There is a story told that St. Peter was standing at the Pearly Gates acting as a gatekeeper, checking to make sure that anyone who entered heaven merited being there, when a woman who had just died appeared at the gates. Peter began addressing his screening questions of the woman checking off his long list of requirements before opening the gate to let her into heaven. Just as the new recruit was being ushered through the gates she paused and said to Peter that she had expected Jesus to meet her at the gates of heaven. “Ah yes,” Peter said, “about Jesus, he’s at the back of heaven helping people over the fence.”
Jesus told parables, short stories to catch his listeners attention and have them go away pondering the meaning of the story for their own lives. Jesus often told parables to show something about what the Kingdom of God was like and that it was near at hand if people would see it and live in the radical reality of God’s grace and goodness.
In the Gospels, there are many parables that begin by Jesus saying, “The Kingdom of God”, (or the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew’s Gospel) is like …a mustard seed; …yeast; …treasure hidden in a field; …a sower sowing seeds; and so on. The parables of Jesus are constructed around daily activities in which ordinary people would be familiar. The twist in the story is always that something unexpected or unusual happens that would make the listener wonder what Jesus was trying to point out by telling the story.
In the case of the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree, biblical scholars have had a field day coming up with a variety of interpretations of its meaning. Many scholars interpret the parable allegorically, assigning God and Jesus to various roles. For example, this week I’ve read several commentaries that explain that God is the owner of the land and Jesus is the gardener pleading mercy on behalf of the barren fig tree that represents sinful humanity. In these commentaries, Jesus is seen as the intermediary who challenges a vengeful God for mercy for those who need time to repent and turn away from their sinful ways. The reward for their act of repentance would be to be spared and have an opportunity to be fruitful.
Many years ago, during my theological studies, I read somewhere that Jesus’ parables were not meant to be interpreted allegorically and that allegory is a more modern construct that wasn’t known in the 1st Century. Regardless of whether or not this is true, if we look at the way Jesus used parables to reveal something of God and God’s way of love and justice, and that he was speaking mostly to ordinary uneducated folk who were marginalized and oppressed in their own country, then I think a simpler understanding, without the heavily laid on theological perspectives, is warranted.
This week, I stumbled across quite by accident, a website called Process and Faith which reflects the perspective of Process Theology. The explanation of Process Theology given at the top of the webpage is “Process theology sees the universe as creative, interrelational, dynamic, and open to the future. In process theology, God is relational, present in every moment of our lives and in all entities and levels of being. The world is interconnected, in effect a giant ecosystem, where what harms or blesses one, harms or blesses all.” (http://processandfaith.org) Posted on that website was a commentary for the scripture readings for this Sunday by Paul S. Nancarrow. Speaking about the story of the Barren Fruit Tree, Nancarrow says, “It is tempting to read this parable allegorically, assigning each element in the parable a specific meaning…I think it is far more interesting to resist the allegorizing of parables, and instead let parables do their proper work of surprising us into insight. And in this parable the surprise is not the threat of “bear fruit or die”, but the unexpected tenderness with which the gardener asks to tend the tree in hopes that it will bear fruit.” (http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearc/2013-03-03/third-sunday-lent)
At the GardenView Bible Study Group that meets with me every Tuesday afternoon, we read and talked about the scripture passages for today. Our approach to the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree was simple. We read it out loud and then talked about what surprised us and what we thought the story meant to Jesus’ first listeners and what it means to us today. Some of us were surprised that a fig tree would be found in a vineyard and wondered if it had been planted on purpose or was growing wild. With quick reference to resources I brought with me we found that fig trees were often planted in vineyards. We also wondered why nothing had been done for three years to assist the fig tree in its efforts to produce fruit and discovered that fig trees do not bear fruit until the fourth year after planting. We also talked about the suggestion in the story of loosening the soil around the tree and applying manure for nutrients. There are always gardeners in every crowd and we had fun remembering gardening stories and the importance of manure. That prompted questions about our own lives and what kinds of things nurture our personal growth – specifically what is manure for us spiritually. We talked about God’s grace and second chances and about the importance of being nurtured and nourished and of offering nurturing and nourishment to others.
One of the ways we nourish ourselves and each other spiritually is when we gather together to study, to sing, pray, work and worship together as people of faith. In the “Nurturing Our Faith with Prayer” Lenten series we’ve been sharing our ideas about how prayer and spiritual practices nurture and remind us of God’s constant presence. We’ve also talked about the need for being attentive and aware of the little ways in which we are reminded of God’s presence and the importance of gratitude and being responsive to God in the actions of our lives.
One of the ways we are nurtured in community is in the sharing of the sacrament of communion. Remembering and giving thanks for the life and ministry of Christ, and acknowledging that we are members of the Body of Christ past and present, connects us to a life that is greater than our own. We know that around the world in countless communities others are also sharing communion during this Lenten season and that we are not alone on this Christian journey of faith.
Several times this week my thoughts have turned to words offered by the late Archbishop Oscar Romero whose life and ministry I admire and whose wisdom I offer in closing:
It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
…No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way,an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest. …