Sunday, March 03, 2013

Lent 3

Luke 13
6Jesus then told them this story:
A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard. One day he went out to pick some figs, but he didn't find any. 7So he said to the gardener, "For three years I have come looking for figs on this tree, and I haven't found any yet. Chop it down! Why should it take up space?"
8The gardener answered, "Master, leave it for another year. I'll dig around it and put some manure on it to make it grow. 9Maybe it will have figs on it next year. If it doesn't, you can have it cut down."

Famous people should never make references to time.

“When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now...” Well, it seems Sir Paul still has his hair, and at 70 may wish to return to the relative youth of being 64.

Or Pete Townshend who sang “I hope I die before I get old.” Now 67, and very much alive. Apparently in an interview he said he meant to say ‘rich.’ But that doesn’t seem to work either.

And my favourite, 72 year-old Jack Weinberg, maybe the least famous of my three examples, but spoke the best line of the 1960’s: “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” His quote went viral before we knew about things going viral, and he will tell you that from the time he turned 30 (in 1970) until now, he has been tormented about his famous quote.

We tend to get caught up in time-trouble all the time. When was the last time you emphatically said “I just did that a year ago” only to discover it’s been five? Or how often have you made that eternal promise to do it next year, only to discover that next year never comes?

Well, to you, head-nodders, I give you the parable of the fig tree: “For three years,” the Master says, “I have come to this so-called fig tree for figs and they never appear. Get the axe, ‘cause right now it’s just taking up space.” Then we meet the gardener: “Sir, give me one more year. Aeration, fertilizer, time: all these things may give us fruit. If all else fails, you can chop it down.”

I wonder if they have this same conversation every year? Or if its been three years, or the three years that is really six or eight? And if it has truly been three years, why didn’t the gardener deal with the no-fig problem last year, or the year before that? And is that any way to speak to the boss?

Maybe we should start there. One of the first and most common approaches to the parables of Jesus is to assume it’s an allegory. An allegory is assigning meaning by identifying who the characters in a story really are. An example: Is the Wizard of Oz a delightful story about witches and flying monkeys? Seemingly not. Some argue it is an allegory, with the scarecrow representing farmers, the tin man industrial workers, and the cowardly lion is William Jennings Bryan, too afraid to run for President to defend the common people (Dorothy) from the evils of the Gold Standard. Seems so obvious, why didn’t I see it before?

So if the gardener in the parable gives us an example of how we should or should not talk to the boss, who is the boss? The first and most obvious approach would be that the Master is God and the gardener is Jesus. For three years we (the fig tree) have been just taking up space, and God is tired of it. Chop down them down, God demands, but Jesus intercedes for us, and manages to get us one more year, the time we might focus our attention to fruit-production.

And as unattractive as this is to the mainline-liberal-Protestant ear, it is not without precedent. In one of my favourite Old Testament passages Moses plays the gardener and God has every right to be mad. I say mad, but the kids have another word for this, still too impolite for church:

7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf.
9 “I have seen these people,” the Lord continued, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation instead.”

11 Moses swallowed hard. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘’Maybe he brought them out of Egypt just to kill them.’ Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.’” 14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

You might even argue that Luke 13 is just a clever retelling of Exodus 32, except that the parable seems to conclude with unspoken generosity rather than the manipulation employed by Moses. Using the whole “shamed before other nations” thing and reminding God of the Abrahamic covenant is both clever and effective, since we still able to to trace the ancestry of our faith back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The other interpretation is more Oz-like, with the Master-Vineyard Owner as ‘the world’ and his suggestion to chop down the tree based on ‘the values of this world.’ The gardener, then, is the church, preaching one-more-year in a world that lacks forgiveness and grace. And that would be great if the church had a stirling record of forgiveness and grace, but it does not. From the day that St. Paul wrote “You foolish Galations” to whatever foolish thing the Christian church did last week or last month, this allegory seems too unbelievable.

My final try, and maybe the allegory that works, can be found in the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms. Under the entry for “taking up space” it reads “to fill or occupy space” followed by two examples: “The piano is taking up too much room in our living room” (kinda boring) and “John, you're not being any help at all. You're just taking up space.” Ouch! This dictionary has edge. Kind of makes you wonder who John is, and is he married to the editor of the dictionary? Wouldn’t that smart if you’re thumbing through the dictionary and find yourself under the T for ‘taking up space.”

Based on this helpful—yet embarrassing for John—insight, we are the Master and Jesus is the gardener. Search your heart and think of the times you wonder why all the Johns in your life are just sitting around and why it seems they’re just ‘taking up space’? How many times—fairly or unfairly—have you had the ‘taking up space’ thought when the gentle gardener might have us think again?

In truth, we all need one-more-year: one more year to be more generous in our thinking, one more year to get out of that chair and do something, one more year to find the one-more-year person Jesus would have us be. And Lent would seem the best time to do it, but if you can’t, Lent is just one more year away.


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