Persevering when we fail
A couple of weeks ago, in a scripture class, I ended up talking with a year 5 group about the word ‘Covenant’, especially as used in the Old Testament. For us it’s mostly a Bible word, although it does seem to get used in legal contexts as well – particularly, as far as I can see, in agreements about the use of land.
But the idea I wanted to get the kids thinking about was that of a bargain, a deal, an agreement with two sides to it.
I was reminded of that when I looked this week at the theme we’ve adopted for Lent, and fantastic image that Sonia created to represent it.
On one side – for the first three weeks – we explore the ways that God responds to us: when we ignore God (last week), when we fail God (this week), and when we return to God (next week). And then we look at the relationship from the other side – the ways that we are called to respond to God: in worship (in word and deed), in celebration, and in sharing the good news.
And then in the middle, that image of two figures walking together, that sense that we, in community, or perhaps we, in partnership with God, are on a journey – but, in the image, not in a hurry. That sense that travelling together is the point.
But of course, there is one crucial difference between this series of reflections, and the idea of a covenant. For (in the the Old Testament description, at least) covenant always carried with it one crucial word.
“If you obey my commandments”
“If you live as my people”
“If you refrain from the worship of other Gods”
The covenant (or covenants) of the Hebrew faith had in them the sense of conditionality. Live God’s way, and you will enjoy God’s blessing, God’s protection. Turn your back on God, and not so much.
The logic of “if”. If you do right by God, God will do right by you. If you are good, you will flourish.
You see it clearly in the first half of our reading. The basic understanding of the faithful people of the day was that suffering must be seen as a sign of God’s displeasure, a withdrawal of God’s protection, which must in turn be a consequence of human sin.
An understanding of the relationship between God and humanity which Jesus refuses to go along with. Instead offering this strange little parable, in which the fate of a fig-tree hangs in the balance.
The fig tree has been growing for three years, and it has not yet born fruit, and the owner of the vineyard is getting impatient. This tree is a waste of space, it’s a waste of soil, a waste of water. If it’s not going to produce the figs, it’s no use to anyone.
Other fig trees planted around the same time are bearing – a fig tree typically produces some fruit in the second year, and the third is when it comes into its own, its first real harvest. Thank you once again, Wikipedia.
The parable speaks to us of two different attitudes to the fig tree, two different attitudes to a situation where no fruit is being born, no positive outcome is coming from the work, the time, the effort, the resources, that are being put it.
The first is the attitude of the owner of the vineyard. A man of business, the owner reads the situation in terms of costs and opportunity, in terms of risk and reward, and he has had enough. He gets that there is an opportunity cost in allowing this tree to remain, unproductive as it is.
Three years, no fruit, bad tree, cut it out.
Produce fruit – live right – get the blessing. Fail to produce fruit – fail to live the life God has called you to – get cut down.
The logic of “If”
Our world rushes to judgement. Produce or perish. Outcome-oriented. Measurable metrics.
The logic of “If”.
But it seems to me that this parable teaches us that God’s approach is different. And, in particular, that God’s approach to failure – our failure – is very different to that of the judgement offered by the world.
God’s instinct in the face of our failure, is to persevere.
But not just to persevere.
For we come to the second character in the story. Or the third, I suppose, if you count the fig tree; but the second attitude.
Which is, of course, the gardener.
The gardener – pretty much by definition – is someone with more than a little experience in the tending of plants. Perhaps he has a little bit less of a focus on the immediate outcome, perhaps a little more of a sense of identification with the tree.
But the most important difference with the gardener is that they don’t start by focussing on the failure – or rather – they don’t start by focussing on the failure of the tree with a sense of judgement. “If, and only if, you bear fruit, you can stay in the vineyard”.
Instead of looking at the tree and seeing failure, the gardener looks and sees need. Maybe the soil isn’t fertile enough. Maybe it needs more manure. Maybe it’s just taking its time.
The gardener, the one who knows the trees, sees that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the fig tree. Perhaps his experience tells him, some trees just take a little longer. Some trees need a little bit more.
So the gardener’s mind goes not to what the tree is supposed to produce, to the tree’s failure to live up to its side of the bargain, but what the tree might need to flourish.
It’s not that the gardener doesn’t care about the fruit. They do. It’s just that that isn’t the first think they looks at, it isn’t the only criteria. The tree is more than the fruit it bears.
And the absence of fruit might not be because there is something wrong with the tree. How foolish to blame the tree if the problem is with the soil.
And the punchline is this, as Jesus’ listeners would have well known (even without Wikipedia): though most fig trees produce fruit in the second and third year, some just don’t. And those trees that produce fruit later often produce more – they’ve taken longer to grow, to put down deeper roots, so that when they do fruit, they are amongst the most productive in the vineyard.
The gardener, the one who knows the trees, is not purely sentimental. In the end, their approach, care for, attention to, the need of the tree, will produce more for the owner of the land than the haste to judge and chop down ever would.
Which invites, I suggest, a third perspective from which to read this parable. We’ve looked from the view of the owner, and the gardener – but read the parable again now from the view of the fig tree.
Sometimes, you feel like you aren’t producing fruit. Things aren’t working out the way they are supposed to. You know, at least in your better, more rational, moments, that this isn’t the whole story – that there have been times of fruitfulness, that right now you’ve been overwhelmed by factors beyond your control (how many great plans have been shelved by COVID?). But its hard to ignore the logic of the world, the logic of “if”.
I reckon everyone has times when we feel like – well, maybe not a failure, but not really a success. The things we set out to do, for ourselves, for the world, for God, the projects, the missions, the dreams, the hopes, don’t quite work out, don’t quite bear fruit. We’ve given them years, and nothing seems to have come of it.
And then you hear the voice of the gardener, speaking up on your behalf. Looking at you not as a failure but as a tree with untapped potential. A tree which may need tending, may need support or resources or care. But a tree that is worth persevering with. A tree which, given what it needs, may yet produce more than you could imagine.
So for us fig-trees in the garden tended by God, it’s encouraging to know: our gardener, our God, doesn’t look so much as what produce; God looks at what we need.
When we fail, God’s instinct is not judgement, but perseverance.
And God doesn’t give up on God’s trees easily.