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The Barren Fig Tree
Fred Nye, Lent 3, 2013

Today’s parable from St. Luke’s gospel is like one of those items from ‘Gardeners Question Time’, when the panel is asked What’s the matter with this stunted plant?(photo supplied). Is it likely to recover, or should I just bin it and buy a new one?

But of course Our Lord’s story of the barren fig tree, as always with his parables, invites us to go a bit further. It’s not quite clear who the story was originally aimed at – perhaps it was intended for those disciples of his who were lukewarm or negative about him, perhaps it was aimed at the Jewish nation as a whole. Told as Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem to face trial and crucifixion, it seems nevertheless to speak directly to us, as a church community and as individuals. And the whole tale is time limited, and carries a sense of urgency, even of crisis.

When Jesus spoke of fruit and harvest, it was the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven that he had in mind. Those who had faith in him, those who followed him, would become the first fruits of a new creation, recognisable by what St. Paul would later call the ‘fruits of the spirit’: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control. For it is God’s ambition for his children that they should become citizens of heaven and share in its beauty: he wants the very best for us and of us.

Trouble is, we’re not quite there yet, and sometimes our Jerusalem seems a long way off. The fruits of the spirit can wither on the branch and turn, sometimes without our permission so it seems, into prejudice, discontent, intolerance, mistrust, and self-interest. The best of my fruit seems meagre and bitter compared with what St. Paul envisaged.

Of course we are not told exactly what was wrong with the fig tree. Had it come from poor stock, not hardy enough to survive cold or drought?  Had it been stunted by disease or injury?  Or had it just been neglected – not watered or fed? - or so covered in bindweed that it had been totally overlooked?  On the human level we know that many people in our society struggle to reach their potential as human beings because they have been starved of affection, love, and care.  And although we must all be held accountable for our own actions, we have to be just and fair, even with ourselves. Sometimes there can be impediments to our growth as human beings that are not of our making.

I’m beginning to feel a bit sorry for this poor fig tree. But perhaps I shouldn’t be. If it were stunted because of mould or a fungus infection, then it could have infected all the other plants in the garden. In the context of our own life, it’s bad enough if our shortcomings stunt our own growth: but it’s a lot worse if our faults and failings, like fungal spores, drift around harming and infecting those around us. The other day a strange thought occurred to me – or may be it wasn’t so strange. It seemed to me that my sins were spreading outward, not only in space but also in time, so that I became aware of their consequences long into the future.

Nowhere are the consequences of this infection more tragic than in our relationships with one another. Once trust has been broken it is, in human terms, so very difficult to mend. Estrangement, hurt, misunderstanding – all can take years to recover and for a damaged relationship there is rarely a three day resurrection. But if we find ourselves  separated and estranged in this way, perhaps  there is even more urgency for us to try making the first move, to start building bridges now.

It is of course so very easy for a preacher to be unrealistic and hypocritical about all of this. Within a Christian community we have first to foster that environment of acceptance, love and warmth in which relationships can grow, flourish, and find healing. To do this we each need a little self knowledge, so that we can understand and accept ourselves a little better, avoiding the rock of self-justification and the hard place of self-hatred. And we need above all to experience the love and forgiveness of Our Lord in our own lives, and to know that his mercy and acceptance bring their own judgement. For the plant to bear fruit it must not only be fed and watered, it must also be trained and pruned.  Some of us, and I am one, need the sacrament of  Confession, better called Reconciliation, where we meet Our Lord; are welcomed by him, and by him are loved, judged and forgiven.

And after that, it’s back to the vineyard – or perhaps in this morning’s context, back to the kitchen garden. To stretch the analogy a little, we should see ourselves sometimes as the plants, but just as often as the gardeners.  Just as we need tending and feeding ourselves, we too have a responsibility to tend and feed the other members of the family of St. Faith’s.  Simon has spoken encouragingly of our habit of providing hospitality and meals for each other when there are times of illness or family crisis (and we thank God for all our St. Faith’s Marthas!) Perhaps in this ‘ministry of meals’ we might see both a metaphor and a model for other ways of caring; praying for each other and looking out for spiritual and emotional needs as well as for the physical.

In the parable, the barren fig tree is spared, and is fed, watered, nourished and looked after. But we are not told the end of the story. There is still the hope, the expectation, that the tree will respond to that love and care and will produce sweet fruit in abundance. We don’t live much longer than fig trees and we don’t have a lot of time in which to bring forth the fruits of the spirit.  Here is the sense of urgency: human life is all too short in the context of eternity. Can I respond to the love and mercy of Our Lord, the Constant Gardener, and produce on my part, and in my own short lifetime, a harvest of love and joy and peace? If we think the answer just could be ‘yes’, then the time to make a start is now.

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