The Third Sunday in Lent, Year C.
At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 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? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
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. 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?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”Luke 13:1-9
“I never thought it was such a bad little tree, it just needs a little love.” Linus’ little line from A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of the most recognizable statements of metanoia, or repentance, in American cinema. It is a remarkable scene, how one person seeing the inherit goodness of something that mere moments before was the object of scorn and mockery, causes all present to suddenly repent; changing not only the other children present, but transforming that pitiful twig into a thing of beauty. It’s nothing short of miraculous how this sudden turning of the children’s mindset, and their collective effort in gathering decorations, changes a raggedy branch that couldn’t even support a single ornament into stout and magnificent little tree, its branches and needles restored, shining in the night with gleaming ornaments, popcorn strings, and dazzling lights.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus tells similar story about an unproductive fig tree, and its gardener advocate. When after three years the fig tree fails to produce any figs, and the owner rightfully calls for it to be cut down, the gardener advocates for one more year. Not only does the gardener ask for one more year, he also proposes a remarkable amount of effort to give the fig tree everything it needs to produce fruit: careful digging and spreading of manure, irrigation, time, energy, and resources that by any wisdom of the world should be spent on something more, fruitful. In the context, the amount of labor and resources the gardener is proposing is almost preposterous, as fig trees can be remarkably sturdy, without the need for much if any effort at all for them to be fruitful. Unlike the child-like optimism of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which illustrates the fruit of repentance, Jesus’ parable is left uncomfortably open-ended. For such a seemingly benign metaphor about trees and the fruit living a life of righteousness bears, Jesus leaves the question unanswered. After all the effort of the advocate gardener, does the unproductive fig tree produce fruit?
Equally confusing is the context in which this parable arises. Jesus gives the parable in response to provocative news presented to him from the crowd: the troubling rumor that Pontius Pilate had ordered the massacre of fellow Galileans. Not only having them killed, but even more offensively, having them killed in the Temple during worship, or as they describe: “mingled their blood with their sacrifices”. This news was meant to provoke Jesus, presumably to coax out of him a clear political statement. The victims were his fellow Galileans! Was he going to stand by and let this injustice go unanswered? Will he be the warrior messiah and national hero they have all been begging for?
The story about the massacred Galileans seems to be a dangerous rumor. We have no account other than this story in Luke that mentions such an event occurring. While Pilate was known for being a ruthless ruler who did not shy away from violence, he was also a shrewd politician who wanted above all else to maintain order. It would have been a very foolish move to massacre rebellious Galileans in the Temple of Jerusalem during worship, as it would most certainly cause an immediate and violent revolt with no discernable gain for Pilate. The fact that Galileans are at the center of the story is telling, as the memory of Judas of Galilee’s real rebellion that happened around the time of Jesus’ birth would still be in living memory for some in the crowd. This rumor, like so much news, is clearly meant to stir up nationalistic fervor, pulling us down the well-trod path of us-vs-them nationalism. So what’s it going to be Jesus, are you with us, or are you with them?
As usual Jesus is on to their game, and like the good rabbi he is, turns the provocation into a teachable moment. Instead of giving into the temptation, he asks them what they think about the 18 who were killed when a tower collapsed. He equivocates the two incidents and draws them into a cosmic scale: Do you think those Galileans were worse sinners than anyone else in Jerusalem? Do you think those poor people killed in that terrible accident were worse sinners than anyone else in Jerusalem? “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Jesus turns the question from one of politics into one of repentance. Though he does not pick a side on the question posed to him, he does pick a side in one of the oldest debates of the Bible and in the ancient world: what is the cause of suffering? It was a popular belief at the time that suffering was the result of God’s judgement of sinful deeds, yet Jesus’ answer argues against such as simple transactional view. By equivocating the Galileans, the tower victims, and the crowd before him, he returns the conversation from politics, petty nationalistic squabbles, and false divisions to the real issue at hand: the need for repentance.
It is here with all the winding and interwoven context that Jesus tells the parable of the unfruitful fig tree. With knowledge about the questions of politics, nationalism, and God’s judgement, the fig tree takes on another layer of meaning. Throughout the Bible, fig trees symbolized God’s blessing or judgement. Fruitful trees indicated being blessed while unfruitful trees were seen as a sign of being cursed by God. In the parable, the fig tree has been unproductive, but it is yet to be seen if it will be fruitful. One way to interpret the parable is to see ourselves as the fig tree, both in our common humanity and as individuals.
As a whole, we have not been entirely productive with the fruits of righteousness, mired in sin and constantly at one another’s throats. Though we share the same roots, we attack the other branches, getting caught up in petty squabbles and national identities. We withhold from one another, scorning the poor, the sick, and the outcast as though they were greater sinners than any one of us. We deny our common humanity, our covenantal responsibility, when we think that the suffering are facing judgement, using that denial as an excuse not to give them what they need to grow. We have an advocate and gardener who has worked tirelessly to give us what we need to bear fruit, but the question remains, and the judgement is yet to be made: will the tree bear fruit? Will we be God’s blessing on the earth?
All it takes is one branch to bear fruit, to be a blessing. Even one fruit can ease the hunger of the poor. This is our chance to turn our lives to righteousness, to repent, to experience metanoia. Turn away from the distractions, false divisions, and turn toward righteousness. It will take true repentance, or turning a new direction, to rise above the distractions and divisions that separate us and toward the love from God that binds us all together. The stakes are no less than our very survival, because we are all the same tree from the same roots, all our lives are intertwined. Are the Galileans or the victims of the tower any worse sinners than any one of us? No. but if we do not repent, then we shall perish just as they did. It is time to repent of the idea that we are in this world as individuals entirely independent of one another. The judgement is coming, not even from on high or with fire and brimstone, but the weight of the lies and the suffering imposed on our fellow man is choking our very roots. By not caring for one another, for the whole tree, not only will we have no fruit, but by our own works we shall wither away.
All it takes is one branch to bear fruit, to be a blessing. One witness can lead others to repentance. One example of repentance can inspire change in all the others present. All it takes is one to see the inherent goodness of someone who moments before was the object of scorn and mockery. Together, we can prop up and support all our branches, by the loving labor of our great advocate and the grace of God, we shall bear fruit. There are no bad trees or branches, all they need is a little love.