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Fig Trees and Second Chances: The 3rd Sunday in Lent

Well, it’s definitely Lent when you have readings like this! Towers falling and cutting people down. Pilate slaughtering innocent men and women as they’re worshiping in the temple. Or, from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: twenty-three thousand idolaters falling in a single day. Others being eaten by serpents, still others destroyed by the destroyer. This is what we think of when we think of Lent!

One image that comes up without fail during Lent is the fig tree. Jesus uses examples from nature and from everyday life to illustrate his lessons – that’s one of the ways his teaching is so arresting – and the fig tree, being prevalent in the dry arid climate of the Middle East, makes frequent appearances, not just in Jesus’ teachings but throughout the Bible. The leaves of the fig tree covered our first parents, Adam and Eve, after they ate of the fruit and saw that they were naked. The prophet Jeremiah had a vision of Israel as a basket of gorgeous and perfectly ripe figs – and of her enemy as a basket of rotten ones.One of the most poignant parables of the Old Testament is “Jotham’s Parable.” Jotham was the sole survivor of a brutal massacre carried out by his older brother, King Abimilech, who murdered all forty of his brothers and sisters in order to gain the throne. Somehow Jotham managed to escape this carnage. So he fled to the top of Mt. Gerizim where he shouted out to the Lords of the Kingdom this parable of warning:

Listen to me, you Lords of Shechem: The trees once went out to anoint a king over themselves. So they said to the olive tree, “reign over us.” The olive tree answered them, “Shall I stop producing my rich oil by which the gods and mortals are honored, and go to sway over the trees?” Then the trees said to the fig tree, “You come and reign over us.” But the fig tree answered them, “Shall I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit, and go to sway over the trees?” Then the trees said to the vine, “You come and reign over us.” But the vine said “shall I stop producing my wine that cheers gods and mortals and go to sway over the trees?”

Finally they ask a lowly bramble bush, the only one they can get to agree to rule over them. In other words, the good men don’t become kings; they have better things to do. Those who seek high office are more like bramble bushes, good for nothing else. No further comment on that!But more relevant to Jesus’ teachings, the fig tree was a favorite image of the Old Testament prophets, for whom a ripe fig tree portended Israel’s coming judgment. When you see the ripe fig tree, warned the prophets Amos and Hosea, you know the end is near. And that explains why it comes up not once but twice during Lent, particularly as we really start to move toward Good Friday and the Passion.

In the parable in our Gospel reading, a vineyard owner has planted a fig tree and after three years it has borne no fruit. He wants to cut it down. But his gardener says, Not so fast. Let’s put some manure on it, dig around its roots a little, see if we can’t make this tree come to life and live out its purpose. I actually bought a fig tree myself last year. After years of preaching these agricultural parables you find yourself wanting to know what it’s like to grow these plants yourself. And to see what they look like, whether there’s anything you missed in the parable before actually handling and caring for the plant it describes. My fig is now dormant, and covered, and looks very much dead (I hope it’s not). Andrew is convinced it is dead, so I know a little bit what it’s like to be that gardener in the parable, perhaps a little defensive about the plant and my care of it before the vineyard owner.

The parable never tells us what the fate of this fig tree ends up being. Does the gardener succeed in persuading the owner to let the tree live? Or do they cut the tree down then and there? If he does let it live, do the gardener’s efforts help it to produce fruit and so live on? Or is it again barren and cut down after a year? We simply don’t know.

There’s another fig tree that comes up this time of the year. It’s our reading for Monday in Holy Week. Jesus is walking along with his disciples, this is the day after Palm Sunday, and they pass by a fig tree without fruit on it. For reasons not entirely clear in the reading, Jesus curses it. “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” The disciples are standing there but nobody seems to think much of it in that moment. But the next morning they walk back by that tree and see that it has withered and died. If you observe all the days of Holy Week, you know that this incident is one of the fixtures of those five days leading to Easter.

But that story won’t be for a few more weeks. For now, we’re not even halfway through Lent, and the fig tree in this parable is a different one, whose fate is as yet undecided. It’s as if to say, there’s still time for this tree, just like there’s still time for us. We get this one season of the year to really think about the fruit we produce, or what we bring to the world. If we’re not producing fruit or doing enough in this season, this parable is put before us now, well before the end, to assure us there’s still time.

But that time won’t last forever. We may not be cut down in our prime like those poor people in the Gospel reading, on whom the tower of Siloam fell. But it’s still coming, for all of us - our individual endings, our death.

John the Baptist said to his followers Repent, for even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree ready to strike it down. But Jesus here takes a different view: Repent, for even now, a kindly gardener, God, is loosening our roots and spreading manure and trying to give us one more chance to live a fruitful life. So let’s make this Lent count. Let’s use this time the church gives us to grow strong, and to bear fruit. Amen.