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 round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”’
Manure (to use the polite term) is useful stuff. It increases the crop yield on poor soils. On barren soil, it enables fruitful growth where there was none before. And manure features prominently in this story, Jesus’s parable about a tree in need of help.
This parable about a barren fig tree follows hard on the heels of Jesus telling stories which feature sudden, fatal calamity. He warns of the urgent need to turn lives around (to repent) before death and destruction comes. The possibility of destruction remains: ‘Cut it down! Why should it be wasting soil?’ Yet, the threat of judgement, which brings this destruction, goes hand in hand with a stay of execution: give it another year and a load of manure and we’ll see what happens.
Is the negotiation between the landowner and the gardener indicative of the conversation that goes on within the mind of God concerning me? If so, that’s unsettling. I wouldn’t like to think that anyone regards me as a “waste of space”, especially not God. Jesus does not let me off the hook concerning the lack of fruitfulness in my life; judgement is still due next year. Yet, fruitfulness before then remains a real possibility, as long as sufficient manure is applied.
What’s the life-giving manure that enables me to grow and be fruitful? Reading, hearing, and discussing the scripture that tells the story of God’s dealing with this world? The practice of prayer, by myself and in the company of others?
Participating in worshipping God, as part of faithful, fruitful congregation? Putting into action loving my neighbour like I would want to be loved myself?
Whether it is one, some, all, or more than these, please, God, pile it higher and dig it deeper.
O God who creates the conditions for fruitful life, and who through your Son, Jesus, calls on us to turn our lives around, be patient with our shortcomings, and encourage us to grow. Amen.
The Rev’d Trevor Jamison, Minister, St Columba’s URC, North Shields