The gospel of Luke records a parable that Jesus told about a fig tree that would not bear fruit. The man who owned the vineyard came and saw that this tree was bare, and told his gardener, "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?"
But the gardener replied, "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."
Commentators call this, "The Parable of the Second Chance." As a person who's been given more than one "second chance," I like this parable. It gives us hope, and reminds us, as always, to trust God and let him have his way.
Can't you picture this vineyard in your mind - with the one lonely fig tree that wouldn't bear fruit? It's true that the soil can be shallow and rocky in that part of the world ... and yet, OTHER fig trees had figs on them. This one was just taking and taking, and not giving back what it had been created to give. As in life, that's just not the idea. The idea is to give what we have to give, whatever that is.
The gardener is a good picture of the Holy Spirit in our lives. He asks for another year to work even harder with this tree, and he's committed to helping the fig tree do what it was raised to do. That gardener is prepared to dig around our roots and spread fertilizer lavishly ... very much like the work of the Spirit, if you think about it. And Lord knows, he's very patient about it! He gives us lots of chances to bear fruit.
Let's see ... digging around our roots, and spreading fertilizer ... definitely doesn't sound like my idea of a good time. Once we have our roots buried deep, we want them to stay just as they are. Took us awhile to grow them that deeply.
(Sidebar: Did you know that most people go into therapy looking for permission NOT to change? We want to stay just the way we are! We just want someone to agree with us that that's where we need to be. Believe me, if I call you up to tell you about a situation - you know, I said this, he said that - I'm calling you because I expect you to be on my side and tell me I'm the one who's right! I don't want to hear that, actually, the other person's right, and I'm the one who needs to change. It's easy for us to miss the big issue, which is - are we bearing fruit the way we've been created to do? The issue becomes, we don't want to change!)
So, here comes the gardener. He's not digging at our roots to hurt us. He's actually doing it to save our lives and strengthen us to bear the fruit we need to bear. And then, adding insult to injury, he comes and spreads manure all over where he's just dug. Now, most of us have had plenty of manure in our lives, in one way or another. And we're usually not too fond of the process. So, what good is all that manure?
Well ... whether we like it or not ... lots of manure helps to remind us that when it comes to sin, it's a level playing field: We're not better than anyone else. Good-bye, self-righteousness! I think manure reminds us to turn to God and trust him no matter what.
And it helps us to develop the compassion we need to bear fruit in the lives of others, as we bear fruit in our own lives. Bearing fruit means to be a disciple of Jesus, and grow in that discipleship. That's why we're here. That's our Great Commission, direct from the Lord himself.
Can we do this by our own strength of will and determination? Nope! We need the gardener; we need the Holy Spirit. The first thing that has to change is US. You can be sure that process takes lots of digging around and manure-spreading. Sometimes, we just have to trust God and hang on!
But eventually, wonderful things start to happen. We bear fruit. We help someone. We show compassion. We quit judging others. We become famous in our corner of the world as the person who's always kind and loving, even when there are hard truths that must be said. We grow in worship and service.
It's so much fun! Maybe all that digging around and manure-spreading is worth it!
Trust the gardener. And remember that one of the main fruits we're soon able to produce ... is JOY.
Rev. Susan Bennett is pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church. She and her husband live in Stockbridge with two giant Rottweilers and a 15-pound rescue dog who is the boss of everybody.