Ah, the fig tree parable. Modern audiences hear this story about second chances, about the need for more care and tending, and immediately think about mercy and forgiveness. This makes great sense and is completely consistent with the Gospel message. But audiences during Jesus’ time, the ones who heard this story first, would hear it a different way and probably come to another conclusion. Many of them were farmers and fig trees were commonplace where they lived. No, they would hear this story very differently.
In the parable, the one who planted the tree came back three years in a row and, finding no fruit, figured that the tree was just a lost cause. So, he instructed the gardener to cut it down. The gardener asked that instead the tree be given a bit more time; he said he would give it some extra TLC, fertilize and water it, and then in another year, if it was still barren, then he would cut it down. Simple enough.
But what those first audiences would appreciate that most of us would not – I certainly didn’t – is that fig trees typically take four years to bear fruit. The gardener would have understood this while the owner obviously did not. So, his offer to care for the plant in a special way was really just a ruse, a way to get the owner off his back. You see, the gardener knew better. As for the owner, he just didn’t know what he didn’t know.
So, while this parable might be about mercy and second chances, those early audiences would have heard a lesson about judgement. Not judging others is a common theme in all of the Gospel. In fact, Jesus talks about this a great deal, including in the parable about wheat and weeds, in the story about the woman caught in the act of adultery, and when he described the beam of wood in our own eye compared to the speck in another’s. Very simply put: it is not our job to judge others. That does not mean we are off the hook from discriminating between right and wrong or that we are not responsible for discerning what is good… but the ultimate judge of our souls will not be us. It will be the Creator God.
I believe that the very best way to live out this Gospel commandment is to walk a mile in another’s shoes. To experience empathy. To become more humble. In fact, I would go so far as to say that humility is the single best antidote to almost every destructive and unhelpful instinct we possess.
Greed… is a lack of humility.
Pride… is a lack of humility.
Racism… is a lack of humility.
Violence against another… is a lack of humility.
War… is a grave lack of humility.
We are increasingly divided. In our world, in our country, even in our church, we cling to sides because like-minded communities help us to belong and because it allows us to feel some measure of predictability in a life that can sometimes prove to be harshly unpredictable.
I had an experience last week when I encountered some people with views so far away from my own that I found myself disliking them, feeling as they they had lost their way, and that their firmly held beliefs were merely misguided and tragic. But then I had an opportunity to learn something about them. About their lives. About the reasons why they came to believe what they believed. And then… something in me stirred. I gained some measure of understanding and suddenly they seemed less wrong, less misguided, and less tragic to me.
This is not a story about wisdom and enlightenment. It’s about my own profound lack of humility. I didn’t know what I didn’t know about them. I had never bothered to try to understand them. I hadn’t walked a mile in their shoes.
It is so much easier to be disgusted by what we don’t understand. To dislike or even hate what we can’t relate to. To judge those who we don’t truly know. The lesson of the fig tree is that we, like the owner of that tree, can come to a very wrong conclusion about something or someone when we lack insight, knowledge, empathy and, most of all, humility.
Humility. To embrace our weaknesses. To admit our faults. To realize that without God, we are nothing, worthy only of abandonment in a dark and lonely place.
But… we are not abandoned. We are accompanied. Always.
Jesus walked a mile in our shoes… especially on a dark and lonely Friday so that after, on a glorious and brightened Sunday, we all might walk a mile in his… toward eternity.