Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! 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?’ He 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.’”
It was brutally cold in the middle of February as we lugged our recording equipment up to the arena in St. Louis, Missouri. We had somehow hoodwinked the powers-that-be at the General Conference that we were a reputable media organization, and they happily provided us with press passes. So my buddies and I parked as close as we could, but we had to get all of our podcast equipment to the designated Media Area.
We were all shivering, having not packed enough winter clothing, while waiting for the light to change in the sparsely populated downtown streets. Over chattering teeth we opined about what and who we might encounter at the General Conference, and we even wondered whether they’d actually let us in or not.
However, by the time the arena came into view none of us were talking. Instead we were gobsmacked by the presence of representatives from Westboro Baptist Church picketing in response to our called General Conference.
Our denomination was meeting to discern the future for LGBTQIA inclusion or exclusion, and mere feet away from the main entrance were a handful of demonstrators who, by the signs and shouting, let everyone know how they felt about the whole thing.
NO WOMEN PREACHERS!
I thought, “They’re going to be really disappointed when they realize that women preachers were the first to tell the disciples about the resurrection.”
DIVORCE, REMARRIAGE, AND GAY MARRIAGE ARE ALL SIN!
I thought, “They’re not necessarily wrong, but so is eating shellfish and working on the Sabbath so…”
BELIEVE ON JESUS THE DESTROYER OF SODOM!
I thought, “Wait a minute, Jesus was born centuries after Sodom was destroyed.”
YOUR PASTORS ARE LIARS!
I thought, “Yep. Just like everyone else.”
AMERICA IS DOOMED!
I thought, “Huh, maybe they’re on to something…”
And the last sign – GOD HATES FIGS
Honestly, even with what felt like subzero temperatures, I started laughing right there in the middle of the street. God hates figs! These people really do read their bibles. Jesus rebukes a fig tree and curses it to never grow fruit ever again, and he tells a parable about a fig tree in which the owner of the fig tree can’t stand its inability to do what he wants it to do.
And so I entertained the thought of crossing the line to the dark side to congratulate the protestors for their astute reading of God’s Holy Word. I mean, I had problems with some of their claims, I could have pulled out the Bible from my bag and showed chapter and verse to contradict their signs. But GOD HATES FIGS? How can you argue with that?
It was only as we got closer, and the yelling through the megaphone grew greater in decibels did I realize how I misread the sign. It didn’t say God Hates Figs.
It said God Hates Fags.
A man had a vineyard and in the vineyard he planted a fig tree. For three years he would wander out to his field of grapes to check on the prayed for figs, only to return to the chateau empty handed. So one day he says to the gardener, “I just can’t take it anymore. This fig tree has been wasting my soil for three years. I want you to cut it down.”
But the gardener looks at his employer and says, “Lord, let it be. Give it another year. I’ll spread some manure on it later today. If it bears fruit next year, all the better. But if not, then you can do whatever you want with it.”
Short and sweet as far as parables are concerned. Unlike my parable of walking to the entrance at General Conference there are no superfluous details, nothing to distract the listener from what the story is saying, and the main thing stays the main thing.
And yet, even for its simplicity and brevity, there are a lot of weird and notable details in the parable. So many, in fact, that I preached on this exact passage a mere three months ago and there’s still more to say about it. Honestly, I had to look up my sermon because I couldn’t even remember what I said about it three months ago.
That’s the enduring and endearing beauty of God’s Word – it is a never-ending mine of glory from which we can glean again and again and again.
Ah, but back to the matter at hand: Why does the vineyard owner plant a fig tree among all his grapes? Don’t you think he would be worried about an outside plant vying for the nutrients in the ground? Or was he just a sucker for a dry fig every once in awhile? Or what if he was planning to start the first Fig Newton distribution service in Jerusalem?
We don’t know. All we know is that the owner of the vineyard delighted in planting a fig tree among his grapes. Maybe its a sign to us that God, as the vineyard owner, rejoices in us, his fig tree, but that we are also not his chief concern. We are not his bread and butter as it were. If that’s true, its all good and well, but it has the rotten luck of showing all of us how we are not nearly as important as we think we are.
But there are still more details – enter the gardener.
In terms of storytelling, it is notable that the gardener, not the vineyard owner, is the one who ultimately displays and offers grace to the fig tree.
Jesus could’ve told another quick and easy story in which the vineyard owner himself offers grace to the inexplicable fig tree among the grape vines. But that’s not the story Jesus tells. Instead it is the owner himself who can no longer wait idly by with patience hoping for the blasted tree to grow some fruit. He wants to tear the thing down.
It is the gardener who speaks in defense of the speechless tree.
And what does the gardener say? “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.” At least, that what it says in our pew Bibles.
