New Revised Standard Version
13 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 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? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6 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. 7 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?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Are any of you a golfer or want-to-be golfer or enjoy watching golf? For those who are casual golfers or not particularly good golfers, when you hit a bad shot you ask, “Can I have a mulligan?” A do-over. I’ll just take the golf ball back to where you were and take the shot over. Or, if you don’t like how you are doing on the hole, you might want to go back to the tee and start over all together. All you want is a second chance to do better.
We often wish we had a second chance especially when we look back on events in our life that didn’t go as we expected. We might say to ourselves, “If I could just do it over, I might have…” Yet do-overs are rare if they happen at all. Many things that happen in life are out of our control. If we are fortunate to have another chance, we are incredibly lucky.
In this passage Jesus tells his followers that there aren’t always do-overs. Many things that happen in life are out of our control. Life is fragile – we don’t know how long we have on this earth or how things will work out. Because life is fragile, we need to understand the urgency of living it. We might not have time for that mulligan we desperately want.
Jesus refers to those whose lives ended unexpectedly – the Galileans and the ones who were killed when the tower fell on them – as examples of the fragility of life. He goes on to say that their deaths were no punishment for doing something wrong. In a sense, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were victims of events that were out of their control.
Realize, though, that just because these things didn’t happen to you that you have received a special blessing. Those that were killed were no different than you who are alive. Life is fragile. Life is unpredictable.
Jesus doesn’t promise us freedom from calamities. He doesn’t present himself as the Superman who swoops down to rescue you from danger. That isn’t what God does. At times we wonder why God doesn’t rescue us from danger. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why couldn’t God have fixed this or stopped it from happening at all or healed the people we care about? Why couldn’t God have stopped a war from starting at all? If God is so all knowing and all-powerful God certainly could have jumped in and changed the situation. God could have prevented tanks and soldiers from invading Ukraine. God could have prevented someone from falling off a cliff. God could have stopped someone from getting sick. Probably so, but that isn’t what God does.
I wish I had an easy answer to why it is that God doesn’t always save the day. I have wrestled with this question over and over. An inadequate answer I have come to is this: if God always swooped in to prevent calamities from happening, why would we need faith? If we knew that no matter what we did or what happened in our life God would come and fix it, wouldn’t we do whatever we wanted because we wouldn’t suffer any consequences. We just might jump off a building because we know that God will catch us. What kind of faith would we have in a God that would fix anything that we do?
Faith requires us to trust that God knows what God is doing, especially when it doesn’t make sense to us. Faith, for us, is about our growth in learning to trust God. Knowing in our heads that God is all-powerful and all-knowing is one thing but believing it in our hearts is another thing all together.
Trusting God, having faith that God knows what God is doing, allows us to live a fragile life with urgency. God has our backs. God has a plan. We don’t know how it will play out so we are to live as though the end could come at any time.
The good news is that we have the opportunity to seize God’s graciousness in the here and now… if we so choose. It is up to us to decide whether or not we want to take all that God offers, including forgiveness and, at times, second chances.
In our Thursday Bible study this week, we were provided with directions on what to know about growing figs. Some people know these already – those that are experts in growing figs. For those who don’t:
• Fig trees require well-drained and fertile soil. The best soil for growing fig trees is loamy soil with plenty of organic matter. Figs also require a lot of moisture.
• Trees should be protected from cold winter winds and direct winter sunlight. Unseasonably warm temperatures can cause trees to grow. If this happens too early in the season, growing fig trees can be damaged by later freezes.
• Fig trees should be fertilized every year. Prune lightly in late winter just before growth begins.
• Harvest figs when they are fully ripe. Figs will stop ripening once they are removed from the tree.
We assume that if we follow these instructions that when the tree is old enough it will start producing figs. Figs that you can eat, use in recipes, and give away to your friends.
In the parable that concludes this passage, we hear of a fig tree that doesn’t cooperate. Even though it is old enough to be producing fruit, it isn’t. The point of the parable is to understand that imminent judgement may be on the horizon. This cultivated yet unproductive tree is allowed to live because it is granted extra time. It is granted a reprieve. The tree is given a bit of grace. One more chance to grow figs.
That time, however, isn’t limitless. The owner doesn’t say that the tree can keep growing and have a yearly check-in. He is ready to cut it down right then. Instead, he listens to the gardener’s advice to let him dig around it and surround the tree with manure. If it doesn’t produce next year, then chop it down. Imagine, if you will, being that fig tree in terror knowing that if it doesn’t produce figs, it will no longer live. Yikes!
Assuming we are like the fig tree, just because we aren’t cut down, we don’t presume that we are bearing fruit. We live from one day to the next doing what we think we are supposed to do. This doesn’t mean that we are doing what God asks us to do. That we are bearing fruit. That we are sharing God’s love, grace, and forgiveness with others. That we are following Jesus.
In the parable we learn that patience and mercy temporarily keep the judgement at bay for the tree. Patience, grace, and loving care. The gardener is the characterization of these traits, asking the owner for one more chance for the fig tree. He promises to surround it with nourishment and care.
Like the fig tree, God can nourish and surround us with patience, grace, love, and forgiveness if we allow God to do so. Unlike the fig tree, God continues to provide that care for us without a time limit. Just as the gardener doesn’t leave the tree to become fruit-bearing on its own, God doesn’t leave us to figure out how to live by ourselves. Everything possible is done for the tree and for us.
Some people try to turn this parable of the fig tree into an allegory. The owner is God. Jesus is the gardener. Doing so doesn’t really make sense. Portraying God as one who expects us to do it God’s way or else doesn’t represent the God we know – the God of second chances.
We might read the parable another way – as an open-ended story. The suspense is provided by what the parable doesn’t say. We don’t know what happened with the tree. Did it grow figs or was it cut down? Did the gardener’s efforts make a difference? Luke doesn’t give us that answer. There isn’t a flashback moment later in the book that tells what happened to the tree. We’ll never know.
The theme of this passage and the parable of the fig tree is repentance. We hear that word bandied about with different understandings of its meaning. Some define it as a moral uprightness or an expression of regret or a 180-degree change of direction of behavior. A better understanding of repentance, as Jesus uses the term, is that it is a changed mind. A new way of seeing things. Adopting a different perspective. Like putting on Jesus glasses and looking at life, at the world, and at other people through Jesus’ eyes.
The message for us is that what matters is not what we do but what God does. We may think of it as being found by God rather than us finding God. Through God we are reoriented to our life. We gain a new consciousness of our shortcomings and circumstances. Our eyes are opened to a new way of living – God’s way.
It doesn’t mean that we won’t slip back into old habits. We’re human. We’re sinners. We backtrack. We won’t be perfect. We get lost and struggle to find our way again. That is exactly the place where God meets us. God finds us again and draws us back to God.
Taking another quick look at the parable, we note that repentance is assumed. The urgency in living life is another focus. We are reminded that life is a gift. It is a fragile one that needs to be lived carefully and be nourished by God.
At times we are so busy trying to avoid stepping our own muck, that we forget that we aren’t the only ones seeking to repent and change our lives (with God’s help) so that we gain a new perspective on how we are to follow Jesus. There are others who are trying to avoid their own muck. We can grab a hand of another and help lead them out of the muck towards the life Jesus offers. A life of faith surrounded by God’s grace.
Jesus calls us to live a life of urgency. We don’t know when this life will end or when Jesus will return so we are to live as though it could be any moment. And we are to lead others by the hand to join us in living this life.