Yesterday’s contemplative service included this brief homily as preparatory to our exploration of four different prayer stations.
by Ellen Sims
The fig tree in this brief parable is three years old yet still has produced no figs. The disappointed vineyard owner condemns it for “wasting soil.” But the gardener insists, “One more year. Give the tree one more year to mature.”
Imagine the impatient owner, red-faced after trudging into the vineyard under the summer sun, roughly shaking a fruitless limb of the tree, and then shoving an ax handle into the gardener’s hand: “Cut it down! This tree’s a waste of good soil.”
“One more year, sir,” pleads the gardener, who has already invested three years of care in hopes of a fruitful tree.
“Cut it down!” responds the owner, who wants to maximize his profits by planting something else.
Some name Jesus as the parable’s gardener who is pleading with God, the landowner. Jesus advocates for flawed human beings who are not yet bearing fruit for the kingdom. I understand why early Christians could see Jesus as this kind of intermediary, but that metaphor also implicates God as heartless. And since parables are not allegories that yield one interpretation, we get to play with parables and let them provoke questions in us. They are meant to prod listeners into exploring God’s perspective from fresh angles.
So I’d like to look at the role of the landowner and gardener without labeling one as God and the other as Jesus. I don’t think the parable intends to depict God as eager to ax us.
Let’s transpose this parable into our times—-which, admittedly, Jesus did not have in mind—-and with this year’s Lenten theme in mind let’s consider an ecological reading. Such a reading may cast God as kindlier but, beware, the story’s conclusion may be grimmer. An ecological lens reads the landowner as representing natural parameters governing what this earth can produce and withstand. We might then read the gardener as those who care about this earth and who plead on the behalf of growing things and work hard to extend earth’s lifespan. But the compassionate gardener knows there still are limits in the garden: at best “one year more” for the fig tree if it cannot be fruitful.
Another way to read this parable from a more personal perspective is to let it speak to us about difficult decisions we face, especially regarding personal relationships that sometimes must end. Fig trees usually begin to bear in two years but may take as many as six before producing fruit. So there may be legitimate arguments both for cutting down the tree and giving the tree a little more time. A general question this parable could pose is this: How do you know if you should end a troubled relationship? How long should you hang in there in hopes of healing the hurts? When do you cling to hope and when do you accept what seem to be irresolvable differences?
The gardener pleads for more time—-but not a limitless time frame. “One more year,” he says. And maybe that’s the tension that should exist between hope that keeps us persisting through the challenges of life versus foolish, stubborn insistence that keeps us doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. Err on the side of persistence and hope. But don’t keep making excuses for the bad boyfriend or the fruitless fig tree.
Note that the gardener did not simply ask for more time. The gardener committed to new actions: digging around the tree to aerate the soil and adding manure to fertilize it (Luke 13:8).
In some ways Open Table inhabited this parable as we faced the challenges of creating our LGBTQIA+ support group, now known as Prism. We encountered challenges, especially at a critical point nearly a year ago. We persisted. But there came a time when we had to regroup and come at it with a new approach, digging some things up, as it were. Thanks especially to Justin’s and Corey’s efforts, our services to the LGBTQ community have been significantly extended and greatly enhanced.
In each of our lives there are times to persist toward an ideal and other times to compromise or acquiesce; times to insist on better behavior from another, and times to give another struggling soul some grace.
The poignant short story “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olson begins as the narrator receives a phone call from her teenage daughter’s teacher requesting a conference.
The teacher says: “I wish you would manage the time to come in and talk with me about your daughter. I’m sure you can help me understand her. She’s a youngster who needs help.” The rest of the story consists of the mother’s tormented recollection of her child’s difficult life. The story ends as the mother ends her troubled reverie this way, as if in an imaginary conversation with the teacher:
“I will never total it all. I will never be able to explain to you: She was a child seldom smiled at. Her father left me before she as a year old. I had to work away from her her first six years. She was dark and thin and foreign looking in a world where the prestige went to blondness and dimples. I was a young mother, I was a distracted mother. There were years she did not want me to touch her. My wisdom came too late. She was a child of anxious, not proud, love. We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth. . . . Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom—-but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by.”
In God’s kin*dom the gardener pleads, “Let her be. There is still enough left to live by.”
On God’s imperiled planet, let us pray there will still be enough to live by–for a very long time. May we help make it so.