(Based on Luke 13: 6-9) (I wrote this essay many years ago, and while some of my thinking on this has deepened or even changed over the years, I am posting it in case someone gains something from it. — Bruce)
I’m not much in the garden.
My father-in-law, who had three degrees in agriculture and grew some of the biggest flowers you ever saw, tried to work with me when we first met. He’d bring boxes of cuttings, telling me what each one was as he took them out of the trunk of his car. “Now this one needs to go in shade,” he’d say, “and only a few inches under. And don’t over-water it.”
A few months later he’d ask how the cuttings were doing, and I’d say, “Well, Doc, none of them lived. I guess I over-watered them.” I just didn’t have the heart to tell him that I left them in the box for a month, and then threw them on the compost pile. Yep, gardening just isn’t one of my major skill sets.
So, when Jesus starts one of his agriculture parables, I often wonder if I’m getting it. Maybe if I was better at gardening, I think, I’d understand this parable better.
Today’s parable, though, seems pretty straight-forward, even to the tomato-plant challenged like myself. Jesus tells us about a man who plants a fig tree, then when the tree doesn’t produce any fruit, he tells the gardener to chop it down. Easy to understand: no fruit, you get chopped down. Even Christians don’t get a free ride. End of story.
Yet, there are some details included in the story that we often gloss over in order to come to this seemingly obvious conclusion. And these are the details I want us to look at today.
First of all, what about this gardener? Who is that person, and how does he relate to us?
I think the gardener is Jesus, and therefore it is important for us to look at his actions and statements about the fig tree.
By now I’m sure you’ve figured out that the fig tree is you and me. This doesn’t look too good for either of us, does it? It seems that the gardener – Jesus – planted us in his garden in high hopes that we would produce fruit, but we have so far been a disappointment.
What have we produced? Well – leaves. No fruit; just leaves. In other words, we give all the signs of normal life, but no fruit.
We are alive, there’s no doubt of that. If we were dead, there wouldn’t even be leaves. But, we seem to only have enough life in us to produce leaves. Enough life in us to look good, but not enough to do any good.
The Lord of the garden – God – has so far been patient with the tree. He expected fruit the first year, didn’t get any, and told himself “Well, maybe next year.” Next year came, and still nothing. Now, with no fruit in this the third year, He tells the Gardener to chop the tree (us!) down.
And here is where it begins to get interesting. The Gardener proposes a different plan. “Let me dig around it, and water it, and put fertilizer around it, and let’s see what happens,” he says. “If it still doesn’t produce, then we can still chop it down. But maybe, if I do these things, it will wake up and produce something besides leaves.”
Now, if the tree represents you and me, what do these things mean? What can it mean for the Gardener to dig around our roots? What about that reference to fertilizer?
One of the things our Gardener does to us when we aren’t producing fruit is to dig around our roots. Some of us become so root-bound that the only way God can get through to us, through to our “roots,” our core being, is to dig out some of the things we are holding on to, and expose the roots. There’s a scary thought – the very things we are trying so hard to connect with, to bind to, God will disturb, loosen, or even remove, in order to help us to produce fruit.
So the first thing we’d better look at is: What are your roots dug into today? Where have you planted your roots? Where are you trying to get your security, and your protection, and your nutrition? Let’s change that even further to drive it home. Where, to what, to whom are you looking for your emotional security? What are you counting on for physical, emotional protection? What are you trying to take in for emotional food?
Then there’s the reference to fertilizer. It is an unfortunate word for us today, because we tend to think of fertilizer as bags of Scott’s. In Jesus’ time, of course, it was something much different – probably brown, warm, and smelly. And this is what the Gardener, in his wisdom, is going to put all around us in order to get us to grow!
Now you know where the title comes from. Many of us in this room are sitting in fertilizer today, and it’s not too pleasant. Our life’s circumstances are bad no matter which way we look, and they seem to have been dumped on us without any action on our part!
Let me stop at this point and make something very clear. If you are sitting in fertilizer today, am I necessarily saying that it is the Gardener’s fault? No. Sometimes we cause the circumstances ourselves, and sometimes an animal comes along unbidden and dumps fertilizer on us, and that’s just called Life. Am I saying that fertilizer can sometimes come, quite intentionally, from the Gardener? Yes.
When the Gardener digs up our roots, or spreads fertilizer all around us, it is not to make us miserable. It is to get us to wake up, to dig deeper into the soil, to get more nutrients, and to grow. It is to get us to produce fruit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
If we pull into ourselves, if we try to ignore, then we will get no benefit. If we wait – literally, sit – and dig deeper into the soil, then we will draw new nutrients from the fertilizer itself, and our roots will reach new depths in the soil. We will go from just looking good on the outside, to having the sort of life on the inside that results in fruit – fruit that feeds and sustains others.