Did you ever see those pictures where, if you look one way it might be an old lady, and if you squint and turn your head it’s a rabbit? Or, the one my mum showed me the other day…apparently it was a mermaid, or a fish. I saw a donkey and my mum saw an otter, but you know. You know the ones I mean? Or, yesterday, we went and visited the Sculptures by the Sea at Cottesloe and there was one where these branch-things held metal hangings. As you approach from one angle the hangings, as they move in the sea breeze, fleetingly say the word ‘yes’ and, in some amazing act of engineering and artistry, as you walk past, and look back, so the same pieces of metal now hang to read NO. Remarkable. So, repeatedly, I’ve been thinking how the way we look at something can change what we see. And all the while I’ve been accompanied by this gardener, and his fruitless fig tree.
The man had a fig tree, and he came looking for fruit on it and found none, so he gets mad and tells the gardener to cut it down. What’s the point? It’s a waste of soil. And the gardener asks for a reprieve. Just give me one more year, some digging and some manure and let’s see what happens.
Oftentimes, I have heard, and have almost certainly preached that God is the landowner; the one who metes out punishment, the one who gets frustrated by the distinct lack of figs on the tree. Jesus is the gardener, and we are that poor fig tree, desperately trying to squeeze out a fig, to spare our own life and make the landowner happy. And we can’t do it. Try as we might, we can’t muster up a single fig so we must be doomed.
But how wrong is that? God is not angry. God isn’t busily inspecting our branches for figs and waiting to cut us dead if God can’t find any. That’s not the God we have met in the face of Jesus Christ. Rather, God is the tender, hopeful gardener who is constantly saying ‘let me feed and nurture and love this one, for one more year, and one after that, and one after that’.
And I think that’s a valid retelling of this parable. Beautiful even. I think God is the gardener and is tending us to make us more fruitful. But if this week’s lessons are anything worth, what if we just try to squint a bit and tilt our heads at the story and see if we can glean another perspective.
What if we aren’t the fig tree at all. What if we are meant to be the gardener?
What if we are the gardener – the one responsible for the care and productivity of this fig tree. And what if the fig tree represents the world?
I think this could be the YES to where we have previously seen the NO hanging there in front of us, like that installation at Cottesloe…
You see, we are created for good things. We are created to make this world a better place as a direct result of us being here on this planet at this time in this moment in the narrative of the creation story. Aren’t we?
Do we not each have a unique and significant role to play in changing and tending and nurturing and caring for this world for the better? Could we be the ones who need to take up the spade and dig, so that fruit will come – maybe next year, maybe for the next generation, who knows. And I think this could be a faithful and valid retelling too.
I am not in the least bit green fingered. I have no idea when to prune and when to leave. I don’t know the difference between weeds and plants, so I’m daunted by this potential call to be a holy gardener in the work of the Divine, but when we see the state of the world right now – how intent she seems to be in destroying herself and all her children – how temperatures rise and ice caps melt – how pregnant women are bombed while they labour to deliver the next generation – well, we have to do something, don’t we? And maybe those ancient words from the prophet give us a starting point.
Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.
You that have no money, come, buy and eat.
Come buy wine without money and milk without price.
Come and eat bread and be satisfied.
Eat what is good and delight yourselves in good food.
Friends, imagine a world where everyone has equal access to clean, fresh, running water. Imagine a place where everyone can afford their next meal. Imagine the lavishness of a place where wine and milk and water are in constant supply. That sounds like fruitfulness to me. That sounds like a tree well-tended. How might we cultivate that soil, so fruit may burst from that tree, while we are on the watch, while we are responsible for it in this generation?
Again, let’s turn to the prophet for his advice; seek the Lord, Isaiah says, call upon God, return to the Divine and trust in God’s ways. Trust, even when it seems crazy, even when the needs of the world are daunting and feel insurmountable. Trust God’s guidance and follow that path because God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. God’s ways are not our ways; they are higher and greater and more wonderful than ours and they are good.
So, let’s return to that Tree of Life, take up our holy spades and pruning hooks – and do all we can to make this world fruitful for all. And may we do it for glory of the One who created it and continues to do so. Amen.