Beloved, this is a tough piece of scripture. It’s weird, I tell you—Weird! I like the weird stuff. Bit right up front I think we’ve got to get on the same page about what’s happening here.
So, right before the beginning of our reading this evening, Jesus has been talking about the Apocalypse. By which Jesus means that there’s something a-coming—a great change, a great opportunity, an upheaval of the world-as-it-is of our lives-as-they-are into the almost-but-not-quite-here-yet Kingdom of God—a kingdom not of this world, says Jesus, by which he means that the power dynamics and values of this world do not reign in the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom of God the last will be first, and the least will be the greatest of all. Jesus says: No one knows when the moment will arrive, but we all better be watching for it, and we better be ready when it comes knocking.
So, maybe all this signs-of-the-apocalypse talk got the crowd thinking about current events and they start talking about some people Pilate had killed in a particularly gruesome manner. And Jesus responds by saying, “Remember, those people didn’t die in such a gruesome way as punishment for some sin they committed. They were no worse then any of us.” Which is a nice thing to say. And then Jesus says, “But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” What? And then Jesus doubles down on it. 18 people were killed in Jerusalem when a tower collapsed on them, remember that? Were they worse than other people in Jerusalem? No. “But unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
What? It’s a little confusing. Jesus is saying something we like: God doesn’t punish people with death and disaster for their sins. That’s nice. And then follows it up with something we don’t like that seems to contradict the part we do like: But unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.
I think what Jesus is saying is, “Relax! God doesn’t punish people for their sins with death and disaster. But watch out! An apocalyptic moment is on the way, God’s Kingdom is a-comin’, and if you’re not watching and not ready for it, it might fall on your head like a tower!” So, people ask Jesus, “Jesus, what can we do to be more prepared so we’re ready when the kingdom comes?” And Jesus says, “Repent!”
Repent? We’re confused because we think that repentance means wallowing before God in misery and guilt over how awful we are. We think repent means, stop doing that naughty thing so God isn’t forced to smite you anymore. But Jesus and Jesus’ culture understood repentance in much broader terms. For them the words for repentance in Hebrew and Greek, nacham and metanoeo, meant to change your mind, to reconsider, to reflect.
Who wants to guess how many times the phrase “felt guilty” appears in the Bible? ZERO. Repentance isn’t about guilt or some bad feeling getting in the way of your good time. It’s about transformation. And for Jesus, it’s frequently about transforming relationships—our relationship with God, but also with our neighbors.
For Jesus, the apocalyptic arrival of the Kingdom of God which we’re supposed to live in expectation of cannot be prepared for by feeling bad and sorry for your sins. It must be prepared for by an inner spiritual transformation that changes how we relate to God and to neighbor. It’s not about cutting something out. It needs to be positive and productive. And then Jesus tells us a parable about a fig tree with no figs and this is where things get really interesting.
Beloved, have you ever burnt out? I have. As a younger adult I managed to get myself into the red zone a number of times. The situations were all different, but the breakdown at the end always pretty much looked the same. It was a breakdown of health—both mental and physical, a breakdown of self-esteem, of joy, or relationships, of activity, dreams, and goals.
When I was working 16-hour days in a theatre in California after college, I burned out. Was it the long hours? Partially, yeah. But at other points in my life, in ministry for instance, I’ve worked long hours and I didn’t burn out. It was more than the hours. It was more than the output. It was the input.
When I was working at that theatre, I was avoiding applying to seminary because I was scared I wouldn’t get in. And that fear turned to depression. And when you’re depressed, I mean really depressed, it feels like you always were and always will be depressed. It feels like your soul is so dried out that the water just can’t get into you anymore. Food loses its flavor. Life loses its zip. My heart got so heavy. I was working hard, putting my spirit into my work, but nothing was coming back in to nourish me, because my roots had dried up.
And I burned out HARD. On the way to empty, you realize that you can drive on a half tank of gas. And you can drive on a quarter tank of gas. You can drive for miles after that warning light goes on. Heck, you drive on fumes. But on the day the tank goes dry, you’re done! And the worst part was that the one thing I had going for myself was that at least I could push through, scrape by, and give my best to the theater. And I prided myself on that. I didn’t feel like a total loser because at least I had that. And then I hit a wall. I felt like I was on the bottom of the ocean somewhere.
So, what are we supposed to think, when we’re burned out and dried up and there ain’t a fig in sight and God comes over and starts waving an axe around—I hope I see some figs real soon! Or else!
Lately, I’ve been reading some very grown-up analyses of fairy tales from different cultures around the world. Fairy tales and parables have a lot of differences, but they do share some things in common that are helping me to think about how to deal with Jesus’ fig tree. First, fairy tales are very simple—so simple that we read them to children. Parables are simple too. At the same time, fairy tales can be really, really weird. They’re full of fantastic characters, magic and enchantments, murder, cannibalism, mutilation, and talking animals. Parables can be weird too.
