A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor of Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., March 7, 2010.
It was at least five hundred feet tall, or so it seemed to me when I was five years old. I am referring to the pear tree that sat in the lower corner of our backyard when I was a child.
Everyone noticed not only its size, but the number of pears it produced each year. Family members and neighbors agreed that it was the most productive fruit tree they had seen.
All I knew was that many of the branches were so weighted down with pears that it made it possible for even a five year old to pick pears off the tree and sit in the shade while eating them. I did that on many occasions.
I thought of the pear tree in my boyhood yard when I read today’s text. It concludes with a story about a fruit-bearing tree. It was not a pear tree, but a fig tree, which is common in the Holy Land.
Fig trees can grow up to thirty-five feet tall and bear figs three times a year. They are eaten fresh or dried and made into cakes.
In this parable, Jesus told of a landowner that had a fig tree planted in a vineyard. Periodically he came looking for figs and found none, so he told the gardener to cut it down and not let it take up precious space any longer.
This was not a hasty decision by any means. The owner had given the tree three years after it should have produced figs before ordering that it be cut down.
The vinedresser, however, pleaded for more time to work with it. “Sir, 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” Luke 13:8-9.
I wonder what happened. The story ends without telling us, which makes this parable more intriguing. Perhaps it is left to us to write the ending based upon the decisions we make.
Why do you think Jesus told this parable, especially at this time? It follows a rather interesting dialogue about sin and suffering. Clearly, Jesus did not feel that the victims of Pilate’s temper or a natural disaster deserved their fate. They were not being punished for something they had done. They were innocent victims.
I think Jesus told this parable because he wanted to focus upon life, not death, and their lives in particular. He wanted to talk about how they were living, not how and why others died. Evidently, he saw some glaring mistakes they were making, which was leading to their own demise, and he loved them too much to ignore them.
I need to remind you that a fig tree was a symbol for Israel throughout scripture. Furthermore, fig trees fortunate enough to be planted in vineyards received the kind of care and attention that should have yielded lots of fruit. Trees that did not were cut down and not allowed to take up valuable space and nourishment from the soil.
I am confident there were religious leaders in the crowd that day listening to Jesus. They understood this symbolism and his stern message. They knew Jesus believed that they were not bearing the fruit that God expected of them. Their priorities were out of order and they had forgotten and disobeyed the principles of the covenant they made with God through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and they needed to make changes before it was too late.
What was missing in their lives? What fruit were they lacking? It was a long list.
Compassion. Generosity. Service. Mercy. Grace. Kindness. Unselfishness. Patience. Discipline. Honesty. Courage. Humility. Repentance. Forgiveness. Integrity. Peacemaking. Sensitivity to others’ needs. The pursuit of justice. Wise and faithful stewardship of influence, power and resources. A willingness to reach out to all people. The ability to build bridges of goodwill and understanding to their neighbors, not walls of suspicion and hate.
You see, life was all about them, not the people who needed them. It was about accumulating wealth, feeding their egos, holding on to power and living in ease. This was because they were addicted to these things.
Many of the religious leaders were not there to serve, but to be served, and Jesus told this parable to indict them. Their tree was barren, at least in God’s eyes. Jesus certainly saw no fruit and boldly told them.
How did they respond to Jesus? They killed him; not then and there. They had to plot, scheme, break rules, disobey commandments, bribe a disciple and hold their noses while making alliances with the Roman officials, but they got it done.
And he forgave them, even while dying on that cross. He never gave up hope that fruit could grow on those barren trees.
What is missing in your life? What word would Jesus have for you today? What would others say about you?
Do you remember the Wendy’s commercials that asked, “Where’s the beef?” They ran over twenty-five years ago and were effective in increasing sales. Wendy’s claimed that they put more ground beef on their hamburgers than their competition. You may recall that this slogan was used in the next Presidential election by Walter Mondale, with much less success than Wendy’s had.
Are the people who know that you are a Christian asking, “Where’s the fruit?” Are your family members and friends looking for, but not finding, compassion, mercy, grace, kindness, patience, generosity, discipline, honesty, humility, repentance, forgiveness and integrity?
Could they describe how you are making the world a better place to live for all people? Would they identify you as a bridge builder and peacemaker through the courageous use of your influence and resources?
If they would not, I would be willing to say that you and those who spend much time around you are not happy. Actually, you are slowly dying.
This is because life was never meant to be all about us. We are not here to be served or get addicted to possessions, power, comfort or ease. It is not our egos we need to fill but hungry stomachs and hearts. When we forget this, we start dying.
“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” Isaiah wrote to a people whose tree was barren. “Listen carefully to me and eat that which is good and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear and come to me. Listen so that you may live” Isaiah 55:2-3.
Who is the gardener in your life trying to help you? Who is grieving over your misplaced values and priorities and where they are leading you? Are you listening? What changes do you need to make?
Repentance is a major theme in Luke’s gospel. The call to repentance is always followed, however, by grace and hope. Jesus specialized in second chances. Is he and are others offering you another chance to make changes in your life? Will you respond?
For whom are you burdened today? Who is chasing after the wrong things in life and headed for disaster? What can you do to help them?
What do they need from you? Encouragement? Affirmation? A mentor? Do they need you to speak the truth to them in love and steer them away from indifference, complacency or rebellion. Do they need you to hold them accountable for promises they have made.
How many times have you tried to help them? How many times have you said you are finished trying?
The tension that exists in this parable resides in every heart. The owner of the vineyard wanted to give up on the barren fig tree while the vinedresser pleaded for more time.
You may have the same tug-o-war going on inside your heart. One minute you want to help and the next you are ready to give up. I understand.
I also understand one of the most important lessons in this parable. The gospel will not let you give up on those that others would discard. It will not do it, at least not without a struggle.
This is why you need God’s help. You cannot be this patient and tenacious without it. Jesus couldn’t and neither can you. Would you ask for that help now?