Fig tree | Lent 3 | March 24

Texts: Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9

Speaker: Rachael Miller

“Scripture says: Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.”
Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.
This line from the musical Hamilton comes from Micah, chapter 4. It’s the bit that follows the familiar verse:

They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not rise up against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

It is an image of peace, prosperity, and safety. The fig is a ready image and a frequent metaphor for the people of ancient Israel. It is used to signify both times of prosperity (as when the tree is full of fruit), and times of unrighteousness and divine judgement (as when the tree has no fruit).

In the parable Robin just read, the fig tree is barren. I haven’t heard many sermons on this passage in my life. What I have heard, and as I’ve read this on my own, the thrust of the parable is this: all sinners are alike and deserve death, and if you can get on it and start properly bearing fruit, you might escape the fires of hell. Even when it’s not taken that far, the argument is similar. Do more for God. It is as though the fig tree, and those it represents, are not doing enough to bear fruit. That it needs to step up and start producing already.

I want to invite us to hear something different this morning.

There are 2 reasons I think a different reading is warranted. First,  the story of our faith is a story of impossible life. God shows up again and again throughout scripture to transform barrenness into fullness of life. The story of Sarai, which we heard two weeks ago; an old woman, well beyond child bearing years, births a nation. The pregnancies of Elizabeth and Mary – physical births that defy biology. Ezekiel’s vision of them dry bones, a metaphor for the nation of Israel to be restored after the destruction of Jerusalem and exile. God produces manna in the wilderness to sustain the Israelites for their journey. Jesus multiplies the loaves and fishes and feeds a multitude. Our story of faith is a story of God transforming fruitlessness into plenty.

The second reason: “Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree.” Every time the phrase “own vine and fig tree” is used, it signifies prosperity and peace, and often that coming after hardship. In the book of II Kings, referring to a future time of peace: “all shall eat of their own vine and fig tree.” In Zechariah, after forgiveness: “you shall invite one another to come under your own vine and fig tree. In Joel, God promises that the “vine and fig tree will give their full yield.”

A fig tree is planted in a vineyard.

A fig tree is planted in a vineyard. The owner comes and complains that it is not producing fruit.

A single fig tree is planted in a vineyard. Trees are social beings. According to the research of Peter Wohllenben, when they grow in old growth forests, where the ecosystem is left undisturbed by human interference, they live in communities. Trees of the same species, and sometimes of other species, will share resources with one another. Aided by fungi that exist among the roots and throughout the forest floor, they will equalize their energy production. When one tree is sick or injured, surrounding trees will send nutrients to support it. They hold one another up. Trees inform each other of the presence of pests by sending chemicals, pheromones, through the air. This alerts other trees so they can reallocate resources toward defense. The whole of the forest creates a microclimate with a stable temperature and humidity, encouraging the perpetuation of all the species within.

That means the lone fig tree, planted among the vines, is at a disadvantage. The vineyard is not dense enough to create the self-sustaining climate of a forest. Moisture is lost to the air, and the temperature varies day and night. The vines will signal to other vines, and the fig tree may or may not recognize the language and respond appropriately. The soil, while it may contain helpful fungi, does not contain the same system of fungi found among several trees of the same species. Without a community of other trees to support it, the fig planted in the vineyard is more susceptible to injury and disease. And, it is young. Three years in the life of a tree is no more than the blink of an eye. It has really only begun to grow.

The owner visits the tree and complains this tender and leggy fig tree is not yet producing fruit. Perhaps the expectations of the owner are inappropriate. The owner does not seem to understand about trees, or be thinking about anything more than what they can get from the tree. They see it as little more than an object from which to benefit. If it is not bearing fruit, it is useless, sucking up vital resources, of which there is a limited supply.

The owner is interested solely in getting from the tree and shows they do not understand what lies at the root of the problem.

The tree knows what it needs. Trees grow toward what they need. Above ground, they grow toward the light to maximize sunlight exposure. Below ground, they grow away from the light to maximize stability and water consumption. Trees are aware of the seasons; they begin to prepare for autumn in the height of summer, and for spring in the depths of winter. When under stress, trees will shift their resources, learning to conserving water or make better use of minerals. The tree knows what it needs and does its best to seek those things. It cannot do otherwise.

