Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Lent.
Whenever I read the Gospel reading for today (1) I wonder whatever happened to the fig tree of which Jesus spoke. I think this is because I have probably never seen a fig tree and I do not readily buy figs or eat them. But I understand the metaphor very easily.
When Clarence Jordan wrote his version of Luke for the Cotton Patch Gospels, he used a peach tree because that was the fruit that the people of Georgia were most familiar with. And I think of the grape arbor that was part of the property line of my grandmother’s house in St. Louis. For as long as I can remember, this grape arbor was simply part of the dividing line between my grandmother’s back yard and the next door neighbor. It yielded some grapes but never of the size or quantity that would provide the six grandchildren that played in the yard with any type of snack. But I have been told that my grandmother used to pick grapes from this arbor and make grape jam. So I knew that it once was a productive part of her garden. But, over the years the production declined and it simply became a part of the property, though still a place for children to play.
Jesus speaks of the owner of the garden telling the gardener to chop down the fig tree because it no longer produces any fruit. The gardener asks for one more year so that he may restore its productivity.
We know now that the owner of the garden is God; Jesus is the gardener; and we are the fig tree. We are being given one more year in which to regain our productivity. So, we might ask today, “What are the fruits of our vineyard?”
What are the fruits that we produce? What do people see today when they see the church? How do people react when they hear the word Christian? Unfortunately, I do not think that the answers to those questions are very positive.
People see a church that is closed and exclusive. They hear the word Christian and think of closed-minded people. They read where Jesus welcomed all but see churches that exclude people. They hear of people willing to face down an oppressive empire but see modern day preachers building their own political empires. They see people who claim allegiance to God through Christ but seek political gain for their own well-being. They see people who claim Jesus Christ as the Prince of Peace but are willing to engage in destructive wars. They hear of a gentle soul who wandered Galilee two thousand years ago and spoke of taking care of the less fortunate but see ministers with salaries well beyond what most people earn in a lifetime and churches with operating budgets approaching the level of some nations.
They read of the first Christians and hear stories about how communities were formed for the betterment of all people, of people sharing their wealth with others so that all may prosper. But they see churches where the message is one of greed and selfishness, of keeping the gifts from God for one’s self and not sharing.
And most people will tell you that they are Christians, yet they cannot tell you what the first five books of the Old Testament are. They cannot identify the writers of the four Gospels. They think that the statement “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible and do not know that it was first coined by Benjamin Franklin. Is it any wonder that church membership is decreasing today?
The message of many churches today is hypocrisy and self-centeredness. The fruits of the church’s vineyard are sour tasting and almost inedible. Now, there are some churches today that are growing but they are growing because the people are so hungry for the nourishment of the Living Word that they will eat almost anything, no matter how bitter or sour or foul-tasting it is.
Like the Israelites wandering in the desert, we know what it means to follow God but we are not always willing to make the choices that are required. Paul reminds us, as he reminded the Corinthians that when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God, the people reverted to their old ways of idol worship and immoral activity. (2) We are not, as Paul points out, supposed to test God with regards to His promises to us. Rather, as Isaiah spoke to the Israelites, we are to forsake our evil ways, forgo the thoughts of the unrighteous and return to God. (3)
Jesus tells us in the Gospel message today that sin is sin and death is death, no matter the cause or the form. Whoever dies simply dies; there is no gradient in death. But, Jesus also repeats the calls that were given by the Old Testament prophets and then by John the Baptist, repent of your old ways and choose a new path to walk.
To repent is to change, not merely to say you are sorry. To repent is to walk away from the old life and begin a new life. Repentance is the first step in a conversion. Repentance turns us away from sin, selfishness, darkness, idols, habits, bondage and demons. It turns us away from everything that binds and oppresses us and others, from the violence and evil in which we are so complacent, for the false worship that controls and corrupts us.
And with our repentance, we begin turning to faith. Faith is turning to belief, hope, and trust. Faith opens our future by restoring our sight, softening our hearts and bringing light into our darkness. (4)
What are the fruits of your vineyard? Has your vineyard become overgrown with weeds and neglect? The days of Lent are a time of preparation and a time to repent. If we heed the call that is given today by Christ to repent, we begin the process that will enable us to be restored. The fruits of our vineyard may not be very good today but we know that they will be restored if we heed the call of Christ. How shall you tend your garden?
(1) Luke 13: 1 – 9
(2) 1 Corinthians 10: 1 – 13
(3) Isaiah 55: 1 – 9
(4) Adapted from The Call to Conversion by Jim Wallis