Know Your Name!
When we repent, we begin to behave in new ways. The change in behavior is what people notice, and it’s what God wants. We shouldn’t forget, however, that a permanent change in behavior requires a change in thinking, and a permanent change in thinking requires us to change what it is that we believe.
If we really believed what is really true, we’d have nothing to repent.
To know the truth, and to believe the truth is the foundation of living a life that pleases God; and we do this, as Jesus explained, “so that our joy may be complete.”
* * *
The Third Sunday in Lent
Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. Jesus said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!
“Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them — do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”
And he told them this parable:
“There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’
He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’”
Luke 13, 1-19
KNOW YOUR NAME!
I have come in search of fruit
on this fig tree but have found none.…. Why should it exhaust the soil?
Lk 13, 7
It probably won’t be long before someone approaches you with the question, “How are you doing?” It’s the courteous thing to say and the courteous response is, “Fine, thank you. How are you?” So far, so good. Now, it might just be that the person doing the asking is in earnest. They really do want to know how you’re doing. Imagine that! You may soon be approached by somebody who’ll ask you to step back, evaluate the condition of your life and give them a report. It’s audacious, when you think about it; but we live in a time when questions that were once considered impertinent are now the staple of everyday discourse. “It is,” to quote Coach Belichick, “what it is.”
So, how are you doing?
It’s none of my business, of course, but you actually do have an answer. Just like me, and just like everyone, you’re constantly keeping tabs on the ups and downs of your life. You could, if you chose, answer me when I ask you, “How’s your health?” or “What’s your financial situation?” or “Are you satisfied with your romance?” or “Are your family members getting along?” or even, “Are you having any fun?” These are the criteria we use when we figure out how we’re “doing”.
Today’s parable describes a conversation. It may seem, at first, that the conversation is between the person with a fig orchard and his gardener; but it’s actually a conversation with the tree. The question to the tree is: “How are you doing?”
If I understand this story, the tree is actually quite pleased with itself. From the tree’s perspective, the answer is, “Things couldn’t be better! My roots are deep, my trunk is sturdy, my bark is thick, my branches are numerous and my leaves are supple. I’m on top of the world!” The tree evaluates itself based on the things that are important to trees. The tree is standing in an orchard with other trees and each tree is checking the others out. There’s a ‘ranking order’ in the tree world based on who’s the strongest, or the prettiest, or who makes the nicest sound when the wind blows. These are the criteria trees use to size each other up.
The question trees don’t think much about, because it’s really of no interest to them, is “Who’s producing the sweetest figs?” What use is a fig to a tree? For all the trees know, the entire universe consists of their orchard and the other trees they share the orchard with. Tree philosophers wonder about the meaning of life and the general consensus is that life is about getting enough water and nutrients to keep growing and spending as much time as you can in the sunshine.
Some tree philosophers insist that there must be something more to life than the orchard and they tell stories about a gardener and an orchard master, but most trees take those stories with a grain of salt. After all, if there really were an orchard master, how come no tree has ever seen him? Besides, the philosophers who tell stories about an orchard master talk about the master deliberately cutting trees down, which is ridiculous. What kind of orchard master would cut down his own trees?
The problem is clear. The orchard master wants to get his message through but the trees are disinclined to listen. Even when they do listen, they get it wrong. Some trees claim the message is, “I’m coming to cut you down.” Others say it’s “You’re exhausting the soil.”
Some trees get the message right. They know that, for them, the purpose of life is to produce figs. It’s nice to have a sturdy trunk and to spend lots of time in the sunshine; but those aren’t the important things. The important thing is to look at things from the orchard master’s perspective.
Now, here’s the strange thing: The only way to know what kind of tree you are is to stop thinking like a tree. Trees don’t give a fig about figs! Only the master understands how important it is to produce sweet fruit and only the master knows that his trees are fig trees. Left to their own devices, the trees would call themselves ‘tough bark trees’ or ‘winding root trees’. Left to their own devices, the trees wouldn’t realize they had anything at all to do with figs. Why in the world would they call themselves fig trees?
So, how are you doing?
Your answer depends upon the name you take as your own. That is, what sort of man are you, what sort of woman? Are you a money man, a good times girl? If that’s what you are, by all means tell me the status of your investments or the kind of escapade you had last night. On the other hand, suppose what you are “doing” has everything to do with imitating Christ, or being a help to your neighbor, or hammering out social justice. If, for example, you thought of yourself as a mercy manufacturer, or a joy generator, or a compassion constructor – if those were the names you responded to – what criteria would you use when you tried to figure out how you’re doing.
The trees that ‘get it right’ are the ones who hear the orchard master and understand what he wants. Whatever he might say, it isn’t the master’s goal to chop down his trees or cut off their supply of water and nutrition. It’s all about the figs, so don’t forget it. Figs! Figs! Figs!
Jesus leaves us in a state of suspense as he ends his parable. We can’t know whether the tree is going to bear fruit or not. Certainly the tree is going to do nothing on its own. Without the gardener, the tree is fated to become firewood. The tree can do nothing without the gardener; but even when the gardener does everything he can, it’s still going to be the tree itself that will either produce fruit or remain barren.
The question, then, is “how are you doing?” If, that is, you’re doing anything at all.