Is God really the vineyard owner in the parable of the Fruitless Tree (Luke 13:1-9)? Are we the barren tree threatened with the ax? Maybe we need to rethink that interpretation.
I stand looking at that tree, shaking my head.
How could this have happened? A perfectly good tree gone bad. No fruit. A complete waste of soil and space. A hopeless case.
What does that tree represent? Some biblical commentators will say that the tree represents us, and that this parable warns us that you had better bear fruit, or God will cut you down like a fruitless tree.
That’s one possible explanation. But let’s consider the previous verses. Some people come to question Jesus. They ask him: What do you have to say about those Galileans killed by Pilate? About those people killed by the Tower of Siloam?
I stand with those people and I ask similar questions. What do you have to say, Jesus, about the thousands of people who have been killed and left homeless by the wildfires, floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis? About all those people killed in mass shootings, in wars, in domestic violence? Why are these bad things happening to these people?
But the ones who questioned Jesus had a slightly different motive.
They didn’t question why this terrible thing happened. They wanted to know what these people did to deserve it. They worked under the assumption that tragic things happened because the person did something wrong. That God was punishing them for some misdeed. Their questions to Jesus were laced with a poisonous self-righteousness.
That assumption still exists today, even among some famous Christians. I remember back in 2010 when Haiti was hit with a devastating earthquake. The televangelist Pat Robertson announced that it was a result of their forefathers supposedly making a pact with Satan centuries ago. In other words, they brought this on themselves. And, he implied, aren’t we blessed that God hasn’t punished us with his wrathful vengeance?
What is Jesus’ response to this twisted logic?
Jesus will have none of that. You think those people got what they deserved? And that you’re somehow better than those people? They were no better or worse than you. You deserve to die just as much as they do because of your holier-than-thou attitude. Unless you repent, you too shall perish.
That’s when he tells this parable about the vineyard owner and the fig tree. Like many of Jesus’ parables, this is a cryptic little story that leaves us hanging in the end. “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but found none. So he said to the gardener, Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?”
“Wait,” says the gardener. “Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.”
Thus ends the parable.
That’s it? It leaves you wondering, doesn’t it? What happens in the end? Does the tree come back to life? Is there fruit next year? Or will the ax cut it down?
If the commentators are right, and we are the fig tree, we are left in a very precarious place, aren’t we?
But maybe we need to rethink this parable. Since Jesus is talking about repentance here, can a tree really repent? Can a tree make a decision like that? Is it the tree that really needs to repent?
What does it mean to repent? The Greek word is metanoia. It means to change one’s mind. Jesus says to those questioners, You will perish if you do not change your mind. If you do not change the way are thinking about this. You need to change the way you are thinking about sin, about God’s wrath and judgment. You need to change how you are seeing things.
I wonder if we need to change how we are seeing things in this parable?
Jesus’ parables are rarely as straightforward as they might seem at first. They are cryptic for a reason. He says more than once that he tells parables in order to hide his meaning on purpose. Jesus uses parables to create a crack in the worldview of his listeners, a crack through which we can glimpse of the Kingdom of God. And once having this glimpse, your vision is changed, things shift, reality is altered just slightly. This crack gives us just enough room to experience metanoia – room enough to change our minds.
So whose mind needs to be changed in this parable?
Who is the one looking at the tree and seeing nothing but a fruitless waste of space? Who is the one ready to pronounce judgment on the tree, chop it down, see it as deserving nothing but death. It’s not the tree that needs to change. It’s the owner of the fig tree whose mind the gardener is trying to change.
That means those questioners are the owner of the tree! They are the ones looking at people affected by tragedy and making judgments about them, ready to chop them down, seeing them as deserving nothing but death because of their fruitlessness, their sinfulness, their stupidity, their skin color, their economic level, their immigration status, their sexuality, their addictions, their mistakes.
Do you see? The owner of the tree is not God. The owner is us.
This parable is about you and me! We are the owners of the fig tree. We are the ones whose minds need to be changed. We are the ones ready to chop down that tree without a second thought. We are the ones impatiently making demands, ready to destroy the tree because it is not meeting our standards.
I have to admit, sometimes I am that fig tree owner with an ax in my hand, ready to start chopping. I see nothing good coming from this tree. I’m angry and sad and judgmental, and I’m ready to start making wood chips fly. Hand me the ax, I’m ready to chop it down. I’m ready to give up hope. Because I when I look at that tree I see nothing but emptiness.
And then I look at that gardener.
What does the gardener do? He springs to action! He does everything within his power to prevent the owner from giving up on the tree. He pleads for the life of the tree, enthusiastically hauls out the shovel and wheelbarrow. He lays out his plan for replenishing the soil with nutrients from the fertilizer. And he makes his case for giving the tree just one more year to bear fruit. It may be a lost cause, but he’s not ready to give up yet.
When that gardener looks at that tree, he sees life. He sees hope. So he does everything he can to preserve whatever potential may be left in that tree.
The gardener sees that tree with the eyes of faith and sees possibility for new growth, despite all evidence to the contrary.
The gardener does not get distracted with being judgmental and self-righteous. The gardener does not write off the tree as a lost cause. He gets in there, down in the muck, and gets his hands dirty. He grabs a shovel and starts digging. He rolls up his sleeves, grabs a handful of that smelly fertilizer, and starts filling it in around the base of the tree.
Because the gardener knows, if you throw in the towel every time something bad happens;
if you write off a person, or a race, or a culture, or a prisoner, or a refugee, or a gay or lesbian, or an entire country because you think they deserve what they got;
if you’re ready to chop down the tree every time it fails to bear the fruit you think it should,
pretty soon you’ll find yourself surrounded by nothing but a bunch of dead stumps.
Listen, instead, to the gardener. He is trying to change your mind, showing you a new perspective, trying to get you to see this tragic situation through the eyes of faith. The gardener says: Trust in God, even in the face of fruitless branches. Don’t blame the victims of tragedy – get in there and minister to them. This is a very practical, down-to-earth faith we’re talking about here.
Isn’t it interesting that when Mary saw Jesus after the resurrection, she mistook him for the Gardener?
The Gardner says: Don’t get self-righteous when bad things happen to others.
Don’t get on your high horse and gloat thinking you’re better than others. Or say things like, “There but for the grace of God go I.” What – you think God’s grace doesn’t extend to those to find themselves in fruitless situations? Just the opposite. Grace is in that shovel. Grace is in that wheelbarrow.
The Gardener also says: don’t despair when bad things happen to you.
Don’t cower behind closed doors out of fear that the Tower of Siloam may fall. Wake up each morning and say: “Okay, world, whatever you have in store for me today, bring it. My joy will be magnified because I stand with the Gardener. My sorrow will be transformed because I stand with the Gardener.”
I will fear no evil, for thy rod and thy staff and thy shovel and thy wheelbarrow full of compost – they comfort me. I fear no evil because I look forward to seeing what God is going to do about this. How God is going to take a dead tree and throw manure around it and bring it back to life. How God is going to take a crucified Jesus, hanging on that dead tree, and effect a miracle of transformation the likes of which the world has never seen.
So I stand here looking at that empty tree, shaking my head. And I watch that Gardener fervently, foolishly digging,
digging around that tree.
And then the gardener beckons to me, and hands me a shovel.
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (Kentucky) and author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).