One day last week I found myself not feeling so hot. In the midst of a long day that followed a bunch of even longer days, I felt physically drained, a little low-blood-sugar-ish, and I was also about 45 minutes from home. I didn’t want to drive feeling all the way home feeling that way, and so I stopped at that great palace of south Jersey goodness, WaWa (of course), to pick up a Gatorade and something to eat. I had been thinking of this weeks Gospel lesson from Luke, and so what kind of snack do you think I was gunning for? That’s right, Fig Newtons, one of my childhood favorites. I grabbed a fruit punch Gatorade and then excitedly grabbed a package of figgy goodness, but the package didn’t look right. To my great horror, all the WaWa had left were fat-free Fig Newtons, which aren’t really Fig Newtons at all.
There are things that make Fig Newtons not Fig Newtons, and so I guess there are things that make a fig tree not a fig tree. If the fig tree doesn’t actually bear any figs, maybe it’s technically a fig tree, but perhaps it’s literally not worth the dirt in which it’s planted. None of that means very much except we aren’t really talking about fig trees, are we?
Jesus offers us the parable of the fig tree. Here’s some background, so we know what we’re getting into:
“The details of this parable reflect its Mediterranean cultural context perfectly. The vineyard owner obviously lives in the city and rents his vineyard to a tenant farmer who does the digging, the planting, etc. He “had the tree planted.”
“The Palestinian fig tree bears fruit ten months of the year, and so one can reasonably expect to find fruit at almost any time. The time sequence regarding fig trees is this: first, the tree would have three years to grow after planting. The fruit of the next three years is considered forbidden (see Lev 19:23). The fruit of the seventh year is considered clean and ought to be offered to the Lord (Lev 19:24).
“The owner in this parable has come seeking fruit for three years, hence it is nine years since planting, and the situation begins to look hopeless. He rightly urges that it be rooted out, but the gardener urges “mercy,” give the tree yet another chance.”1
The traditional interpretation is that God is the owner of the vineyard, Jesus the gardener, and the fig tree is the stand-in for Israel. If so, it would seem that Israel was not bearing much fruit, the fruits of their relationship with God, the fruit being good works. God wants to cut Israel off, Jesus asks His Father to give Israel more time, and then they agree that the best course of action is to dump a load of manure all over it and see what happens.
I think we can all agree, this being a presidential election cycle, that the best course of action when our leaders fail us is to dump a load of manure on them and see what happens. But in this parable, it’s the manure or death. Not unlike Eddie Izzard’s hypothetical English Inquisition, in which the accused is offered the choice of Cake or Death, the choice in this parable is an easy one. Any fig tree would choose the care and concern of the gardener, the mercy of time to bear fruit. Anyone would choose life rather than death.
Our Lord offers us life. It’s a theological fallacy to think that the Lord condemns people just because; that fallacy is called Calvinism, a heresy so dangerous I feel the need to bring it up pretty often. God doesn’t so much send people to Hell as much as we send ourselves there, we choose it. Hell is not other people (unless those people are French existentialists), it’s the absence of God, it’s living with choice of rejecting life. It’s choosing the theological fat-free Fig Newtons.
The good news is that no matter where you are in life, even if your faith isn’t bearing any fruit, Christ Himself is tending to you, pleading your case, giving you every opportunity to grow and to be the disciple He knows you can be. Christ offers us life because He is life, and He has offered up His own life for us.