In Usa River Tanzania, on the foothills of Mt. Meru in Northern Tanzania, the ground is so fecund, so fertile that it is said that you can take a tree branch, stick it in the ground, water it, and it will grow, bear fruit, and become a full grown tree.
I had no reason to believe this isn’t true; plants and fruits and grasses grew everywhere, all of the time. Passion fruit on the vine. Banana trees. Mango trees. Palm trees. Aloe plants. Greens for eating. We lived on lush land in a small rainforest on the foothills of Kilimanjaro’s sister mountain.
That wasn’t the story all over Tanzania. An hour to the east was arid and dry, with flash floods and famines the daily bread offered from the dry land.
I suppose this landscape could be a metaphor for life, our particular lives in which sometimes we experience seasons of growth, meaning, purpose, and delight or the opposite: decline, listlessness, confusion, and disappointment. For me, it’s helpful to know that seasons change, offering a perspective that good and bad times will come, and go. Sometimes we’ll be in the rainforest; sometimes we’ll be in the desert. Somehow this is a gift. ...
Today Jesus tells us a story that at first seems like a desert story, about failing and falling and the shame of being a disappointment and the need to try harder. But when we step back and see this through his eyes, we see a different story, one that begins and ends in grace.
Jesus uses a parable, a word for a story to talk truth about life. Now, it is tempting to read the story as a parable of judgment, but in truth, this is a parable of grace. It’s a story in three acts: 1) There’s a vineyard with a fig tree; 2) the fig tree has been disappointing; 3) rather than cut the fig tree down, the gardener suggests more time, with a remedy for growth.
God, the vineyard owner in the story, plants a tree out of pure pleasure. There’s no need or purpose for the tree other than to bring God delight. “The world is more God’s hobby than his business; it exists more for pleasure than for profit. God’s attitude toward the world involves favor from the start; grace is not something God drags in later just to patch up the messes. Unnecessary, spontaneous delight is the very root of God’s relationship with the world [and with us]” (Capon, 249). We’re here because God wants us to be here.
We need to go no further than the first book of the bible to see this delight. God made all that there was under the heavens and indeed God saw that it was good.
Of course, if we keep reading in Genesis 2 and 3, we’ll see that God’s delight turns to disappointment, again around a particular tree. God makes us for freedom, we choose slavery. God makes us for trust, we choose certainty and power. The story goes something like this: Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the tree which God told them not too. They forgot God’s words, and chose their own way. They realize their shame and they try to cover it up, as the story goes, with the leaves of a fig tree, but God knows and is disappointed.
The fig tree, us--those in whom God delights--we can be disappointing. This isn’t the point of the story. But it is a description of reality. We can let that fig tree represent anything we might think of: a drinking habit, a gossip habit, a bad diagnosis, an investment gone bad, a friendship gone south, loneliness, a lack of trust, a lack of courage, a lack of empathy, unrequited love, et cetera.
The problem arises when we mistake this part of the story for the whole story. God’s disappointment, our shortcomings are a simple truth that things might not always go well or according to plan. It’s not an excuse, of course, but it is an honest description. That which we delight in might also disappoint us--our kids, our friends, our partners, our hobbies, our hopes. The same is true for God--that which is a delight can also disappoint. That’s not the point of the story, it’s a point on the story, on the journey, on the map of our lives, one season in the great landscape of our lives.
As I said earlier, the story begins and ends in grace. We are made for delight, and while the circumstances of life are such that we squander that grace, we can never fully lose it. It’s Jesus’ to give, not ours to lose, after all.
In the story, the landowner asks his gardener what should be done about the disappointing tree. The gardener says in Greek aphes: let it alone, let it be, let it go for another year, put some manure on it. Nourish it. Let it grow. Aphes.
We’re so wired to turn this word into something we do. We must bring up our fruit-bearing quota or else we’ll be cut down and thrown into the fire. That’s how the world around us operates. We confuse merit and reward for daily bread. We think that if we just try harder we will achieve paradise or escape punishment. We turn faith into a project about us and miss the point about fruit-bearing for the sake of others (trees don’t eat their own fruit, but give it away). Faith is a trust, a waiting, a receiving, a gift.
Of course we also miss the point that we have to receive nurturing and nourishment and be treated for growth. The tree is passive. The King James Version says “dig and dung” our version says “manure”. Let’s not kid ourselves, for growth, we’ve got to get dirty, we have to be rooted in something other than ourselves. Something that requires death to bring life.
OUR FINAL ACT
Now, in the story, the gardener is so sure the tree will come back to life that he offers a guarantee: give it another year, if it still doesn’t bear fruit, then cut it down. We worry about that future cutting down, but we miss the confidence of the gardener.
How can the gardener be so sure? The gardener is Jesus, and this Jesus “becomes sin for us, goes outside the camp for us, is relegated to the dump for us, and becomes garbage and compost, offal and manure for us. And then he comes for us.” Jesus is confident because it’s up to him, not us.
The gardener said aphes, let it be. Jesus says the same words on the cross: aphes, Father, forgive them. The same word. We grow in forgiveness. We bear fruit by grace, his grace, poured out for us in his death. When Jesus appears in Easter morning, do you remember who Mary mistakes him for? ...a gardener.
“The [gardener] who on the cross said “aphes, forgive” to his Lord and Father comes to us with his own body dug deep by nails and spears, and his own being made dung by his death, and he sends our roots resurrection. He doesn’t come to see if we are good” (Capon, 250).
Jesus is so sure about his grace that even the most barren can bear fruit, fruit that we can offer life for others. Jesus doesn’t come to see if we are good. Jesus comes to make us good, to make us right, to make us whole, to bring fruit and goodness and life out of us. His work, our hands and hearts and minds and bodies. His death, our life. Even the most barren landscapes, death, Jesus brings life.
Jesus’ death feeds our roots, and his resurrection raises us up. May you be nourished in Jesus’ death and resurrection so that you many bear fruit that never perishes, but grows into his kingdom. Amen.
+ Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus.