Third Sunday in Lent
Year C, RCL
March 24, 2019
North Fork Ministries
At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or 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? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
Then 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. So 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?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"
This parable of the fig tree in the vineyard is rather mysterious. Unlike many other parables, Jesus doesn’t offer an interpretation at the conclusion. In fact there really isn’t a conclusion. We don’t learn what eventually happens to the fig tree. We don’t learn whether it began to bear fruit or if the next year, it was, in fact, cut down.
The story is often interpreted as allegory – with the fig tree as a symbol for the people of Israel, the owner of the vineyard as God, and the fruit of the fig tree as a symbol of righteousness and justice. In this interpretation, Israel is given another chance to repent, just as the fig tree is spared for another year. Other attempts to allegorize the story present the fig tree as the individual believer, the vineyard as Israel, the vinedresser as Jesus, and the three years as the length of time of Jesus ministry on earth.
Because the story is so open-ended, it lends itself to a wide range of interpretations. When I look at parables or stories about Jesus, I find it far more interesting to look for details that point us beyond the simple analogies. I tend to shy away from the usual, sometimes tired interpretations and look for new life in the scripture. And it is always useful to keep in mind that an interpretation of scripture is dependent on what we bring to the story – our own experience. But, having said that, for our own interpretation to have some credibility, it must also be grounded in the context in which the parable was originally written.
For example, this is a story about a fig tree that has growing in a vineyard. Looking over the gospel reading last week, it occurred to me to ask: Why was a fig tree planted in a vineyard in the first place? Every vineyard I’ve seen consisted of row after row of grape vines. If you drive along the Main Road or the North Road, (as I do frequently as I travel between our two churches) you will see unbroken rows of the same trellised vines, without a tree in sight.
It seems, however, that that was not the case in 1st century Palestine. Apparently it was a rather common practice then to plant a fig tree in a vineyard to aid in the trellising of vines. The Greek horticulturist, Pliny, wrote in an ancient farming manual that “The choicer wines are made from the grapes at the top of the trees.” The vintners at the time found that if they trellised the vines onto the branches of the fig tree, that the grapes produced in these higher reaches were superior to the grapes that were produced below. So, what might that observation have to say to the community of Holy Trinity/Redeemer? Well, we’ll get back to that.
So, in the parable, the fig tree is in the middle of the vineyard and holding up the grape vines, but it’s not producing fruit, and it is this absence of fruit that is the topic of conversation between the land owner and the gardener. There are a number of reasons why a fig tree might not bear fruit. It could be too young. Shoots from a fig tree are typically sprouted in pots for 2 to 3 years. Then a year or two after it is planted it can expect to produce fruit. Thus fruit could be anticipated on the tree’s fourth, fifth, or sixth year.
A fig tree is quite resilient. Even it is cut down it can be counted on to grow back. But it does require special care if it is to be truly productive - if it is to bear fruit. The Helenistic agricultural manuals suggest rich, humid, soil, digging around the base of the tree, and manure. Watering is recommended when the fruit is swelling, but the soil is to be left relatively dry otherwise.
So at the end of the discussion about what to do with the fruitless fig tree, the gardener (or the vine dresser as he is called in the more poetic King James Version) recommends to the landowner that he dig around the base of the tree and add manure. Apparently, during the early years of the fig tree’s life the two had done nothing to properly care for a young tree. Until now… when the owner apparently has a craving for figs.
So we might think of this parable as the story of two flawed farmers. The owner was into his third year of coming to the fig tree looking for figs. And already his first impulse is to cut it down. In the two previous years, he had done nothing to enrich the soil, ensure that it was pruned properly, watered at the appropriate times of the year…And neither had the vintner. He knew that digging around the base of the tree was important, as well as adding fertilizer, but he had done nothing until the owner suggested that the tree be cut down. If they had been better farmers, they wouldn’t have waited. The story brings into question the judgment of the owner and the vintner who hadn’t properly nurtured this tree at the center of their vineyard.
So…what are we to make of this parable? If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m suggesting that Holy Trinity Greenport and The Church of the Redeemer is called to be a fig tree in the vineyard. We are asked to be something different. We are surrounded by vines that all produce the same kind of fruit. There may be varietals in the vineyard, but it is always grapes. Our mission is to be different. We are to produce a different kind of fruit altogether. We haven’t gathered here just to keep alive a church like every other church in the county. We have a mandate to be something else. There is no owner, impatiently inspecting the tree for fruit. However, as tenders of this tree in the vineyard, we are responsible for its care. Even though our church is over a hundred years old, we need to care for it as if it were a young sapling, freshly planted in the rich soil of the North Fork.
Yet, this is a story without an ending. Most parables have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This one is different. The future of the fig tree is unresolved. Likewise, none of us can tell what will be the future of Holy Trinity or Redeemer. What will we look like next year? What will we look like 10 years from now? We don’t know. It is clear however, that the fate of the tree depends on those of us who tend this fig tree of a church. But it is also a lesson for us not to wait. The time to nurture and care for its growth is not in the future, but now. Our church’s roots run deep, and it’s branches, if you look around, are gaining strength.
And just how are we called on to be different? We combine the ancient with the contemporary – we have a liturgy that is reminiscent of the early church and a theology that recognizes that we live in the age of reason. We welcome everyone. We regard scripture as divinely inspired, but not always to be taken literally. We are open-minded and we accept a degree of ambiguity.
We aren’t a church that is heavy into doctrine. One isn’t required to accept a list of truths or submit to an outline of the faith in order to be accepted in our community. In our emerging church, doctrine isn’t dogmatic, but is a practice of reflection and discussion and critique, then rethinking, rearticulating – in the midst of an environment that is caring, loving, and considerate.
Brian McLaren wrote an important book a few years ago called A Generous Orthodoxy. He says that “to be a Christian in a generously orthodox way is not to claim to have the truth captured, stuffed, and mounted on the wall. It is rather to be in a loving community of people who are seeking the truth on the road of mission and who have been launched on the quest by Jesus, who, with us, guides us still.”
I’m suggesting that we are called as a church to be something very different. We are called on to bring a breath of fresh air into a stale church environment. Something new, something emerging, changing. What will result from this sense of openmindedness, our willingness to experiment, remains to be seen. It is clear that we are not meant to be just another vine in the vineyard. We offer something old and something new. The gospel, good news, expressed in a way that is truly good news. A discovery that you can be Christian if you are unloved, questioning, uncertain, open-minded, progressive…a fig tree in the vineyard.