Luke is once again reminding us that the Kingdom of God turns our world upside down, He is reminding us that the Kingdom of God doesn’t play by our rules.
March 20, 2022
Rebuilding with Dust
Pastor Heather McColl
At that very time there were some present who told him 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.’”
Rebuilding with Dust Luke 13:1-9
This past Sunday, in Pastor’s Class, we talked a little bit about some of the weird stories in our Bible, stories that are so crazy they leave us wondering why they were included in our sacred text in the first place. Stories like Jonah and the big fish, stories like the miracle stories of Jesus, stories like the lady driving a tent peg stake into a guy’s head. (Judges 4, in case anyone wanted to look it up).
We all know that within our sacred text, there are some crazy stories but I had forgotten about this story in the Gospel of Luke. As I shared earlier in the week, this is one of the those texts where I find myself asking-What are we supposed to do with it?
It really is a discombobulated text. We start out talking about Galileans and their sacrifices. Then we move to Pilate, killing these Galileans and mixing their blood with their sacrifices. Then we move to a tower falling down on 18 people and the question asked about these incidences is who was the worst sinner because of course, they must have done something wrong to have died just gruesome deaths. Then Jesus answers this question with the parable of the barren fig tree, all the while telling the crowd to repent or they will perish like the others did.
Just reading this text my head is spinning with all the graphic images…Yet the one image in all of this crazy text which confuses me the most is that fig tree planted in the vineyard found in the parable. This parable of the barren fig tree is not to be confused with the story of the budding fig tree which is also found in the Gospels, you know the story where Jesus is talking about looking to the fig trees and when we see them start to bud, we know that summer is near. Nor is our parable of the barren fig tree in the vineyard to be confused with the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree because he finds no fruit on it, even though the Gospel writers tell us it is not the season for figs.
No, this parable about the barren fig tree is unique to Luke. And this image of a fig tree in a vineyard has bothered me, it has confused me all week. These two things just don’t seem to go together. These two things-a fig tree and a vineyard seem to have different purposes. Yet there they are…together in this wonderfully weird seemingly impossible way.
It seems I was not the only one who was confused or bothered by this fig tree in the midst of a vineyard. So I do what anyone does in this situation…I googled it. I googled -why would a fig tree be in the midst of a vineyard. I of course got lots of answers, answers which went something like: “Luke is mixing metaphors”. Or “No one in their right mind would plant a fig tree in a vineyard. The fig tree would take up too much water. It would create too much shade. The figs would attract birds and then the birds would eat all the grapes before one could harvest them.”
All of these are logical answers. All of them seemed to explain away my confusion surrounding this image of the fig tree planted in the vineyard. All of these answers seemed to be inviting me to ignore the Spirit’s teasing of my imagination because in these answers, it was almost as if I could hear the echoes of other certain phrases…phrases like “we’ve never done it that way before”, phrases like “there is a right way and a wrong way to do things and you have certainly chosen the wrong way”, phrases like “We are all for change but don’t change blank.” I’ll let the listener fill in the blank based on their own experiences and conversations within the church.”
All these logical answers explaining away my confusion about this fig tree in the vineyard, they all made sense. I was just about to give up hope on Luke and his fig vineyard. I started thinking well, those other people had to be right. They are the experts anyway. Luke must have it all wrong. This really is one of those crazy stories in our bible we don’t know what to do with. I started thinking the best course of action for the sermon this week was to choose another text and send the tech team scrambling…that is until I came across a story about a farmer who owns a vineyard. Not only that he has a hundred year old fig tree. Not only that this fig tree is planted in that vineyard. The story goes on to share that this farmer uses this fig tree to predict the timing of his harvest season. This farmer shares that winegrowers would be smart to plant fig trees in their vineyard to see if the soil is any good because fig trees have an aggressive root system that helps them survive in the most inhospitable areas. The farmer goes on to share, and I quote: “They can grow in nutritionally poor soil.. So if the fig tree they planted wouldn’t grow, the place wasn’t any good and the farmers move on.”
Suddenly this image of the barren fig tree in the vineyard makes sense. Luke had it right all along. Using his parable of the fig tree in the vineyard, Luke is once again reminding us that the Kingdom of God turns our world upside down, He is reminding us that the Kingdom of God doesn’t play by our rules. Luke is reminding us that we had missed the point… the point who Jesus is, the expectation of Jesus’ ministry, Luke is reminding us that we have shaped Jesus into our logo, ignoring the fact that the Kingdom of God is not about results. It is about grace and mercy. It is about justice and hope. It is about care and tending for others, something we tend to forget every time we utter the phrases… “We’ve never done it that way” or “That will never work” or my favorite: “There’s too much change. Can’t we go back to the way it used to be?”
You see, we tend to ignore the fact that it takes Jesus a while to get to Jerusalem in the Gospel of Luke. He decides to go in Chapter 9 but doesn’t get there until Chapter 19. All along the way to Jerusalem, there are lots of people trying to turn Jesus away from his journey because the powers that be know what will happen when he does.
Luke uses this parable of the barren fig tree to set the scene. Jesus flips the script on the people, like he has done since the beginning of this Gospel. For Luke, the main point is that the Kingdom of God is here. It is time to get ready. But the people, but we get distracted by so many things-focusing on things we have no control over instead of preparing for what God is doing in our midst to bring about the Kingdom of God. We become so focused on maintaining what was that we miss the many ways we can encounter life, encounter God, encounter our calling in a new way.
In this parable of the barren fig tree in the vineyard, Jesus is changing the narrative. He is reminding us that faith is not about pleasing some far away God. It is about living in right relationship with one another. It is about opening our eyes to where the Kingdom of God is already in our midst. It is about tending the matters of justice and wholeness, hoping that something will bear fruit. fruit which will nourish everyone, fruit will sustain, fruit which will fulfill everyone’s hunger.
It is about something that is wonderfully weird in this world of scarcity, something that once again tells this world it will not have the last word. It is about something which reminds us as the people of God that the Kingdom of God is in our midst, bringing about healing and wholeness for all of God’s people now and forevermore. May it be so.
See also: Theology Tuesday for Sunday, March 20, 2022 – Rebuilding with Dust Luke 13:1-9