“Give it one more year… and then, if nothing changes, cut it down!”
Jesus’ parables are rich and evocative. They remain timeless because they invite contemplation and conversation while avoiding simplistic and trite interpretations. One popular way to approach these stories is to ask which of its characters do you identify with most. Today’s parable offers a plethora of possibilities.
Perhaps you identify with the owner. He charted a course, engaged in risk, planted a vineyard, employed a laborer, and expected a return. But now, at this point in the story, he is angry and frustrated and finished. He wants to eliminate any and every reminder of his fruitless endeavor. In his estimation it is time to move on.
Or maybe you see yourself in the gardener. You are measured, hopeful, and optimistic. You believe in the potential inside every person, thing, and moment. You also believe in yourself and your ability to nurture the best qualities in people and situations. You often find yourself interceding on behalf of others, attempting to be a calm head in a chaotic world. The flip side of this coin is not nearly as positive. Maybe you feel it is your responsibility to fix every unfixable problem.
Or perhaps you identify most with the fig tree. You believe you are not worth much in this world and, try as you might, have little of value to contribute. You sense you are a disappointment, especially to those who have invested most in you. They let you know in subtle and not so subtle ways you are wasting away your life.
Maybe you identify with the yet-to-appear fruit. You are just waiting for your opportunity to shine. As of today, the stars have not lined up for you, but when they do… look out world because you have a lot to offer. If only someone will believe and you give you a chance…
In which of these figures in the parable do you most see yourself? Or, if you really want something to mull over, in what ways do you see yourself in each of them?
While Jesus’ parables speak in multiple ways to many different situations, biblical scholars remind us each one as a single focused meaning. Jesus’ main point in this one seems to be time is running out and each of us needs to get our act together… and do it soon! We Episcopalians don’t warm up to sermons on impending judgment and the urgent need to repent. We do not want to be compared to the barren fig tree, but this is exactly what Jesus does. And whether we like it or not, as I often say, its Jesus’ story so he gets to tell it any way he wants.
And to make matters worse, he tells this story in response to a question about tragedy. Someone asks him about a group of people executed on Pilate’s orders while they were worshipping. Jesus’ response: “Do you think this happened to them because they were worse sinners than you? They weren’t… and unless you repent the same thing will happen to you.” It seems a rather harsh thing to say, and yet Jesus doubles down on it by mentioning eighteen people who died when a tower collapsed on them. Surely Jesus is not saying victims of calamities get what they deserve, is he? At least on the surface it sure seems like it.
Here is another question to ask of a parable: where is grace found in it? In the midst of all the judgment in today’s story – the owner’s anger, the fruitlessness, the call for punishment – where is the grace? It is found in the phrase “give the tree one more year”. Grace is found in the element of time. The tree still has time to change.
Time’s precious nature is a theme found throughout Scripture, especially in the Psalms, which compare the length of our days to the grass that flourishes in the morning dew, but withers in the afternoon sun. For people of faith this reality is not cause for despair, but rather a call to intentional living. “So teach us to number our days,” writes the poet of the 90th Psalm, “that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” Scripture connects an awareness of mortality with a purposeful life.
I read once middle age is not a chronological point in life. It is not something you experience precisely during, say, your 42nd orbit around the sun. Rather, it is a feature of attitude and awareness. When we are young we sense the path of life is wide open to us. You may set out on a particular career choice in your 20s only to discover it does not interest you. You may try out several different options in your youth because you can always pull the plug on one thing and start another.
We arrive at the phenomena of middle age when we realize we can no longer hit the reset button – at least without significant consequences. Middle age is that point in life when you realize you have made your choices and now you have to live with them. It is too late to do it all over. It is the first time in our lives when time reveals itself to us as limited. No wonder so many act out against this initial sense of limitation by engaging in what we call a mid-life crisis.
The crisis ends with the wise realization the choices we have made are good ones and we begin to see what we have is pretty special and satisfying. We become aware of how the time we have put into our our work and our relationships and our passions has been an investment. Even though it is too late to take a different path, the dividends of the choices and commitments we have made are beginning to pay off.
I am embracing the reality I am now in my late-middle age. I will turn 60 this fall. Most likely I am at the 2/3rds to 3/4ths pole of life. As I mentioned to the Vestry at our retreat, I will be retiring sometime in the next 7-10 years. I describe this reality as being like the mileage signs on a highway. Once you drive to Chicago, the sign tells you are 12 miles from Walla Walla and 400 from Minneapolis. Yes, I still have a lot more to do in my career, but for the first time the next major destination 400 miles down the road is retirement.
I am finding being in my late-middle years to be quite invigorating. For the first time in my life I sense how precious time is, but I don’t fret it is running out. When we are young we say to ourselves, “I’ll get around to that someday”, imagining our life to be an undiminishing supply of somedays. Now, I sense the need to count up my somedays and do something with them. And, you know something, far from being depressing, it is tremendously empowering.
So, for example, I have really enjoyed the various pilgrimages I have been on over the last few summers – hiking, biking, and touring. If I am lucky I may have another 15 summers where I can continue to do this. So I think to myself, what are the 15 things I most want to do with my time? I can tell you this is a question I never asked in my 20s. In this, and in so many other ways, knowing I don’t have forever has opened uncountable doors to opportunities and possibilities. I can’t do it all, but I am more likely to be intentional and aggressive about choosing and doing something.
Well, today’s parable of the Barren Fig Tree reminds us time is precious with the hopeful caveat, baring unforeseen circumstances, there is still time. We each have the time to turn things around, to tend to matters needing our attention, to get up, get going, and get after those dreams we have not yet pursued. Perhaps it is too late to chase them all, but now is the time to prioritize and to act.
And there is one more element of grace found in Jesus’ story – manure. While we don’t usually think of the s _ _ t in our lives as being a blessing, in Jesus’ parable it represents all the ways life lines up to help us. Our quest to be fruitful is never undertaken in isolation. We are surrounded by those who love and care for us; whose assistance and encouragement means more than we often realize. And we stand in the presence of the One who created us; whose Spirit works in and through all things to bring forth in us what we struggle to achieve on our own.
Earlier in the week I revisited one of my favorite websites – deathclock.com. You simply tell it the date of your birth, your gender, outlook on life, height, weight, and whether or not you are a smoker and it will tell you the day of your death. Apparently my heavenly reward/final judgment with come on Saturday, August 12, 2056. It may also become my saint’s day because, as a friend of mine once pointed out optimistically, if the Episcopal Church decides to make you a saint, it always assigns your remembrance to the day you die. Well, I don’t know if I have produced enough fruit to merit such recognition and I don’t know how I feel about the possibility of living to 97.
According to a countdown clock on the website, as of last Friday at 3:42 in the afternoon, I had 1,179,910,387 seconds left in my life. I laughed out loud as I watched the seconds tick down… 386, 385, 384 it occurred to me no matter how much time any of has left, each one of you has invested about 1,000 seconds of your precious time listening attentively to my sermon. I pray the seconds you have left are many and I pray you will consider how you and God would like you to use them.
Time is precious. What do you need to do with this day? What do you need to do with this week? What is the most redeeming thing you can do before the end of this month? What is God calling you to do before the end of the year? In the next few years?
Lord, teach us to number our days
that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.