The Owner and the Gardener
Have you ever eaten a fig before? It’s not your everyday menu item, here in the cold mid-west! But knowing they are plentiful in the Mediterranean and Palestine, immediately I thought of the Middle East Bakery & Grocery on Foster just off Clark. And sure enough, they had two brands of packaged dried figs, imported from Turkey. They were tightly wrapped in plastic rounds of 25 or 30 figs each. As I considered which one to buy, I noticed a pint container of figs just a shelf above, which were larger yet, and even though there weren’t as many, were more expensive. Ah, and it had the Middle East Bakery & Grocery label on it. As I paid, I made sure there was no added sugar, and then asked if they were actually made there, and the man broke into a big sheepish and proud smile. Oh yes, I’m a fig farmer he said. I make these!
Well, I couldn’t wait until lunch time, and as soon as I got to church, I opened the container and chose the largest fig of all and took a big bite. Umh! As many of you know I give up sugary deserts for Lent, and this fruit was so sweet and delicious that I felt like I was cheating somehow, the little gooey seeds sticking to my teeth.
Figs are a kind of luxury and wonderful gift. The fig tree is also iconic for Israel, a kind of gift, the chosen people of God. And practically, it’s a very beautiful tree, the fig tree, its leaves are large and its branches welcoming and inviting to owners and guests alike, providing a place of shade and rest from the heat of the day.
Here in the city it’s so easy to feel disconnected from the land, and the source of our food and nutrition. But the ownership of the land and its wealth are still important, perhaps more so than ever.
Having been to the Palestinian West Bank of Israel, the Occupied Territories, I’ve seen the rocky soil that actually is perfect for growing fig trees. We visited farmers near Hebron, where families lived in villages, that by our standards at least, were extremely primitive. For centuries they have planted and harvested and never worried about their social standing. But living day to day, like this, has its risks. And when radical-fundamentalist Jewish Settlers, many from the United States, came to live illegally on the edge of their farms, occupying the highest hill across the valley, their way of life became threatened. In addition to verbal intimidation, and even throwing rocks at their school children walking to school, they began night raids. Not attacking villagers, but on the eve of the harvest, they came to uproot and destroy their fig trees. It’s a tactic that’s been used for a decade or more, as the radical Settlers try to push the Palestinians off their land and take it over.
As one young American working in Palestine said writing home: “I am a proud Ohio farm girl living and working as a Christian Peacemaker with our Palestinian partners in Palestine. [Coming from the farm life] My rootedness to the earth has helped me feel at home here in West Bank, Palestine where the land is valued so strongly. …For them the earth is mother. It provides for their families. …Back home in the States, however, I never had seen my home demolished, my trees uprooted, my land confiscated, my irrigation lines destroyed like my Palestinian friends have. …No one ever forced me to leave my … huge fig tree shading my courtyard, or my terraced garden that feeds my soul.” (http://www.cpt.org/cptnet/2010/11/15/al-khalil-hebron-reflection-we-love-land)
Who owns the land makes a difference when it’s your livelihood and your life blood.
Jesus tells a parable of a fig tree, unique to the gospel of Luke, as he’s on his way for the last time, to Jerusalem. As Luke says, “Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem.” He’s not exactly looking forward to Good Friday! But he has taken on the prophet’s mantle of speaking the truth, living with the people who don’t make the history books, and leaning into the cosmic healing of the world God calls him to, in the work of the Three Great Days. And, along the way, Jesus isn’t afraid of sitting down with friend, or foe, enjoying a fig, or maybe some fig pudding, and a locally produced glass of wine. But no one owns him. Rather, he proclaims release to the captives, sight to the blind.
The owners of 90% of this country’s wealth, the 1%, received another gift just this past Friday, as the latest politically manufactured fiscal crisis by our elected leaders, reached a new low. This time the game went bust, and for the first time we actually went over the cliff. No deal was reached on the Sequester, a deal so draconian, its across the board cuts so clumsy and intentionally unfair, it was never meant to stand, only to force the two parties to sit down and compromise. But a radical fundamentalist minority in the House prefers to further gift the obscenely wealthy owners – sometimes ironically called ‘the job creators.’ They continue to pay half the tax rate you and I do, while the real problem, jobs, is predicted to get worse, as a consequence. And the true-believers actually think they’re doing the country a favor!
Whoever owns the wealth, owns those who hope to make a living off the land and the manufacturing economy.
So Jesus tells a parable, a story of a fig tree that disappoints! Even after 3 years, it still isn’t producing fruit yet. But the gardener graciously pleads for one more year to give it a chance to bloom and grow. At first we might identify the owner of the vineyard as God in the story. He’s in charge, and we recognize the management style: that this fig tree, that doesn’t produce, shouldn’t have the right to sit there and waste the soil – cut it down and find a new one!
But when the gardener surprisingly intervenes and asks for a pardon, and is willing to come down to, to kneel in the earth, to actually till and care for it, to give it some nourishment, water and feed it, suddenly we recognize this one, as the God we know in Jesus. The owner, is just another owner trying to capitalize on his investment, which isn’t bad in itself, except he hasn’t bothered to factor in Mother Earth or the garden workers – he stops by only to look for his profits. But Jesus – just like the Gardener Mary Magdalene mistakes him for in the garden of his death and resurrection – this Jesus, is a compassionate advocate for us all.
And so, to the worker working 2 or 3 jobs to feed a family today, and then is characterized as “lazy” because his or her “job creator’s” company merged with another corporation, and needed to lay of thousands of employees, and the worker, still working a job or two, now has to apply for SNAP to feed his or her children – Jesus says, wait, they’re not wasting the soil, don’t chop them down! I will come down to them, I will feed them; I have come to release the captives, and give sight to the blind – to pardon and feed, to proclaim and reveal.
All of us can use that, a little metanoia, a little transformation, an opportunity to repent and turn around from our destructive ways and selfish captivity. That’s what Lent is all about. And it’s what Jesus tells the disciples and the crowds on his way to the cross. You may not get it quite yet, but you will, after the cross and resurrection. Just let me till the soil and give you a little more “bread of life” fertilizer.
Jesus teaches in parables, but is much more than a Teacher. Jesus is a revealer, a living icon, who reveals to us the way of abundant life by transforming us, changing us, feeding us, because he is the cross and resurrection, the dying-to-this-world and rising-to-God’s-world, agent.
And so we may even recognize Jesus in Isaiah’s Lady-Wisdom character,
as she’s hawking us:
“Hey there, you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.”
Come away from your Exile, Jesus invites us, from that land of death;
Learn the way of metanoia, and transformation;
Come to the feast, the table is set,
Uhm, uhm, uhm! Let us eat figs!