“Down to Earth with Jesus” the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree Luke 13:6-9
Washington City CoB on June 15th, 2014
Take a moment to recall that on Easter Sunday Mary Magdalene found Jesus in the garden, and mistook him for the gardener. I find this an appropriate portrayal of Jesus as he was in tune with God’s creation. He would often withdraw himself from the hustle of the crowds to pray outside. Is it any surprise, then, to hear Jesus talking about fig trees?
In Luke, Jesus’ parable of the barren fig tree is in contrast to the encounters he has with them recorded in the Gospels of Matthew (21:18-19) and Mark (11:12-14). The significant difference in Luke’s version is that the fig tree is given an opportunity of mercy for one more year with the gardener’s pleading and care. The other two gospels don’t favor well for the tree as it is immediately cursed.
Also in Luke, this parable follows a call from Jesus to repentance with God, and each other. The call Jesus gives also indicates how human evil and natural disasters are not dependent on God’s judgment.
Repent means to re-think, or turn around from your present thinking. We often hear, “Heed God’s way while there is still time or you too will perish!” as a harsh warning. But Jesus reminds us in the subsequent parable that God’s mercy is compelling us to change. Fred Craddock describes the situation in the Interpretation Bible commentary as such, “God’s mercy is still in serious conversation with God’s judgment” (p167-169).
Jesus often used object lessons from nature in his parables, as the culture in his day was mainly agrarian. Jesus’ audience would have understood more of the physical details of the story while they were putting together its symbolic message.
In our present culture, more people are living in cities or suburbs with less experience to working the land. Today, it is possible to miss out in the details of a personal, physical interaction with creation.
While we could come up with analogies based from our urban context, I am concerned that these, at times, would by-pass the distinct gifts and insights that the Creator has provided us. In my mind, it lessens the acknowledgment of both the seen and unseen things we need to survive, and more so to thrive. Let’s then dig deeper into the physical aspects surrounding this story.
The common fig tree grows natural to the Middle East, liking arid climate regions. It would often be cultivated in vineyards as well. With the prevalence of rocky soil, fertile ground was a precious commodity. So, the landowner in this parable wanted to use every piece of the land as effectively as possible. In his mind, there was no reason for a barren fig tree to be wasting the soil.
However the gardener who served the landowner may have seen potential in the tree, or perhaps understood that soil conditions might need to be addressed. So the servant pleads with the master saying, “Let me put some fertilizer and tend to the tree for one year. Then we will see if it bears fruit or needs to be cut down.”
Now the word for fertilizer is translated more literally in the New Revised Standard Version as manure. In essence it was compost. According to the Univ. of Illinois Agricultural Extension, “There is evidence that Romans, Greeks and the Tribes of Israel knew about compost.” (http://web.extension.illinois.edu/homecompost/history.cfm)
Compost in biblical times was manure and rotted straw from livestock bedding. Sheep and cattle are herbivores so their excrement was plant-based. The result is an organic fertilizer used to give nutrients back into the soil.
Unless you have studied the micro-organisms found in soil ecology, most of us today would find this process as completely mysterious. Imagine that! Taking waste and turning it into something useful, life-giving. But this process of breaking down and re-purposing is widely found throughout God’s created order.
Likewise, the inclusion of compost in this parable could symbolize a form of spiritual growth. As a result of challenging experiences and rough life lessons, such “spiritual compost” can increase our own understanding and faith. From my own experience, I have found that healing and repentance often takes place through these types of experiences.
Going back to Jesus and his telling of this parable. The intent of Jesus was to call out people to turn back to God and change for the better. The result of these actions is likened to producing fruit. Fruit that nourishes other life.
As Christians, we believe God came down to Earth in the form of Jesus to be an example of humility, love, and grace. Jesus leads us on a path of renewal and growth following the Easter resurrection. We as Christ’s followers need to be a witness to this hope, to a gospel of life abundant and eternal.
I believe one avenue of such witness is environmental stewardship. We need to turn around on our path of environmental degradation. Science has taught us more about ecology and the effects of pollution. Neglecting this knowledge can cause harm to our neighbors and ourselves.
From a theological standpoint, the very act of the incarnation, God dwelling with us as a human being, implies that God sees value in the created order. Abusing this order or neglecting to act humbly within it denies the gift of God’s Shalom, of living in full harmony with other lives.
On April 26th, I participated in a ceremony as part of the “Reject and Protect” events held on the National Mall. (rejectandprotect.org) Throughout that prior week, farmers and North American indigenous tribes living in the Great Plains region came to Washington, DC to speak against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. They shared concerns about what potential pipeline leaks would have on their local water, air, and land. They also shared concerns about the economic greed that has been a part of the fossil fuel industries in North America, and the unquestioned consumption of fueling our automobiles. Throughout the event I could feel, as Paul alludes in Romans 8, the “creation groaning” when we do not heed God’s way of caring.
Truth is, people are less connected to nature than in Jesus’ day (think manicured lawns, fast food, cell phones, etc.). Finding a balance in our lifestyles between the conveniences of technology and the awareness of our connections with the rest of God’s Earth will be needed.
I believe that the more we learn and interact with creation the more we learn about the Creator. Writers of the Bible from Genesis through Revelation each have been inspired by God’s presence in nature. Praise and thanksgiving are two forms of worship that arose from interacting with creation. Psalm 104 is a great example.
There are still many ways we can interact and praise God today. Hiking, camping, bird watching, and outdoor education just to name a few. Simply stopping to rest and take in the wonder of creation is a part of this ongoing worship of the Creator.
I believe these interactions can inspire us to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God. I like the phrase from today’s call to worship: “God is love and everything God makes is love’s fruit.” Part of this call to bear “love’s fruit” includes caring for the Earth.
The environment is not “out there,” it is a part of everyone’s well-being. We can speak out for the poor who are effected most by pollution and the effects of a changing climate. We need to consider ways to waste less gasoline and electricity daily. We can grow a garden or support local farmers markets. We can arrange carpools. We can simply share a meal.
Many other ideas and creative actions are available. The important thing is to choose a simple act to start with that is accessible to you, and grow love’s fruit from there. Otherwise, we may be just taking up the good soil.
Let us be open to the ways that God in Christ is tending to our “compost” experiences, both in broken and uplifting moments. May we then be nourished by taking time in creation to grow and bear fruit for God’s Kingdom on Earth. Amen.
— Jonathan Stauffer served at the Church of the Brethren’s Office of Public Witness from October 2011 until April 2013 through Brethren Volunteer Service. He currently works as an office manager for the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund in Washington, DC, and will attend at Bethany Theological Seminary this coming fall to begin a Master of Arts in Theological Studies program.