Sermons from St Faith's
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
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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