Sermon, Sunday, March 7, 2010
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Amen.
Good afternoon. I’m Leah Sandwell-Weiss, a deacon candidate in the Diocese of Arizona. And I didn’t care a fig about figs until researching for today’s sermon. Other than fig newtons, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten or maybe even seen a fig. But today’s gospel reading got me to wondering about why they are mentioned so often in the Bible. Turns out that figs are nutritious, providing lots of calcium, fiber, and nutrients. The trees are relatively tall and shady, depending on the variety. And they produce fruit two to three times a year, again depending on the variety. There are productive female fruit trees that need a special wasp for fertilization and unproductive male trees. So sometimes there is an issue about a fig tree’s fruitfulness.
As you may remember, Adam and Eve “sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” after realizing they were naked. Why fig leaves? Well, they’re the right shape and size. And it turns out that figs are one of the earliest, if not the earliest, types of plants that humans domesticated, having been found in the Jordan Valley dating back nearly 10 thousand years Before the Common Era. Some folks believe that it was probably a fig that Eve ate and gave to Adam since apples aren’t native. It’s also interesting that there’s a sense of punishment in these new fig leaf clothes, as fig leaves contain a skin irritant that can raise blisters.
Figs are also often mentioned in the Old Testament, along with vines, as a symbol of a fruitful and peaceful land, as when God describes the land he will give the Hebrews who have fled Egypt as a land “of vines and fig trees and pomegranates” or when Solomon’s rule is described as a time of safety, when all lived “under their vines and fig trees.”
Figs are also a sign of spring and summer:
The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
Maybe you can guess that that’s from the Song of Songs.
On the other hand, when the prophets talk about what God will do to Israel if the people don’t repent, they often talk about the destruction of fig trees. Hosea says that God will destroy Israel’s vines and her fig trees; Jeremiah says there will be no figs on the fig tree and the enemies shall eat up Israel’s figs. But Micah says when they repent and the kingdom is restored, everyone “shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.”
Jesus uses figs in three sets of incidents or parables in the New Testament. The first set, found in Mark and Matthew, is the cursing of the unfruitful fig tree. Remember the story? Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and sees leaves on a fig tree in the distance. He expects to find fruit on the tree, even though it’s not the season, but when he gets there and finds no fruit on the tree, he curses it. Depending on the Gospel, it either withers then and there, or the disciples see that it has withered when they come back that way. This sounds very out of character for Jesus and people have had difficulty with this story. Folks familiar with figs, though, point out that the early spring figs are often preceded by a leafing out of the tree. Jesus could rightly have expected fruit, and, thus, the tree really could have been barren.
In Matthew, the story follows the cleansing of the Temple, while in Mark, the cleansing comes in between the two halves of the fig story. So a common Christian interpretation is that this cursing symbolizes the unfruitfulness of the Temple and of Jewish religious observations and is thus a prediction of the Temple’s future destruction.
Another fig story told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke has to do with a foretelling of the end times: Jesus says, just as when the fig leaves come out you know summer is near, so when you see certain signs you’ll know the end is near.
The third fig story is only told in Luke and is the last part of our Gospel today. First, Jesus made it clear that Galileans who were killed on Pilate’s orders and the people in Jerusalem who died when a tower collapsed hadn’t “deserved” their fate because they were “worse” people than anyone else. Rather we are all sinners who must repent. The he told the story of the unfruitful fig tree and the gardener who asks for another year to take care of it to see if it will bear fruit.
Now when I first read this, I thought of the story of the King, his horse, and the prisoner. Are you familiar with this story? The short version is that a prisoner who had been sentenced to death tells the King if he will give him a year, he’ll teach the King’s favorite horse to sing. The King laughs and gives him a year. The prison guards scoff at the prisoner when he returns, but he says, well, a lot can happen in a year - the King could die, the horse could die, I could die, - and perhaps the horse will sing!
A lot of things can happen in a year - or in a lifetime. The gardener knows that God is gracious and gives us the time we need to re-make our lives - to absorb the fertilizer that comes from our prayer and study and also our community. As the New Testament reading today says, God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but will provide a way out. The “you” and “your” here are plural - meaning that we are never tested in isolation and never have to bear a struggle alone. We have a community to help us. God will hear our meditations in the night watches and our cry for help and mercy in our communities and will bring us out to a land of milk and honey - and figs if we only will let God work with us. Amen.