Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he 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?’ The gardener answered, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”
Have a seat, and let’s talk about the story.
First, I have a question for our younger kids who were in Sunday school last week…. [show Mustard Seed image] What is this?…. What does the mustard seed do? … This is one of the parables of Jesus. Parables are like little stories that you can just keep thinking about, aren’t they? Well, in Luke’s Gospel, in the story of Jesus the way Luke tells it, the mustard-seed parable – AND the Yeast parable – are close to another parable: the parable of the Fig Tree. (They’re also very close to the time when Jesus calls King Herod a fox and himself a mother hen!…)
What we learn in the parables of the mustard seed & yeast is that things GROW! The seed grows into a big tree that is home for many birds; the yeast grows and makes bread big and fluffy and delicious. But sometimes things DON’T grow when you want them to… That’s the deal with this fig tree. It’s not giving fruit.
Giving fruit, in the Bible, is a metaphor. A metaphor means we’re talking about one thing, as a way to talk about another thing. There are lots of places in the Bible where God’s people are described as plants – trees or vines… And when we’re bearing fruit, that means we are doing the things God wants us to do. Being kind and fair and loving. Caring for our neighbors and for the world. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re getting straight A’s or getting promoted at our job; but it means we’re making the most of what God has given us, whatever that means for us.
So the question Jesus is raising, with this story, is, What do we do about people who aren’t bearing fruit? Do we say, Too bad! They’re failures! They’re no good!Chop them down! Or do we ask … why? Why aren’t they bearing fruit? Are they just lazy or selfish? Or is there a real reason?…
[Show them the kumquat tree]
We got this tree three years ago. I thought it would be neat to have a tree that lives inside that gives fruit. But it’s given exactly one kumquat in the time we’ve had it. Have you ever had a kumquat?… Here, try one…
So why isn’t our kumquat tree giving us kumquats? See here, Tree! We want fruit! What’s the problem?!? Well… I know what the problem is. Or what the problems are.
This kumquat doesn’t have what it needs to bear fruit. Trees have to be happy and healthy to give fruit; otherwise they put their resources into just staying alive. Our kumquat is doing OK, but it’s not flourishing. And that’s not the tree’s fault. It’s my fault.
What do plants need? You know this…
Water – yes. Okay, I think this is the one thing we do pretty well; we are pretty faithful about watering our tree regularly.
Sunlight. Yes. This tree gets OK light but not great light. It would be happier with more. It’s a warm-climate tree, so it needs to be inside for the fall and winter and spring. And while our building has a lot of windows, we don’t have windows where the sun really shines in. The architect probably did that on purpose, because human beings don’t like the sun shining right on us. But trees DO. And last summer – I am embarrassed to say this – last summer, when it could have lived outside for a few months, getting sun and air and warmth, I never got around to taking it outside. I owe this tree an apology. I’m sorry, tree! …
And another thing it needs – there’s a hint in the story: what does the gardener say she’s going to do? … Right – she’s going to dig up the soil around the tree and add some manure. What’s manure?… Why is the gardener going to put manure around the tree?… Do your parents talk to you about eating healthy food? Food with the right nutrients and vitamins in it? Well, trees and plants need particular nutrients too. To be healthy enough to give fruit, this tree needs fertilizer. When I got the tree, I got some fertilizer. But it’s not exactly the right kind, and I haven’t been careful about giving it the fertilizer regularly. So the tree hasn’t been getting the right kind of food for it grow well and give fruit. Just like us, if we’re not eating well, and getting our basic needs met, it’s hard for us to bear fruit and be the people we want to be.
You know what else this tree needs, to bear fruit? It needs a community. It needs other trees like it, and it needs pollinators – insects that will come to its blossoms and carry pollen from flower to flower, to fertilize the female blossoms so a fruit can start to form. And there, this tree is just out of luck. It doesn’t have tree friends here, and there aren’t the right kind of insects around to pollinate it. Two summers ago, when I did take it outside, it was happy and healthy enough to have some flowers! And I took a paintbrush and moved pollen from flower to flower, trying to do what a pollinating insect would do. And it sort of worked – it grew a few fruits, though only one of them managed to stay till it got ripe. But if it had friends, if it had the community it needed of other trees and insects, it would be a lot easier for it to bear fruit. Instead, it’s alone.
So this kumquat is like that fig tree in the story: it’s not bearing fruit. Do you think I should chop it down?
Do you think we should try to take better care of it, so that it will be a happier, healthier tree, and will give us fruit?
But remember, when Jesus and the Bible talk about trees, they’re not just talking about trees, they’re talking about people. So when we feel mad at somebody because they’re not being good or doing right things or helping other people as much as we think they should, maybe we should wonder Why. Is there something they need that they’re not getting, that’s making it hard for them to bear fruit? And is there any way we could help?
And when we feel mad at ourselves, for not bearing fruit the way we think we should, maybe we should ask Why too? Do we need more sunlight or more community or better food or something, to help us be the person we feel called by God to be?
Do you remember back in January, I taught you to bless each other, marking a cross on the forehead and saying, May God bless you and be the guardian of your body, mind, and spirit? Well, my daughter taught me another version of that, and I think it’s a good way to end today: May God bless you and be gardening your body, mind, and spirit!
Bless each other while I put our tree friend away!…