We are half way through Lent, and this is the time that we begin to take stock. But we do not always take stock of ourselves, humbly repenting of the ways we are stumbling with our disciplines. No, we look at everyone else. When we ask our fellow parishioners how their Lenten disciplines are going, we are not asking out of Christian love. We are asking because we hope they are failing more miserably than we are. We need to hear that someone has lapsed in their practice or given up altogether so that our weak attempts to hold on do not seem so weak after all. We are a judgmental people, and we rarely offer the forgiveness that we so long to receive.
Jesus knows this as he listens to those gathered around him in our Gospel lesson today. They are lamenting with Jesus about two groups of people who have recently suffered – the Galileans at the hand of Pilate and those near the tower of Siloam. “Isn’t it horrible, Jesus,” they seem to be saying. The insinuation is that those in Galilee and in Siloam must have sinned gravely to receive such suffering. The assumption was a common one among the people of Israel.[i] We remember the friends of Job who immediately assumed Job must have done something wrong to deserve his severe suffering. Those gathered around Jesus are hoping that Jesus will confirm their suspicions – that Jesus will turn the spotlight on the sinfulness of those people, so that they can all shake their heads in judgment.
But Jesus will not take the bait. Instead, Jesus tells this story: Once upon a time, there was a fig tree that was not bearing fruit, and had not bore fruit for three years. Fed up, the vineyard owner decided to cut down the unproductive tree. But before the vineyard owner could touch the tree, the gardener made one last plea. The gardener asked for one more year. In that year, the gardener would dig around the tree, spreading manure at the roots of the tree. If after a year of such care the tree still did not produce fruit, then the owner could chop down the tree.
The message seems to be clear in Jesus’ parable: repent, change your ways, and start producing fruit, or you will be slaughtered. But this interpretation of the parable gets all the parts confused. The people gathered are not the gardeners begging God, the vineyard owner, for one more year to tend our garden. That version of the parable would be too simple. Instead, God is the gardener – the one negotiating grace – and they are the unproductive trees.
I have been thinking about life as the unproductive fig tree all week. An unproductive tree is still very much alive – the tree goes about the business of breathing in and drinking up nutrients. The tree is surviving, but not thriving. But the tree is doing about all the tree can do. The tree cannot fertilize itself. The tree cannot aerate the tree’s own soil. In order for the tree to thrive, the tree is dependent upon the gardener for the kind of care that produces fruit.
This is where I got stuck in the parable. First, Jesus tells the people to repent; but then, Jesus tells the people that they are immobile trees, incapable of changing anything without the help of a gardener. As someone who likes who likes to do, to be active, to achieve something, this parable is especially difficult. If Jesus had just said to repent, I would have had a task to do – a job to accomplish. Repenting, amending my ways, returning to God are all things I can work on and do. But being a tree that just stands there, waiting for someone to help her, depending on God’s grace feels a lot less comfortable.
This Lent I really struggled with choosing a spiritual discipline. I have tried all sorts of practices in Lent in the past: reading a daily devotional, taking up a prayer practice, creating an exercise routine, or even giving up a foul mouth. I tend to like the practices that add something to your life, rather than take something away. But this year, nothing seemed to fit. I talked to my spiritual director about my quandary, and she suggested something radical. Instead of taking on something or giving up something, she suggested I just commit to just being more aware. My busybody nature was totally confused and apprehensive. But my spiritual director encouraged me to just try – to try spending this Lent, not busying myself with a discipline, but daily taking stock of my life patterns and observing. This non-practice practice has been the most awkward experience for me. As a person who needs tangibility, I have been left with this intangible practice. No checklist to consult, no achievements to track: just a practice of being, of letting God work on me.
I think what my spiritual director has been trying to get me to live into is the tree identity of our parable today. In naming ourselves as the tree in Jesus’ parable, we are claiming a couple of things. First, we are claiming that we are utterly incapable of determining our future. The tree in the parable is not bearing fruit, and nothing the tree does will help the tree change this status. The tree cannot try harder or behave differently. The tree is simply a tree planted where the tree is. Second, in identifying with the tree, we are claiming that we are dependent upon the gardener. We are dependent upon the gardener’s mercy – the gardener who lobbies for one more year of trying. We are dependent upon the gardener for determining the kind of nourishment we will receive. We do not get to consult the gardener about the type of care we think we need. We must trust the gardener to do what the gardener does best.
What I like about this parable today is that the parable takes us out of our comfort zones and puts us squarely in God’s hands. First, by telling the people to repent, Jesus takes the people out of a mode of comparing and judging others and puts the people in the mode of tending to themselves. His instruction to repent is almost Jesus’ way of saying, “Why don’t you stop worrying about what Pilate did and what the people of Siloam did, and why don’t you take stock of your own stuff.” And then Jesus takes the wind out the sails of the people even further. His parable tells them that not only do they need to not worry about what everyone else is doing, they need to realize that even the things that they are doing do not matter – because ultimately they are trees dependent upon God’s grace and mercy to thrive.
Now this may not sound like good news to us, but this is a tremendous word of grace for us today. In the midst of the season of Lent, that season that we are typically kneading the dough of our lives, trying to get ourselves just right for God, Jesus leaves us with a word of grace. Jesus’ parable today shifts our energy this week. Instead of desperately grasping to change and amend our lives, Jesus invites us to let go: to let go of trying so hard, and to remember the God who lovingly offers to do the work of digging in our soil and spreading smelly manure so that we might bear delicious fruit.
As we have been thinking about gardening this Lent, I have been hearing many stories of your own gardens. For those of you who garden, you have lived this invitation that Jesus offers. You have lived through a season where the tomatoes did not make it, where the new crop was not planted in the right place, and where critters have come in and destroyed. And for those of you who are seasoned at this work, the common phrase I hear from you is, “Ah well, we’ll try again next year.” This is the kind of letting go that Jesus is inviting us into this week. This is the kind of trust in God that Jesus encourages. As we come forward for healing prayers today, an old gospel hymn keeps running through head when I think of Jesus’ parable today. The chorus says, “Your grace and mercy brought me through. I’m living this moment because of You. I want to thank you and praise you too. Your grace and mercy brought me through.” In the midst of our Lenten journey, we pause today to recognize the ways in which we are simply trees in God’s garden, dependent upon God’s grace and mercy to get us through. Thanks be to God! Amen.
[i] Daniel G. Deffenbaugh, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 92.