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The Last Chance ?
(A Lent Reflection)

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The Last Chance ? 

(Originally preached on the Third Sunday of Lent 2010) 

Read : Isaiah 55: 1-9, St Luke 13: 1-9 

"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" 

In the Melrose Room here in the church - which I use as an office, there is a fig tree. 

This tree is in a large pot and is many years old. It was originally in the dining room of my mother-in-law's house. When several years ago it outgrew that relatively small room it was transported to our home where it thrived and continued to grow and became a thing of graceful beauty.  

However, when we moved to Edinburgh, it reacted badly to being transported and began shedding its leaves. And it has continued so to do despite all our efforts and attention. Indeed, were this particular fig tree growing in the garden of Eden I doubt that there would now be sufficient leaves to ensure the modesty of Adam and Eve!  

Reckoning that a further change might be beneficial, we transported the fig tree to the Melrose Room to give it a last chance. It has been re-potted, pruned and fed… Well. We'll see! 

A Last Chance? 

In the parable of the fig tree which we heard read from Luke's gospel, the tree is not a decorative fig such as in the Melrose Room, but a fruiting fig. However, this particular tree was clearly not doing what it was meant to be doing; it was not producing figs. Unlike the one in the Melrose Room, the problem was not lack of leaves, but lack of fruit. 

The owner of the vineyard in which the fig tree was growing was clearly losing patience.  

Fig trees were, and are, commonplace in Palestine, and they were regarded as very useful as they bear fruit in abundance and do so two or three times a year. But not this one. The owner of the vineyard was frustrated, because the tree was not bearing fruit. In his eyes it was a waste of space and a drain on the resources of the soil. It was doing nothing other than taking up space and nutrients which could be more productively used. "Cut it down" he ordered the gardener. But the gardener pleads with the owner saying "Leave it alone, sir, just one more year; I will dig round it and put in some manure. Then if the tree bears figs next year, so much the better; if not, then you can have it cut down". 

As is so often the case with the parables and sayings of Jesus, this parable is interesting on very many levels. To Jesus' first hearers the meaning would have been plain, for they would be familiar with the association of Israel with vineyards and fig trees.  

There are a number of vineyard parables in the Old Testament, and the vineyard always stood for the people of Israel, and a fig tree in the vineyard always stood for the leadership of the people of Israel. So when Jesus says the fig tree in the vineyard is not bearing any fruit, everybody would have known what he meant.  

The people to whom Jesus told this parable seem to have been concerned, perhaps rather smugly so, with a disaster that had befallen some Galileans. Judging by Jesus' response, their assumption seems to have been that this disaster occurred because the Galileans were sinners, were especially bad people, were evil. Not so, said Jesus. It does not work that way. 

And then Jesus then turns it all round in this parable about the fig tree; this parable about Israel. 

He's saying, "If you want to talk about who is bad, about who is sinful, about who needs to repent, take a look at yourself Israel, take a look at yourself. What sort of fruit are you bearing?" 

"Come on Israel, you are good at pointing out everyone else's sins and failures, but what about you? Where is the fruit you should be bearing?" 

Come on, Church, you are good at criticising the ways of the world around and lamenting the direction of society these days, yes, but where is the fruit you should be bearing? 

Come on, St Cuthbert's, look to yourself, where is the fruit we should be bearing? 

However, in the Parable, the gardener intervenes on behalf of the fig tree; "Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it". 

This is the mercy of God who does not measure success in the world's terms. Who most certainly looks for fruit to be borne, but will not rush to judgement. Who is patient; who refuses to see people (individually or corporately) as hopeless cases or lost causes. 

People too quickly and too readily give up. 

People too quickly and too readily give up on others. 

People too quickly and too readily give up on the church. 

"Return to the Lord that he may have mercy" cries the prophet in the passage from Isaiah. Yes, mercy. This is our God; merciful and patient; with you, whoever you are and whatever you have done - or failed to do; wherever you have wandered even if that is where you ought not to have gone or wherever you have failed to go and should have gone.  

And our God is merciful and patient with his people, the church, with us, St Cuthbert's. 

The gardener is saying to the vineyard owner; don't give up on the fig tree yet. Let's invest in it; The gardener is saying to the vineyard owner; don't give up on the fig tree yet. Let's invest in it;  

invest time ("give it one more year")
effort ("until I dig around it")
and resources ("and put manure on it").

If we are to bear fruit for the Kingdom, and increase in our fruit bearing and go on to bear more and still more fruit, then we will have to invest.  

Invest time (The gardener said "Give it one more year"). 

In other words, let's be patient; some things do not happen overnight and sometimes positive development can only be discerned after a period of time and with a longer view.  

Invest effort. (The Gardener said "until I dig around it") 

We need to all do our bit as we are able, all invest our efforts in the future, that we may be fruitful indeed. 

Invest resources. (The gardener said "until I put manure on it").  

We will not be enabled to move ahead and be increasingly fruitful as a congregation if we do not invest in the future; invest resources, spiritual and material, resources of costly prayer and committed finance, of gifts and talents, of time and energy. 

The vineyard owner came to the fig tree and it was not bearing fruit, so he wanted to tear it up and dispose of it. The fig tree is Israel; God's people were not producing the fruit for which he was looking. We too are called to bear fruit for the Kingdom. Will the Lord find in us the fruit for which he is looking? 

Mercifully, the fig tree was given a last chance. The Lord is not yet willing to give up on us. There is yet hope! 

The gardener will try once again to do all he can to get us to be fruitful. It will involve patience, investment, effort, and resources…  

Let us not squander present opportunities that have been mercifully given to us.  

Let us not squander present opportunities that have been mercifully given to us.  

"Seek the Lord while he may be found.
Call upon him while he is near".

Rev David Denniston, March 2010


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