This week, in our Lent course, we have been studying Sunday’s Bible reading: Luke13:1-9, or as I have come to think of it, “The parable of the fig tree in the vineyard”.
Jesus’ parables were shocking. They were intended to be shocking and were intended to create change in the hearts and minds of those who listened. The familiarity of them sometimes removes this shock from us. As Christians (saved by the grace of God), it is possible to think they don’t apply to us, so (for these reasons), studying them together is helpful: we may get fresh insights; inspired by the Holy Spirit.
In the parable of the “fig tree in the vineyard” there are four main characters: the owner of the vineyard, the gardener, the fig tree, and the vineyard. The fig tree has not been fruitful, and the owner wants to dig it up because it is wasting space in the vineyard. The gardener wants to give it more time before digging it up.
Parables were told to help those who listen come to a new insight into God’s relationship with the world through Jesus and we often find ourselves trying to work out what it means, for example: who is the owner? Who is the gardener? What does it mean for me personally?
I found an interesting parallel in the reference to “three years”. There is the obvious comparison of “three years” and the three days of crucifixion and resurrection, but for me personally there is the “three years” of being the Interim Vicar of Marsden and Slaithwaite, and the fact that we don’t currently know if that will be extended after the end of the third year. This challenges me to ask: Am I the fig tree? Am I being fruitful in my ministry? If I am the fig tree, then who is the gardener and who is the owner? Is the owner God, and the gardener Jesus? As I type these questions, I am dissatisfied with the answer. In my heart I find it difficult to imagine God and Jesus disagreeing. Jesus came to do his Father’s will, so it would be unlikely that Jesus would disagree with God about the fig tree: there is no discord in the Holy Trinity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Maybe I need to think of this differently.
I’ll start with the vineyard: an image so frequently used to describe “God’s chosen people, Israel”. We know that Christ came to redefine who “Israel” is, who “God’s chosen people” are. We know that by the grace of God, Jesus’ followers have become “children of God”, perhaps it is okay to assume that all Christians are part of the vineyard, grafted onto the one true vine. In which case, the combined churches (every denomination) of Marsden and Slaithwaite are “the vineyard” in our local area.
The owner of the vineyard is not, therefore, the Church of England, the Diocese of Leeds, the Bishop, the Archdeacon, or me… or you. This is not “our” church, this is God’s church. The owner of the vineyard in this scenario, is God.
Who, therefore, is the gardener? Presumably, the one given authority to tend the vineyard. In the case of the Church of England, that could be the Bishop, and by extension, it could be me. It could also be Sue for the Methodists, and Andrew for the United Church.
If those who have been authorised to minister in this place are the gardeners of God’s vineyard, what is the fig tree? One interpretation, based on my own reflections, is that the fig tree may be the communities of Marsden and Slaithwaite that do not believe and trust in God. If fruitfulness comes from the gifts of the Holy Spirit in God’s people, it isn’t beyond reason to think that those who deny the Holy Spirit are unlikely to see the fruits and gifts of that same spirit.
Like the gardener, pleading with the vineyard owner for one more year to nurture the fig tree; I plead constantly for the communities in which we live. I pray that every man, woman and child who lives and works in our villages may be liberated by the love of God. I pray that we all may come to know that we are not alone in the Universe, that we have a Creator who loves us. This isn’t about being nice, or charitable, or “really lovely people”, because I know that our communities are full of nice, charitable, lovely people: this is about life in all its fullness, life before death.
Of course, if you believe that all nice people are going to heaven anyway, whether they believe and trust in Christ or not, then this thought process of mine is meaningless. If, however, you believe that Christ saves us from something (whatever that something is), then perhaps being “nice, charitable and lovely” isn’t enough. The comparison is between being able to “save ourselves” by our own strength of niceness… or being saved by the grace of God, through no strength of our own. This comparison demands an answer to the question, “Who is God in your life?” You? Or Christ?
As I begin the third year of my ministry as Interim Vicar of Marsden and Slaithwaite, I continue to pray and plead with God that our villages will become shining lights in the Kingdom of Heaven. I pray that righteousness and justice will flow down from the hills like rivers. I pray that every home will be safe and filled with peace. That those who are vulnerable and hurt will be freed from the tyranny that oppresses them. I pray that those who commit violence will repent and turn from their sins. I pray for our businesses: that they will flourish and be a blessing on our community. I pray for schools and care homes, and all who pour out their lives to nurture and educate us. I give thanks for those who volunteer to help and save those in trouble. I genuinely believe that my lot has fallen in a fair and pleasant land, I love this place in which we live, and all who live here. Like the gardener… I plead with the vineyard owner that the fig tree will not be dug up but given more time to bear those fruits of the spirit that demonstrate the fig tree has a place in the vineyard.
As I draw this reflection to a close, remember that I am not saying this is the only way to read this parable. I actively encouraging all of us to read and reflect on these Bible passages as part of our Lent course. We are doing this together in person at St James on Wednesdays (12:30-1:30pm), online via Zoom on Wednesdays (7-8pm), and in person in St Bartholomew’s on Thursdays (2:30-3:30pm). As we reflect on Holy Scripture, God draws close to us, and speaks into our hearts and minds. What we hear may shock us, but maybe that is because God is spreading a bit of manure across the whole of His vineyard: to help all the plants grow in fruitfulness.
As I finish this reflection, one final shocking thought comes to mind. I could be completely wrong… I could in fact, be the manure.
With love in Christ, Graeme.