurturing help, we are growing into the potential that Christ sees in us even now. The light of God’s love shines in us a little more brightly. Ultimately, though not until after we die and enter the nearer presence of God, we will grow into the full stature of Christ. Looking at us now, Jesus sees all of that potential. And so, Jesus never gives up on us, no matter what the world might see in us.
That’s good news. But we can keep going. What about Fig Tree Parable 2: The Sequel? What happens next?
(This is not in the Bible. This is me, extending the parable.)
The next year, the owner of the vineyard comes back. He sees that the fig tree—remember, we are the fig tree—he sees that the fig tree has produced a few figs. It’s not an impressive crop, and he grumbles about it. But he has to acknowledge that the gardener is making it work.
Over the next several years, the fig tree keeps growing, and keeps producing. People enjoy the plentiful harvests because a tree that has been blessed by God becomes a blessing for everyone around it.
And, over time, some of the tree’s figs fall to the ground, where they become seeds for new fig trees, baby fig trees that may not look like much for a long time. But as long as the gardener is there, working away, adding manure as needed, they too will grow, and they too will produce.
That is our calling as Christian people. We who have been blessed with God’s continuing grace and love even when we didn’t have anything to show for it, we are called to be a blessing for others. We are called to love others. We are called to see people who might look worthless as rich with potential. We who have received a little manure now need to be manure for others. (I couldn’t resist.)
But my point is serious. I invite you to take some time this week to reflect on the ways that God has been at work in your lives. And I invite you to extend God’s love to someone in your life who might seem undeserving. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan