Sunday 4th October 2020
A man had a fig-tree…
Some of the nation’s favourite TV shows are traditionally on at autumn time: Strictly Come Dancing, the X factor, the Apprentice…Millions of viewers tuning in week by week and the fascination? Certainly, there’s the dancing, the singing and the outfits, but for many people, it’s the thought and the anticipation of week by week, the judges’ verdict, and the question of, ‘who will face the axe?’ It’s judgement the nation loves – as the contestants’ performances are scored, as they sweat beneath the lights, we watch and wait, leaning forward in our seats, waiting for the moment – where will the axe fall, who’s going home, who’s fired?
Today, at this time of harvest, we ponder another of Jesus’ parables. It’s a short parable, just a few intriguing verses with much to teach us, and one of the things it teaches concerns judgment, the falling of the axe….but there is much more here, for in the parable of the barren fig-tree, yes we find judgement, but even more so we find grace, the wonderful grace of our amazing, patient, loving God.
Before we ponder this parable together, let’s pray: Heavenly Father, we bless and thank You for the gift of Your Word. Open our hearts to all You would say to us – may we be challenged, strengthened, and encouraged as we ponder Your truth, in Jesus’ name, Amen.
Judgement – the world is full of it. But what does Jesus say? What does Jesus teach?
Jesus was well known for His quiet, patient way of doing things; we know this from other parables in which He spoke of things like yeast and seeds and salt….And Jesus never seemed to be rushed or in a hurry….He always had time for that teaching opportunity, that story to tell, that question that needed answering, that person who needed a word of encouragement or challenge…and so also with this parable of the barren fig-tree in which Jesus speaks through one of its characters as if saying, “Hold on. Not so fast before you swing that axe of judgement. Give things more time. Some tender loving care is called for.”
The parable begins, as Jesus’ stories so often did, with the everyday, with a simple, familiar image: ‘A man had a fig tree, planted it in his vineyard, and went to look for fruit on it…’ It all sounds quite idyllic, doesn’t it? You can almost see this landowner, strolling around his property on a warm, sunny morning, inspecting his fruit trees, but then quite suddenly the story take a bad turn as Jesus adds a jarring note: for there is no fruit on one particular tree, in fact for three years there has been none and the verdict? This tree is nothing but a disappointment! ‘Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil! Why waste good ground on it!’
There’s something about parables – they have a way of drawing us in – stirring our imagination – asking us questions…. So, are you drawn in? Do you feel sorry for the tree?
Would you leave it? Or would you already be wielding the axe? While we are considering our options, the story takes another turn, as the manager speaks up for the tree: ‘Sir, leave it alone, let’s give it another year. I’ll dig around it and fertilize it, and maybe it will produce next year, if not, then cut it down.’ And that’s it, that’s the end….what happens next? We don’t know, this is one of Jesus’ stories with no ending, but we do know this: all of Jesus’ parables are important for they teach of the kingdom and of God. So, let’s do a little digging of our own and see what we can find out…
Commentators seem more or less agreed:
- The fig-tree represents people, people like you and me.
- People who are called, through repentance, to be right with God.
- To trust in all God has done through His Son Jesus Christ.
- And then, having placed our trust in God’s Son, we are called, by His Spirit at work in our lives, to bear fruit for the kingdom, to live the sort of lives God calls us to live…
But if that doesn’t happen, if there is no ‘fruit’ to be seen in a life, no evidence of repentance, of loving God, serving God, serving others, what then? The message of the parable is clear – judgement, ‘Cut it down’ judgement. This is very unsettling, but that’s what parables do, they shake us up and unsettle us, lest we are sitting too comfortably…
But, praise God, as through this parable we see mercy gives a second chance, our patient God gives more time, represented through the tender, loving care of the manager prepared to invest time in digging around the tree, fertilising, encouraging growth…..’Sir, leave it alone, let’s give it another year. I’ll dig around it and fertilize it, and maybe it will produce next year…’
In the same way, we as sinners, instead of judgment, are greeted by mercy and grace.
Like the manager of the vineyard, God gives the opportunity to repent, to get right with Him and to bear fruit for the kingdom…. But let’s be absolutely clear, the purpose of the tree was to bear fruit, the purpose of the church is to bear fruit, the purpose of individual Christian lives is to bear fruit. We live in days of grace, now is the time to be right with God, now is the time for service in the kingdom of God; God is holding back to give us that chance, but it will not last forever, again, the parable is clear, the clock is ticking…
We don’t know what happened with the fig tree, the story doesn’t tell us, but I’d like to think that the next year when the master came looking for the crop, he was overwhelmed by the fruit the tree produced…and again, in the same way, wouldn’t it be wonderful as a church, as God’s people, if we were to look back maybe in a year’s time, to find in God’s hands and through God’s leading, amazing things had been accomplished, fruit for the kingdom…
A few days after the telling of this parable, Jesus entered Jerusalem. Before the week was out, He was hanging on a cross. And as He hung on that cross, abandoned and betrayed, bruised and bloodied, nails through hands and feet, what did He say? Words of astonishing grace and mercy, ‘Father forgive them…’ Jesus’ cry for forgiveness was spoken before the crowd uttered a word of repentance; in fact, quite the opposite was in their minds as they cried, ‘Crucify! Crucify!’ Jesus prayed that we might be forgiven before we had any idea that we even needed it. Now, pause for a moment to think back to the words of the manager in the parable, and then listen again to Jesus’ cry from the cross, for there is a strong connection between both, just listen for it:
- The vineyard manager said: ‘Sir, leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilise it…’ Words of grace…
- Jesus said: ‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ Words of astonishing grace…
Amazing grace. We live in days of grace and it is for us to grasp the opportunities that lie before us:
- To get right with God,
- To bear fruit for the kingdom with our lives…
And in this world that loves judgement, we are called, as people who have experienced the grace of God, to spread that grace around:
- Through taking care of each other,
- Being patient with each other,
- Not being too quick in our judgement of each other,
- Investing time in each other…
- Being people who love God and who bear fruit for the kingdom,
- Now is the time to do these things,
- The clock is ticking…
In this season of harvest, let us be thankful for all God’s good gifts in our lives, and for the grace and mercy, forgiveness and patience that our amazing God showers upon us, and may our response be lives lived for Him.
Let’s pray: Heavenly Father, as we have pondered Your Word, may its challenge and encouragement stay with us and be translated into love and service – loving and serving You, loving and serving others – fruit for the kingdom. In Jesus’ name, Amen.