Tuesday, September 25, 2018

An Elegy to the Fruitless

And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9 ESV)

Some years back, while I was still on active duty in the Navy, my wife and I bought our first house in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area prior to my transfer there for recruiting duty.  It was fall when we moved in, so the initial yard work consisted mostly of raking and bagging leaves from the half-dozen trees on the property. It wasn’t until late summer of the following year that one tree—some sort of fruit tree, we thought, but we weren’t sure—caught my attention. This tree and I already had a special relationship. Whoever had planted it, did so about a yard from the curb in a front yard that slanted downward toward the street. Each weekend this tree and I sparred, as I tried to get the lawn mower around it without hitting the blade on the curb. I may have cursed it once or twice over the roar of the mower, certain that it couldn’t hear me.
One Saturday morning in early fall, I was going about my mowing routine in the front yard and I happened to notice a single, solitary apple hanging on one of the higher branches. An apple tree! A tree that would give us apples! I was so excited that I snatched that apple, gave it a quick looking over, then took a bite. It tasted so good!
Well, as you can imagine, we couldn’t wait for more apples to appear… But that year there weren’t any. We apparently had the only one-apple tree in the neighborhood. Oh well, we’d wait until the end of the next summer. We’d just have to be patient. But the next year came and went…and no apples. And another year passed, then another. Still no apples.
However, year after year I remained forced to manhandle my lawnmower around that tree, and at one point my wife and discussed removing it altogether. But there was still a chance that it would bear more fruit—maybe it worked in five- or six- or seven-year cycles? So we decided to keep it.
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree is found only in Luke. It’s the story of a man with a fruit tree in his yard, too, and who, like me, came seeking fruit…and found none.
In Luke’s Gospel, repentance is a major emphasis, not as a nagging call, but instead as an implicit promise of salvation.  Those who don’t repent will perish, but God will forgive those who do repent—and will save them through Christ.
The insistence of the fruitless fig tree’s owner to “cut it down” evokes John the Baptist’s proclamation that “even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9).  Jesus is reiterating to His listeners that the time for repentance is now; He is the Gardener sent into the Father’s vineyard to help the fig trees bear fruit. He plants, waters, prunes, digs, and fertilizes. He heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute, forgiveness to the sinner, understanding to the simple, and humility to those who consider themselves wise. Each tree is baptized with water and receives the Holy Spirit. The Gardener Himself fertilizes the soil with his own Body and Blood.
Each day is a day of grace, allowing a fresh opportunity for repentance and a renewed life of discipleship, living out the fruits of repentance.  By Christ’s death and resurrection, we not only share in His victory over sin, death, and the devil, but the gracious gift of borrowed time, as well, the length of which only God knows for sure. Just as Jesus’ message had a sense of urgency for His listeners in our text, so does it still for us today, for the world around us.
We had that house for 12 years. That one-apple tree remained standing and fruitless as we waited all those years. Our second house was only a few miles away, so a few months after we moved I decided to drive through the old neighborhood and past our first house and as I approached it the first thing that I noticed was that the tree was gone! The new owner must have cut it down. 
In Christ Jesus, the axe won’t take us. In Christ Jesus, we are nurtured and nourished in the Sacraments. In Christ Jesus, we thrive and bear fruit.
That’s it for this month. May the Lord bless you and keep you,
Pastor E.B.

P.S. Speaking of apples and such, it has been said that anyone can count the seeds in an apple, but only God can count the apples in a seed.