Friday, 6 October 2023 The fig tree after the manure
Luke 13: 6-9
Then [Jesus ] told this parable: ‘Someone had a fig tree planted in their vineyard; and they came looking for fruit on it and found none. So they 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?” They 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.”’
Photo credit David Coleman
The Brothers Grimm’s ‘Tales for children and household’ were an attempt to present to a wider public the folk heritage which inculcated practical wisdom. A level of vulgarity and edginess survives in current German editions. But even then, some of the tales were tidied up and gentrified, as indeed are many English translations of the Bible – the Gospels in particular. It seemed less embarrassing for the wedding guests at Cana to have ‘drunk deeply’ than be ‘drunk.’ [John 2:10]. I’m still waiting to hear (-and hoping not to be asked to write-) a sermon on Ezekiel 23:20.
And yet, ‘fairy tales’ when they are so diluted lose their effectiveness. So too with what we do on Sundays. The baby with the bathwater is too often the lively personality of the Earth or fellow creatures. In this case – the tree. Of course, now it’s finally become almost respectable to talk of the language, behaviour, and communication of trees, we have no excuse.
It’s a bit sad when preachers skilfully avoid the possibility of the final uprooting of the fig tree, planted – if you notice the detail, in a vineyard – which is a pretty bad place for a fig-tree. Add to that the greedy premature demands of the owner, who pays but doesn’t work.
The gardener, with practical understanding of the needs of plants suggests intervention: manure carefully dug in. Tender-hearted preachers stop there and miss the point and inculcating complacency. It seems OK. God will always save us. No need to be fruitful. The danger – in this case, from the unjust exploiter of tree and gardener – is real, even if measures are taken.
We uproot Jesus’ parable by reducing the tree to a mere object or mechanism, rather than a suffering creature under commercial pressure, invited to a partnership in solidarity with the one who doesn’t wield the power.
The pressure’s on. But there’s hope. That’s sometimes as much as we can offer.
Christ the Gardener – was that mistaken identity when Mary met you, or just one of the hats you wear? nurturing what’s green and growing; grasping weakness, mindful when we’re out of place and order?
Christ the Gardener – Digging round and trowelling in the ‘dirt’ we need as Earth’s own children: close connection, roots and water.
Christ the Gardener – Give us one more chance, and clearer: Then, by grace, the fruit is up to us! Amen
The Rev’d David Coleman is a URC Minister and Chaplain to EcoCongregations Scotland.