Toorak Uniting Church

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Thirst for God

Isaiah 55: 1 – 9   Psalm 63: 1 – 8   Luke 13: 6 – 9
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
7 March 2010

Reading the story of the Fig tree I wondered: Why did the Fig tree not bear any fruit? And what is it that could guarantee it become fruit bearing?

Unlike many of you, I am no keen gardener. I don’t have the patience for starters, but I have never been able to get a grip on fertilizing and pruning either. We’ve lived in a couple of manses with magnificent gardens, and, unfortunately, after trying desperately for a year or so, I have always had to call in some more experienced hands to help me maintain what was there at the very least.

At our last manse we had a large orchard with fruit bearing trees that each needed very particular care. We also had a fig tree there, which, for a couple of years, bore beautiful fruits until I managed to kill it. (Don’t ask, it is too embarrassing to go into).

In other words: I know a little bit about gardening and fig trees, not from the perspective of the accomplished gardener, but from the perspective of one whom the art of gardening has always eluded.

So why did the fig tree not bear any fruit? According to WikiAnswers Fig trees should be bearing fruit the first year after they’ve been planted and yield two crops a year. They should also yield fruit before any leaves appear. If you see a Fig tree with leaves at the wrong time of year, it is not doing what a proper Fig tree should.

The Fig tree in Jesus’ story is a Fig tree not doing what it is supposed to do. It looks like it needs some extra special care before it can become what it was meant to be: a fruit bearing tree.

So, what does a Fig tree need to bear fruit? Again according to WikiAnswers a Fig tree doesn’t need much at all to maximise the likelihood of it producing fruit. It needs pollinating and it needs a bit of fertiliser. But, again according to WikiAnswers, it doesn’t need much of either. Most figs are self pollinating, and it is more likely a Fig won’t bear fruit because it has been given too much fertiliser than because it has not been given enough.

Even to me a Fig sounds like a pretty straightforward easy fruit to grow. No wonder the owner of the vineyard wasn’t impressed when even after three years no fruit had been harvested at all.

Jesus’ story is of course not intended as an instruction on how to grow fig trees, or on how much patience a gardener is supposed to have with a non fruit producing fig tree before it is time to cut his losses. Jesus uses the image of a tree with an issue everybody in his day would have been able to relate to as a symbol for what he sees happening around him: people who are not bearing the fruit they are supposed to.

In the first testament, God’s people are often referred to as trees, orchards, vineyards or gardens bearing fruit (or not). With God planting the garden an the trees hoping for good fruit, but often bitterly disappointed.

Who’s been reading the books of 1 and 2 Kings during lent as I suggested a couple of weeks ago will have noticed the continuous refrain found there: So and so continued to walk in the ways of his fathers, doing what was evil in the eyes of the Lord. Yielding a harvest of continuous war and injustice. Every now and again, in that endless succession of evil will be interrupted by one not walking in the ways of his fathers, but doing what is good in the eyes of the Lord. With the immediate result of a rich harvest of justice and peace, and an improvement in the circumstances of the poor, the weak, the orphan and the widow as well as everybody else.

Jesus tells the story of a fig tree that should have offered a harvest six times over by now but hasn’t yielded anything. And it would have been clear to his listeners he is pointing towards the religious establishment of his day. They may be people who pretend to be fruit bearing, but there is nothing but the rustle of leaves and emptiness. However: the gardener loves the tree and has near limitless patience with it, and so has the owner, although he may lose it just a little bit earlier than the gardener does.

Over the centuries interpreters of scripture have pointed to God as the owner of the vineyard and Jesus as the gardener. Remember that Easter story where one of the Mary’s confuses the risen Lord with the gardener? If we connect that story with this one we have a gardener who’s come back from the dead ready to offer the tree, the world, another chance in the Name of God, its owner.

There are other ways of looking at the characters in the story however. What if we identify not God or Jesus but ourselves with the owner or the gardener? What if we are the ones responsible for the tree bearing fruit? In Genesis God gives the garden to humanity to look after. If we look at the story from the perspective of the story of the first garden God created for people to look after. What message does the story carry then?

Everyone who thirsts come to the waters, and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!

Beautiful words from Isaiah reflecting the dream with which God planted that original garden in Eden. A garden of abundance, full of every kind of fruit. The simple to grow fig tree as well as the much harder to grow vine. A garden with clean, clear streams flowing through them, quenching the thirst of plants, trees and other creatures alike.

What kind of a gardener are we? And what is it we are doing with the responsibility entrusted to us? How dedicated are we to help the various trees reach their potential? How much know how and energy are we putting into creating the garden of God’s dream, the garden Isaiah talks about where people find the nourishment and care they need to grow and bear the fruit they are meant to bear?

And finally: is there a parallel to be discovered with the Church as we find it today. Should we identify the Church with the gardener who helps people bear fruit, patiently working at creating the best environment trees to grow and reach its full potential? Or is she perhaps the tree, rustling with leaves but not bearing that much fruit and in need of a shake up that will aerate her roots? A trench perhaps for the waters of life to once again flow and feed it?

I’ll leave you with two questions to ponder on: If we are the gardener, either as Church or as individual people, how do you think we could best go about helping the trees planted in our particular garden to grow and produce the fruit they are meant to?
And: if we are the tree, what fruit would we want to bear and how could we ourselves help the gardener to make more of them appear among the rustling of our leaves? Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2010

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