A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?”
“Sir,” the man replied, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.”
-Luke 13:6-9 (NIV)
The church I’m a part of is on a tree-lined street on the northwest side of Chicago. I like the trees a lot. In the summer they create a nice canopy over the street. They give us some shade when the sun’s hot. In the winter they’re often covered with snow. I don’t love them in the fall, but I sort of put up with that because of how nice they are the rest of the year.
We lost two trees this morning though.
They hadn’t looked so good for a few years. The topmost branches didn’t leaf out. Occasionally smaller limbs would fall off, and you could see the rot and decay. They looked less and less beautiful and had even become a safety hazard. I knew it was coming.
So this morning, some big trucks from the city showed up. “Emerald Ash Borer,” they said: a pest that spreads to other trees. They had a cherry-picker and a wood-chipper and some guys with chainsaws, and they started in on those trees. First they lopped off the smaller branches, then the larger. Then they started cutting chunks off the trunk. Eventually they worked their way back down to ground level, where they took a huge saw to the trunk. In a matter of a couple of hours, all that was left of those two trees that have grown there for at least the length of my life were two large stumps and some sawdust. Another truck will show up in a few days or weeks with a stump grinder, and even they’ll be gone.
I took a minute to count the rings on one of the stumps. They got a little faint toward the middle, but I got over 100. Even if that tree put on two rings a year, it’s still been there a while. Two hours and a few chainsaws and ropes seems like kind of an unceremonious end for such an unchanging part of the neighborhood. People came and went all around it, but there it sat for at least half a century, providing oxygen and shade and a home for birds and squirrels. I sort of felt like we should have had some kind of tree funeral for those trees. Tell them thanks for serving us well.
Three years is a pretty short amount of time in comparison to our lost trees, but the vineyard owner in Jesus’ parable wasn’t willing to give his fig tree much longer than that. Three years was long enough, in his mind. Long enough that he should have been eating figs from it already. One fruitless season is just a bad year for figs. Two…well, maybe we didn’t fertilize well enough. But three means there’s something wrong with the tree. It’s a bad tree that isn’t ever going to produce much. And vineyard owners are unsentimental about trees: “Cut it down. Why should it use up the soil?”
I hope I’m not just a waste of soil, at least not most of the time. Because it’s pretty obvious from Jesus’ parable that we don’t get points for just hanging around. We have differing strengths, opportunities, and resources to be sure, but don’t imagine that God has us in our homes, in our offices, in our neighborhoods, in our churches to just be part of the scenery. Faith gives us a new outlook on a lot of things, not the least of which is the idea that we’re planted wherever we’re planted for reasons other than our own comfort or prosperity or happiness. We’re where we are because the Lord wants us there, and he wants us there so that we can produce fruit for him. What you produce and what I produce may not look much alike, and you shouldn’t be judged on the basis of what anyone else produces. But you aren’t there just to take up space. You aren’t there to keep the blessings and nourishment of God all to yourself. You’re to take in the bitterness and hatred and darkness around you and breathe out grace and love and light into the air. You’re to care for the poor and sick, to look out for the marginalized, to speak for those whose voices aren’t heard. You’re to model repentance and faith and ethical living. You’re to produce the fruit of the gospel of Christ so that people can “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Churches and families and companies and schools and agencies and individuals can easily lose sight of the fact that they’re supposed to be bearing fruit. We slip easily into self-preservation mode. We start to think the resources around us are there to just be sucked up, to benefit us. We stop feeling the responsibility to help, serve, teach, work, love, touch, give. When that happens there’s no fruit visible. There’s nothing to indicate any kind of real life. Nothing in which anyone can find any real hope, any evidence that God is at work.
When that happens, we stop doing good and start doing damage.
Worse, that attitude can spread. It can infect those who we should be inspiring to bear fruit. Instead, they see nothing on our branches and conclude that they have no purpose beyond themselves either.
You know that there are two human characters in the parable of the tree. One is the vineyard owner, who isn’t wrong. He has every right to say, “Cut it down. It’s just wasting dirt.” Maybe that vineyard owner doesn’t exactly represent God, but in his words you hear God’s righteous judgment on a person, a church, an organization that doesn’t use the blessings, resources, and opportunities he gives to bear fruit where they’re planted. We can’t complain that God demands too much of us. We can’t claim we don’t know that we answer to him for our failure to produce what he wants from us. We can’t gripe that his verdict is too harsh.
But in that other character, the caretaker, we hear God’s grace. He hates to see the tree go. He believes it can still be fruitful. “Let me work on it,” he says. “Let me put even more care and nourishment into it. It can still be what it ought to be. It can still bear the fruit you intend for it to bear. Just give it a little more time to grow.”
In those words of grace is the gospel: that Jesus came to help us grow into what God wants us to be, not cut us off at the ground. Jesus cultivates and fertilizes with his teaching, his example, with ultimately his own body and blood and with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. He knows you can be fruitful because he’ll live in you and energize you. You need only trust his word and do what he tells you.
Fruitfulness isn’t just working harder, any more than those trees we lost could have been saved if they’d just put their minds to it. Fruitfulness is finding your identity and purpose in Jesus, and then going where he tells you and doing what he asks.
He’s not ready to cut you off yet. Not yet (though that day will come). Come closer to him. Reorganize your life so that he’s the root of it. Cultivate the habit of living in him through prayer, through hearing his words and following his teaching, through service. Become part of a church that will help you bear fruit, and ask them to.
Bear fruit. Stay tall and green and strong, and produce whatever it is that the Lord has made you and equipped you to produce.
Your street needs the shade, beauty, and oxygen of the gospel of Jesus.