But in Greek, the gardener says, “KYRIE, APHES AUTEN”
Literally, “Lord, forgive it.”
Lord, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
These might be some of the most striking words from the Bible both because they proclaim the apparent forgiveness of the Lord for no reason at all, and because they help us to see how little we can.
Three years ago this week a gay night club in Orlando, Florida was hosting a “Latin Night.” There were about 300 people dancing in the club when the announcement went out for last call around 2am. And shortly after the crowds made their way to the bar for their final drink of the evening, a man walked into the club and started shooting indiscriminately.
There was the initial barrage of gun fire, a hostage situation in one of the bathrooms, and eventually a SWAT team entered the building to eliminate the shooter. By the end 50 were dead, including the shooter, and another 53 were in the hospital.
At the time it was the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in US history, only to be eclipsed by the Las Vegas shooter a year later. But it still remains the deadliest incidence of violence against LGBTQ people in the history of our country.
And, tragically, this is nothing new to an entire community of people. Nearly a quarter of all hate crimes in the US are committed against LGBTQ people and the number of incidents have increased every year since 2005. Many of those perpetrating the violence regularly cite religious convictions to defend their actions.
And just this week, a Sheriff’s Deputy in Tennessee implored the members in his church to call upon the federal government to round up and execute members of the LGBTQ community.
Sometimes it takes decades of hearing a preacher belittle and ridicule people for their sexual orientation, and sometimes all it takes is seeing a protestor with a sign with three terrible words, and then someone can assault two men walking down the street hand in hand, or walk into a night club and shoot into the darkness simply because women were dancing with women and men were dancing with men.
Sometimes it takes a sentence in a book about incompatibility that becomes a shackle around the ankle of a church, a shackle that it is forced to carry ad infinitum.
In Jesus’ parable, there are only two characters and Jesus paints them vividly for us – the vineyard owner, God the Father, and the gardener, God the Son.
The gardener, as Christ, invites the owner of the vineyard into forgiving the fig tree and to live according to the light of grace. His words here, as we’re already noted, are the very same words from the cross. Words that, if we’re honest, haunt us.
Lord, forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing.
All of us, whether we like it or not, live under the decisive reign of forgiveness. And yet, the world usually thinks and is hellbent on acting otherwise.
The world thinks it lives and spins by merit and reward. The world produces people who can wave signs and sing slogans that, at times, result in people being buried simply because of who they love. The world likes to imagine that salvation comes from a God who rewards individuals for their righteousness, whether its biblical or not.
But the foolishness of God, the one who mounts the hard wood of the cross for us, is smarter than that.
The cross with which we adorn the sanctuary, in all of its ugliness, is a sign and testament to Jesus becoming sin for us – how Jesus goes outside the boundaries of respectability for us, how he is damned to the dump for us, and how he ultimately becomes the manure of grace for us.
Is there anything more striking in the story than the fact that the gardener offers to dump manure all over the fig tree, all over us? Only in the foolishness of God could something so nasty, so dirty, so grossly inappropriate, become the means by which we become precisely who we are meant to be.
It is the horrific nature of the cross, Jesus’ profound death for all eyes to see, from which Jesus returns to us. And he returns marked by the grave and the journey to it – he comes with holes in his hands and feet, bringing along all of the nutrients our roots could possibly need, and he brings them for free.
Jesus does not wait around for our fruit before offering the manure we so desperately need, he doesn’t wait until we master the art of morality. He returns, and he dumps the dung right on top of us.
Jesus doesn’t give a flip whether we’ve got a fig on the tree or not. He only cares about forgiveness, a forgiveness we so desperately need because we have no idea what we are doing.
For if we knew what we were doing, we would’ve solved all of the world’s problems by now. We wouldn’t have to worry about a young girl being ostracized in middle school for dressing like a boy. We wouldn’t have to worry about the safety of people dancing in a nightclub simply because of who they might be dancing with. We wouldn’t have to worry about a person contemplating ending their life because of what a preacher said in a sermon about who they are and their incompatibility.
But we do have to worry about these things. Because this is the world we live in. We turn on the news reluctantly knowing that we are about to be bombarded not by the joys in the community but by devastation. We see images of violence so often that we become numb to how broken this world is. We hear people shouting from the streets of life about what they believe and we walk idly by not thinking about the repercussions of what they are saying.
We are a fruitless fig tree standing alone in the middle of God’s garden.
We are doing nothing, and we deserve nothing.
And yet, and yet (!), Jesus looks at our barren limbs and is moved to say the three words we deserve the least, “Lord, forgive them.”
Which is why we come to the table, again and again, knowing that this simple meal is anything but simple – it is, believe it or not, the manure for our soil – it is, believe it or not, our forgiveness – a forgiveness we need because we have no idea what we’re doing. Amen.