“Have patience”

“Have patience”
Sunday 24 March 2019

Good story tellers know the importance of engaging the audience right from the very start. Jesus of Nazareth was a great story teller who used his stories – parables, to teach his disciples about the way that God is and what God’s kingdom is like. In the parable of the fig tree that we heard today, Jesus would have captured his Jewish audience’s attention from the very first sentence.

For us today, the sentence does not seem so startling, but that is because we do not know the writings of the Old Testament as well as Jesus’ Jewish audience of his day did. Because not many people in those times were able to read, they memorized much of the scriptures and so were especially receptive to allusions to Old Testament passages when they heard them in the stories of Jesus.

Listen to the first sentence of the parable again: “A man had a fig-tree planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any.”

There are several Old Testament passages that would come to mind immediately for his Jewish audience. For example, Jeremiah 8.13:

When I wanted to gather them,
Says the Lord,
There are no grapes on the vine,
Nor figs on the fig tree;
Even the leaves are withered,
And what I gave them has
Passed away from them.

And Hosea 9.10:

Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel
Like the first fruit on the fig tree,
In its first season,
I saw your ancestors.
But they came to Baal-peor,
And consecrated themselves to a thing of shame,
And became detestable like the thing they loved.

And Micah 7.1:

Woe is me! For I have become like one who,
After the summer fruit has been gathered,
After the vintage has been gleaned,
Finds no cluster to eat;
There is no first-ripe fig for which I hunger.

These associations will have informed Jesus’ audience that whatever he was to say about the fig tree in his parable applied to them, just as these Old Testament prophetic utterances used the image of the fig tree that did not bear fruit to represent the unfaithfulness of the Jewish people.

Jesus goes on in his parable to demonstrate that it was not unreasonable for the owner of the vineyard to expect to find fruit on the fig tree. He states that the owner had been coming to look for fruit for three years.

Now what we need to remember is that, if this is the third year that the man has been coming to the tree looking for fruit for himself, then the tree must be about ten years old. We can make this assumption because it took three years of growth before a fig tree would bear fruit. Then the first three years of fruit were forbidden in line with Leviticus 19.23:
When you come into the land and plant all kinds of trees for food, then you shall regard their fruit as forbidden; three years it shall be forbidden to you, it must not be eaten.

Then the fruit of the fourth year, the seventh year of the tree, was considered clean and was to be offered to the Lord as stated in Leviticus 19:24:

In the fourth year, all their fruit shall be set apart for rejoicing in the Lord.

So the man would not have come looking for fruit for himself from the tree until its eighth year. So the tree is now ten years old and still not producing fruit. Given that the fig tree fruits for ten months of the year, it is fair for the owner to assume that the tree is barren.

The owner’s decision to have it cut down seems quite reasonable. “Why should it use up the soil for no return?”

But the man who took care of the vineyard has greater understanding of the situation. Sure the tree is ten years old and not producing. But he knows that like most fig trees, it is planted on the slope with the grape vines where the soil is poorer quality and rocky. Rather than cut it down and wait another eight years until the fruit of a new tree would be available for consumption, he considers another option. Perhaps it is the soil quality that is the problem. Perhaps if he does a bit of work on the soil, loosens it and adds some fertilizer, the tree will bear fruit as soon as next year. As the one who “took care of the vineyard”, he has the greater understanding of the true situation and he knows that there could be a solution to the situation.

The one who cares for the tree is saying: “give it another chance.”

So what might this parable be saying to us this Lent?

Perhaps it is reminding us that it is never too late for us to turn to Christ and bear fruit – fruit that will last. Christ is our advocate who is always merciful and who is willing to keep working with us so that we become the people we are called to be – even though we are often negligent in our efforts. The possibility he offers us is the grace of his constant presence with us through the Holy Spirit – luring us forward at all times towards God, our Father – drawing us away from barrenness to the bountiful crop of lives lived in and for Christ and one another.

“… leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.”

And the parable is also suggesting to us, that, if God is willing to give each one of us another chance, so should we be willing to give each other another opportunity. Don’t be too quick to write of our fellow Christians. The parable encourages us to take the same view of others as Jesus takes towards each of us.

“… leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.”

We could summarize by saying that the parable reminds us about patience – our own patience with ourselves; our patience with others; and God’s immeasurable patience with us.

“… leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.”

A Prayer Book for Australia p.216 #49

49 After hearing Holy Scripture read
Almighty God,
we thank you for your holy word.
May it be a lantern to our feet,
a light to our paths,
and strength to our lives,
in the name of your Son
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Reverend Allan Paulsen
Parish Priest

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