We tend to dismiss fairy tales as just children’s stories. But when we come back to them, perhaps to read them to our own children or grandchildren, we discover that there is still something there…once upon a time… in the woods… where the princess… is running away from her father’s castle… to escape her evil stepmother… but was almost eaten by the ogre… and fell into a cave which contained a chalice… and was saved by a gnome on the condition that... and on and on. These stories feel eternal, timeless and placeless, they’re filled with archetypal images, and perhaps most intriguing of all, these simple tales are often filled with these complicated relationships: In fairy tales, nixies, and foxes, and queens, and farmers, and the farmer’s pig are all connected to one another. They’re so connected that in a fairy tale, when the young man’s horse suddenly starts talking to him, the young man never says, “My God. I had no idea you could talk. A talking horse! Am I going nuts?” Instead, the young man just says something like, “OK, we’ll try it your way this time.” And, in the end, the resolution of the fairy tale has to do with the resolution of the conflicts and relations between these characters.
Similarly, with Jesus’ parables, we find that if we give them a second chance, and if we don’t make the mistake of thinking that a simple thing cannot create something very complex, we can journey with a parable to some unexpected places. And in many of the parables, like the parable of the fig tree, where we need to focus is on the relationships between the characters, and the conflicts between them.
But here’s an important difference between a parable and a fairy tale. A fairy tale ends with everything resolved and with “they all lived happily ever after.” Jesus’ parables don’t usually resolve themselves so completely. Will the landowner accept the gardener’s proposal that the tree should be spared for a year? Will the gardener fertilize the tree like she promised? Will the manure be enough to restore the roots? Will there be figs, and how many? The lack of resolution draws us back to the relationships and the conflicts of the characters over and over again. These relationships and these conflicts take up residence inside of us, where they belong.
Now, the standard Sunday school explanation of what this parable means probably runs something like this: God is a mean, exacting, but just landowner who enjoys cutting down lazy, little trees. We, of course, are the unproductive fig trees wasting soil, burnt out, and producing no fruit. Tsch, tsch, tsch. The gardener is our dear Jesus, who is able to buy us just a little more time before God takes the axe to us. There’s nothing too surprising here, right?
But there’s a problem right away. Jesus was just telling everyone that God doesn’t have people slaughtered by kings or crushed by towers for being sinful. So, how could it be that immediately after saying that, Jesus has God threatening to whack us with an axe? So, if it’s not God, who is the impatient landowner, really?
And a second problem: Why don’t trees produce fruit? Because they’re too young, or too old, or the soil is bad, or there’s been drought, or some beetle has bored into them, or some blight has gotten them. It’s never the tree’s fault. And burnt-out trees, just like burnt-out souls, when the well is truly done and dry, just can’t dig deep and make an extra effort to get the figs done. Just like when my well ran dry. I couldn’t feel joy. And I couldn’t give joy. I felt like a shell. And my spirit hurt. But it wasn’t my spirit’s fault. It wasn’t a choice I had made to be a lazy, unproductive tree.
And the third problem: Jesus is telling this parable about the role of repentance. Remember? But we’ve already talked about the fact that even if not producing figs is a sin (which I don’t think is necessarily true), then just producing figs to avoid the axe is not what repentance looks like. That’s avoidance. Which is burnout’s next-door neighbor. Repentance, based on what Jesus has been saying, is a transformative action that will prepare us to live fully with God and our neighbors in the Kingdom. And the only one who is doing something that looks like that is the gardener, who’s making a deal for more time, who’s going to dig holes in the roots, who’s going to fill them with manure. According to Jesus, that’s what repentance looks like: preparation for change, readiness for new life.
The more time I spend with this parable, the more I feel like we’re not characters in this parable, we are the parable. I’m the landowner who pushes too hard. I’m the tree who doesn’t have a dang fig left. And I’m the one in the middle, the gardener, who can repent and choose another way, who can choose to nurture where there has been neglect, who can choose to water roots that have gone dry, who can choose to be prepared for the day that is coming, when the figs will be needed most of all.
So, beloved, on this Stewardship Sunday, I wonder, what are the pledge cards that we’re about to turn in? Well, we’re giving, right? We’ve written down our commitment of time, talent, and treasure. So, are they figs for the exacting landowner? Or are they maybe something else? Are they—and I need to be careful here—but could your pledge card be manure? Are these pledge cards in fact representations of what we gardeners are committing to do to feed our roots, to keep the soil in good health, so that we have the energy to keep making figs for a hungry world without burning ourselves out? I hope that as you turn in your pledge cards during the offering, and as we bless them, that you think of them as manure—ahhh, that you think of them as fertilizer, root food—feeding your soul.
Beloved, God is not interested in smiting us for our sins. But if we don’t take care of ourselves, if we don’t repent and prepare ourselves for the Kingdom-life that God has prepared for us, the roots may go dry. When I was burnt out and depressed in California, afraid of my future, and totally unsure of how to move forward into the person and pastor that God was calling me to be, what did I do? I got up one Sunday morning, as burnt as toast, and I went to church for the first time in a long time. And I repented. Amen.