“What’s Hiding Behind Your Fig Leaf?”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (NRSV)
Before jumping into our text, let’s recall a deep-time story. Against God’s specific instructions, Adam and Eve tasted the forbidden fruit. When God confronted them, they were scratching like yard dogs. For one thing, those brand-new fig leaves were itchy. For another, they knew they’d been busted. Adam tried to blame it not just on Eve but on God, too. Well look, he said “the woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree.”
Yeah, said Eve, but the devil made me do it. (Gen. 3:13)
Don’t you love it? As soon as human beings had both language and community, they started to spin their failures and blame others.
It’s significant that the couple didn’t return to the garden after they ate the fruit. They couldn’t return. Once their eyes were opened, they couldn’t un-see what they’d seen. They couldn’t un-taste what they’d tasted. What we say or do, for good or ill, can’t be unsaid or undone. But here’s the good news in the story of Adam and Eve: The first gift is life itself. The second gift is the gracious gift of repentance. It doesn’t matter what mistakes we try to hide behind our fig leaves; they don’t have to define us. That’s what makes repentance a gift. That’s what makes Lent a season of hope. Having to do with confession and forgiveness, the gift of repentance is, fundamentally, the gift of new life.
In today’s gospel text, some people are talking to Jesus about a particularly graphic atrocity committed by Pilate. The incident, Pilate mingling the blood of Galileans he executed with that of Jewish animal sacrifice, has no historical confirmation outside of Luke’s gospel. But to get bogged down in the historicity of the details is not simply to miss the point; it’s to avoid it.
By now, we all know, don’t we, that George Washington never chopped down his father’s cherry tree? A man named Parson Weems created that story to teach children an object lesson on the importance of telling the truth. According to Weems, however, the story was consistent with the honesty and integrity of our first president. And it became a valued myth, something that’s true even if it’s not fact.
From what historians tell us about Pilate, it would not be unlike him to terrorize the Jews for political advantage by mingling human and animal blood. So, whether fact or fiction, the story’s truth demands our attention. After hearing the conversation, Jesus turns the people’s attention away from the sins of others and toward the issue of repentance. He even brings up a tragedy at the tower of Siloam, an event which also lacks corroborating evidence. His response to each event is the same: No, those who died weren’t worse than anyone else, “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Too much Christian teaching has declared, explicitly and implicitly, that God basically creates us for hell then sits back to let us decide for ourselves if we want to go to heaven. If one does, one has to say and do all the right things to please God enough to “let me in.” Some Christian teaching even endorses that barbaric doctrine of God making horrible people die horrible deaths. But any god of blistering anger and eye-for-an-eye vengeance is a projection of our own prejudices and fears. Such made-in-our-image gods allow us not only to persecute enemies, but to treat family members, neighbors, and fellow church members with rigid self-righteousness and even contempt. And while such gods still hide behind the theological fig leaves of shame and guilt, and behind our bloodlust for power, that is not the God revealed in Jesus. That’s the point of Jesus’ decisive “No” to his followers.
Then he tells them a parable.
In the parable, a man gets impatient with a fruitless fig tree. Get rid of it, he tells the gardener. It’s just wasting space.
Let me work with it, says the gardener. I’ll tend it for another year. I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. Then you can decide what to do.
I’m no gardener. My way of helping my wife, Marianne, with either flowers or vegetables is to keep my distance. I can kill a plastic plant, and she can make one grow. I’ve seen her restore plants that almost anyone else would throw away. She knows that very often, beneath the brownest, driest twig, lies just enough life stirring in just enough cells of just enough roots to send a new shoot reaching for sunlight.
Here’s the thing: Good gardeners like Marianne know that caring for a plant means, first and foremost, caring for the soil around it. Remember Jesus’ parable of the sower. The seeds and the plants are not at fault for their failure to thrive in hard, rocky, or thorn-infested soil. If the earth is unwell, it won’t sustain life, much less produce good fruit. In order to provide a healthy environment for things to grow, the soil has to be prepared to receive water. It has to be renewed with manure.
Hiding behind the fig leaves of the tree in Jesus’ parable is, well, a living fig tree! Hiding behind those fig leaves is both the capacity and, given the tree’s DNA, the desireto produce figs. Hiding behind those fig leaves is a kind of prayer: Help me to be a real fig tree! And that is a prayer of repentance.
Hiding behind our fig leaves, hiding behind our fear, selfishness, and guilt is exactly what God has created and loves – human beings crying out for belonging, purpose, and joy. And from the Christian perspective, we are most fully and fruitfully human when we’re in community. To me, that says that we really have more in common with soil than we do with individual plants. Our shared calling is to create a fertile environment for holiness, which is something we don’t create. Holiness is God’s doing. Repentance, then, is not an act of personal contrition for individual gain but an act of public solidarity in, with, and for the community.
The Greek word for repent is metanoia,and it means “to turn.” And while there is, indeed, an individual element to that, what we’re turning is not just our own selves but the very circumstances in which we live. If the prayer of the fig tree is Help me to be a real fig tree, the prayer of good soil is Not my will but yours. As good soil, then, we involve ourselves, as Jesus did, in the social, political, and economic realities around us for the sake of the Creation.
To reduce discipleship to church-going, doctrine, and conspicuous personal morality is to live for ourselves. And that makes us lifeless, sandy soil. And if, even as the Church, we’re unfit for sustaining life, much less helping people bear fruit, we’re just wasting space.
The Lenten discipline of repentance restores us tocommunity. It also restores asa community, a community called to the work of ground-tilling, fertilizing discipleship. As Jesus’ disciples, we bring hope to the poor, food to the hungry, laughter to the weeping, and welcoming peace to those who are hated and excluded.
Disciples live as a community of good soil in which mysteries beyond our control and comprehension produce the healthy and healing fruits of compassion, justice, and reconciliation. These fruits nourish us with desire, strengthen us with courage, inspire us with gratitude. And they reveal the entire Creation as something saturated with the ever-fertile love and holiness of God.