Summary: Lent 3C: Looking past the Law and the barren fig tree, we find the Good News that Jesus let himself be cut down rather than let the fig tree (us) be cut down.
With One Voice # 713 - Lord, Let My Heart Be Good Soil
Let us pray: Lord, let our hearts be good soil. Plant the seed of your Word in our minds and hearts, and help it to bring forth fruit in our lives. Amen
Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen at all? Questions like these have been asked for thousands of years.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus talked with his followers about two tragedies. It seems that some Galileans were killed by the Roman authorities while they were worshiping God, bringing their offerings to God in the Temple in Jerusalem. In another tragedy, some Jerusalemites were killed when a building collapsed.
During the time of Jesus, it was commonly believed that if something bad happened to someone, it was a sign of God’s judgment against that person, because of some wrong they had done. Some people today still think the same thing. Sure, sometimes there are consequences when we do something bad, but Jesus says that bad things don’t happen for a reason. Some times bad things just happen.
That was the case with the fig tree in Jesus’ parable.
It seems that a landowner had some property where he had wanted to have a vineyard. He hired a gardener who was responsible for the care of whatever fruit trees and grape vines were growing there.
The landowner had a fig tree planted. According to Old Testament laws, once fruit trees were mature enough to produce fruit, all fruit trees were given three years before the first harvest. That fourth year, the fruit was to be an offering to the Lord, set apart for rejoicing, for a celebration in the faith community.
But... there was a problem. When the landowner came for that first harvest, he found that the tree hadn’t produced any figs. He returned the next year, and a third year, and still found no figs growing on the tree. There was no fruit, no reason to rejoice over the gifts of God, no offering to present, no figs for eating.
The landowner had been patient, and had waited more than six years for the figs. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the tree— no good reason why it wasn’t bearing fruit. His suggestion was just to get rid of the tree, to cut it down rather than leave it to waste the soil without producing any figs.
But the gardener spoke up. The gardener asked the landowner to be patient for one more year. He said he would loosen the soil around the tree, add some fertilizer to see if that would bring an improvement. And if there weren’t any figs the next year, then the landowner could cut it down.
Jesus taught those following him using parables quite often. Parables were a common teaching technique during that time. From the few parables that Jesus explained, we know that we are in each parable, and God always plays a major role.
In the parable of the fig tree, we are the tree, and God is the landowner. We were planted in God’s vineyard, and God was waiting for us to produce fruit. For some reason, we had not yet produced any figs. All the conditions had been right to expect a good harvest. God had been patient for twice as long as necessary, but God was ready to cut his losses, remove that tree that was just wasting the soil, and start over.
John the Baptist had that same message, too. At the beginning of Luke’s gospel, on the Third Sunday in Advent, John the Baptist said, "Bear fruits worthy of repentance. ... Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is to be cut down and thrown into the fire."
And that would be one way to preach this text. We better get busy and bear some fruit. That would be preaching the Law, using scripture to help us see when we fail, where we come short of God’s ideal. The Law shows us that we aren’t good enough to deserve God’s love, that we aren’t worthy. The Law is an important tool if it’s used to show us our need for Jesus. Jesus brings us the Gospel— good news for disappointing fig trees like us.
Jesus is the gardener. By the time of today’s text, Jesus had been tending that fig tree for three years. Three years. Three years from his baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. Three years of teaching. Three years of tending that garden. And still, no fruit worthy of repentance. No understanding of what it was that God was doing in that world. No lives turned toward Jesus. Three long, unproductive, unfruitful years.