As human beings, we are very much able to do otherwise. We are able to stare at our screens for hours, eat Doritos for lunch, fixate on and rehearse in our minds what so and so did or didn’t do.

In the book of Isaiah, God asks:

Why do you spend your money
for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

God, who knows us more intimately than we know ourselves, does not need for us to produce an answer. It is for our sake that God poses this question. The question is indented to invite us into a deeper self-awareness. To notice which thoughts and activities fill us with energy, and which leave us drained. Which we look forward to with gladness and which we dread. We too often root ourselves in dry and weary lands. God desires for us a rich feast. God calls us to come to the waters.

Theologian James Alison, in reflecting on this passage, highlights the difference between our ways and God’s ways, not as a function of distance, rather as a function of type. “For God, scarcity is absurd,” he writes. “God is not held back by our imaginations and our fears.” We can see the contrast in the first two verses.

Verse 1:
Everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come buy wine and milk
without money and without price.

God delights in generosity. Contrasted with verse 2 which contains that question of why we toil so hard, spend so much of our time and energy, for that which does not fill us with life? Our society tends to function from an assumption of scarcity and fear. There must be an accounting so that resources are not squandered. Like the owner of the vineyard, we would not want to waste the soil. God, however, operates here from an understanding of abundance and a desire for our delight. God is all about what satisfies. We, too often, get caught up in our fears and the limits of our own imagination.

Our fig tree parable begins with people approaching Jesus, wanting to talk about the Galileans. Their thoughts are not God’s thoughts. They come with an imagination for separation and ranking. Those Galileans who died, they must have deserved it. In our fear, we seek to find a way to feel safe. If God is part of this, and if it is about deserving, then we can avoid the same fate by doing the right things, by deserving the favor of the divine.

Jesus’ response challenges their thinking. “Do you think…?” Jesus knows this way of being in the world: looking for ways to be good enough. He knows it is rooted in fear and a suspicion there is a limit to God’s love and acceptance. He recognizes it and knows it does not lead to fruitfulness or fullness of life.

James Alison writes of this text, “What God wants all along is for people to receive abundance, and he begs us to allow him to train our imaginations away from fear, scarcity and the violence that is their sacred mantle.” God knows we need an invitation. That we tend to forget what satisfies.

The divine invites us to remember. To pay attention to what fills our soul, that makes our spirit sing. Pay attention to how whole we feel when we delve into our studies, when we get the dishes done, when we pause long enough to connect with the person sitting next to us, when we bear witness to the stories and truths of another.

God invites us to delight in the feast set before us. The bloom of the purple crocus. The warmth and light of spring after the cold of winter. The opportunity to grow in wisdom. That project – that none of your family understands, and you get, and you love. The nurture of relationships, The laughter of dear ones.

God invites us:

Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good.
Delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
Not live, but LIVE.

God’s yearning is for us to LIVE. Returning to our parable, God is the gardener who desires fruitfulness and fullness of life. The gardener who knows to consider what is below the surface of things. What motivates growth this way or that. To discern the roots of things, how one seeks stabilization. How one receives and shares nutrients. How one communicates with those around it.

The gardener desires us to receive that which nourishes, and knows how to provide it. The gardener says to those who will listen, “Leave this one with me. Let me dig around the roots and let’s see what happens.” The gardener does not expect the fig to step up and begin producing fruit of its own accord. She understands the tree is not getting what it needs, and is willing to provide it. The gardener advocates for the tree, knowing it is not a waste of soil. The gardener does not think in those terms, like we do – keeping a close accounting of input and output.

The gardener knows the tree was not created solely to bear fruit. It is created to be a tree. To grow into its full fig treeness. The fruiting is the result of a natural process. And if there is not fruit, there is something amiss in the process. Our gardener advocates for us. It’s not about measuring up. It’s about filling up on the goodness of God. Filling up on those delights of life. The thousands of little things each day scattered around us for our delight.

God of the fig tree,
grow in us an awareness
to recognize that which nourishes.
Teach us Your ways
rooted in generosity and delight.
May our trust in You deepen,
knowing You to be one who longs for us
to experience fullness of life.

May we grow to be able to say with Mary Oliver:

Every day
I see or hear
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.