(Photo of ancient fig tree from Think Hebrew)

Luke 13:1-9

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.’”

The synoptic Gospels all have a “fig tree” story. Matthew and Mark have Jesus cursing the fig tree, and essentially the ultimate result being it withering. (Fig trees just can’t handle the Jesus Glare.) But Luke’s story becomes a parable about a gardener rather than a story about a rather capricious act performed by Jesus. Chances are, the Matthew/Mark versions have some degree of allegory in them anyway. Several scholars have pointed out that these stories occur in the week before Passover, as part of the prelude to the Passion, and that figs are not ripe that time of year in that region of the world anyway. In that light, Jesus wanting figs from a tree that is not in the season that bears them makes no sense. It is very likely that the fig tree symbolizes a larger entity–perhaps the temple, perhaps Israel, perhaps the priests who are in cahoots with Rome.

But the Luke story is unique in that the fig tree gets another chance. It gets a year of manure. Oh, how easy life would be if a little dung cured everything, right? That would make some parts of our lives a literal plant nursery!

My mind went to an odd place with this text this morning. I sometimes cringe at the trite bits of (mostly fundamental) Christianity on some people’s status updates. Don’t get me wrong–I like “faith based status updates” of all religious ilks–but I like the ones that challenge me, make me think. I try to do that myself. It’s the ones that look like a Hallmark Card that bug me, or the ones that reduce God down to “The Cosmic Coke Machine” where you put your prayer quarters in, punch the button that says “Coke,” and out comes a Coke, that irk me.

The one that gave me the urps today was when someone had alluded to something rough going on in their life, and one of their Facebook friends reminded them that “God doesn’t give us what we can’t handle.”

Ugh. I just really want to slap the computer when people trot that one out.

God, I believe, does not have a need to entertain Himself by testing us with difficulty to “see how we’ll do.” I just don’t buy it. In my mind, the crap that happens to all of us is simply part of original sin. My concept of original sin is that it is simply the knowledge of good and evil, and our awareness and pain that we know what suffering is, or what an “impossible choice” is, or what feeling what being separated from God somehow is like. Only a capricious, cruel, masochistic God would do such things. The pain of the world is simply “just there.” It is what makes up the stuff of the world. Our relationship with God is not as a “no pain, no gain” fitness coach.

But back to how this fits into the fig tree. What happens to the fig tree, when it looks a little puny? The gardener and the owner give it one more chance. Something is put around it, that most of the time, we do not consider a desired substance–manure. Dung. Waste. What’s left after we used up all the nutritional stuff in food. I’ve never met a single farm person that stepped in a cow pie and said, “Woo Hoo! I’m sure glad I stepped in THAT!”

Dung is basically not a good thing when we are talking about humans. It, at best, is a nuisance (as anyone with a plugged up toilet will tell you), and at worst, spreads pestilence and disease if you have too much of it piled up around you. But for plants, a little dung is a good thing. Plants thrive with a little manure spread around them. In the case of the fig tree, the manure is a form of hope. A revived fig tree will make figs, and figs ARE good for us. So in that sense, something bad for us, in another context, can eventually work to our good. But the “bad” has to break down a while. In the case of the manure, a fresh cow pie, sheep pellet, or donkey briquette is not useful at all, but dried up ones are. The waste has to age and morph a little.

This is the crux of, in my mind, how bad things work towards good. Yes, at the time they are happening to us, they are devastating, demoralizing, and frankly, hurt like hell. But time changes them. When they have been changed by time and the elements they become less toxic, and even if they don’t directly contribute to our growth, have the potential to contribute to SOME kind of growth, and the result of that growth can touch me. I believe LOTS of things can be handed to me that “I can’t handle.” But I do not believe they are handed to me by God. They are handed to me by the simple brokenness of the world. I do believe, however, that given time and awareness, God can show me where the nutrients are in them.