The Gardener and the Fig Tree

The Rev. Katherine G. Dougherty
Sermon Text: 

3rd Sunday in Lent – Year C

March 24, 2019

Luke 13:1- 9

The Gardener and the Fig Tree

         In today’s Gospel Jesus teaches…those who listen…two very important lessons.  First, he speaks about sin and suffering.  The people who were there asked Jesus if the sin of those who suffer loss and pain is greater than those who do not.  This idea or worry is still very present in today’s world.  Books and essays have been written on this very human question of…why do bad things happen to people. 

         In today’s gospel, those speaking to Jesus were wondering if the people…who had fallen victim to Pilate’s wrath, or those, who were crushed when the tower of Siloam fell, deserved it?  Had they done something in their life to deserve this horrible end?  What a question!  Yet, how very human of them.  It’s very human of us, when experiencing great heartache or tragedy, to wonder what we did to deserve this.  It is very natural for us to wonder why God is “punishing” us in this way.

         Jesus responded by saying, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”  Jesus clearly says, “No!” this is not how God works.  God does not give us pain, tragedy, heartache, disease, or suffering.  God does not cause devastating storms or long-term illnesses.  In those moments God is with us, walking beside us, and holding us in our devastation not punishing us with it.

         Jesus does say that we need to repent – when we are wrapped up in the drama and hardships of this world, we need to remember from where our strength comes.  We need to turn towards God and seek guidance and comfort.  Jesus’ words may seem harsh, but his message is about the pain of not knowing God.  He is trying to help us understand that by not repenting for our sins – by focusing on everything else but God, we experience pain.  To be without God and God’s love IS painful!  Like we spoke about last week, we get to choose.  We can choose to live a life without God, or we can choose to live our lives grounded by God’s love and God’s grace.

         In the second half of today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus telling a parable about a fig tree.  It’s a tiny bit of the entire Gospel, but those three little verses hold a lot of weight.  A landowner goes out to his vineyard looking to pick some figs.  As he approaches the tree, he becomes irritated when he sees that it has produced nothing.  He complains angrily to his gardener and demands that it be cut down.  “For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree,” says the landowner, “why should it be wasting the soil?”  But instead of running to get an axe, the gardener pleads for more time.  He tells the man, “let it alone for one more year…let me dig around it and put manure on it...and see if that helps.”  

         What jumped out at me as I read this parable was the gardener’s response to chopping down the fig tree.  In the eyes of the landowner this little tree was worthless – it had not grown any fruit.  The fig had failed to produce, and it was taking up valuable garden space.  The landowner was correct – it hadn’t produced any figs yet, so why did the gardener argue against chopping it down?

         What if… the gardener saw potential?  What if he believed that by deliberately paying attention to it…he could help it produce fruit?  What if…he dug a ditch around the little tree so to collect water for it to drink?  And what if he added manure around its base to nourish its little, frail body?   Might these actions help it to grow and produce the figs it was intended to produce?  What kept coming to mind for me was this gardener’s desire to put energy into the tree  and with that loving energy, he hoped for good things to spring forth. 

         Parables are a funny thing.  Jesus often taught using parables, and anyone who ever studied parables has hear how hard it is to truly understand what Jesus may have meant by his stories.  Even those, who listened to him  tell these stories, are said to have asked him to explain, for they too were confused.  But what if we continued with this thread of the gardener’s desire to care for the fig tree.  What might his care have felt like for that little tree? What if we looked at it through a real life example like this…

         God sent his only son, Jesus, to walk among us teaching and healing and showing us examples of love.  God’s son fed and cared for all the people

with whom he came in contact.  Jesus continued teaching and speaking about the importance of caring for one another and for loving our creator even when his life was in jeopardy.  God’s son loved us so much that he submitted himself to the ridicule and torture of those who feared his message.  Jesus eventually gave up his life so that we could live. 

         Jesus knows that we are sinners.  Jesus wrestled with the frustration of our choosing fear over love, of getting caught up in this world and not focusing on the kingdom of God.  Yet Jesus, at his end, asked for God to forgive us.  Might Jesus have seen something in us that drove him to plead for us once more?

         In today’s parable we don’t know who that gardener was supposed to be.  Some say it is Jesus pleading with God to give us more time to grow.  Some say it is God caring for us and offering us the love and support we need to be fully ourselves.  Regardless, it speaks to me of the gardener’s ability to see the little fig tree’s potential.  It speaks to me of the power of love, nurturing, and hope.

         Did you notice that in the parable Jesus doesn’t tell us if the gardener’s care and attention helped the fig tree to produce fruit?  Maybe it’s because the outcomes aren’t ours to figure out.  Maybe, our task is to work   on staying grounded in our relationship with God and doing things that help us to grow in God’s love and grace. 


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