Weekly Seeds: Looking for Fruit

Sunday, March 20, 2022
Third Sunday in Lent | Year C

Focus Theme:
Looking for Fruit

Focus Prayer:
Creator God, we experience so much change in the world. We respond in a multitude of ways. Encourage and assure us to turn toward you in the midst of uncertainty and possibility to embrace the changes you seek, enact, and envision. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Luke 13:1–9
13 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”
10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

All readings for this Sunday:
Isaiah 55:1–9
Psalm 63:1–8
1 Corinthians 10:1–13
Luke 13:1–9

Focus Questions:
1. What is repentance?
2. How do you respond to change?
3. What change do you perceive to be necessary in the world?
4. How does change take hold?
5. What benefits can change realize for you, your community, and the world?

By Mia M. McClain

“Don’t say ‘I’m sorry, ma.’ Show me you’re sorry.” – A frustrated parental proverb

When I’d get in trouble as a child – maybe I left dirty dishes in the sink after my mother had already cleaned the kitchen, or I got a bad grade on my report card – I’d undoubtedly offer a teary-eyed apology to help cut down the punishment.

MOTHER: Why didn’t you tell me you were struggling in science 3 months ago? Why do I have to find out from your teacher that you got an F on the test?
ME: I’m sorry, ma. (insert puppy eyes here)
MOTHER: “Don’t say ‘I’m sorry, ma.’ Show me you’re sorry.”

She was helping me understanding the difference between apology and repentance—the difference between a coerced confession and self-initiated change. I had only ever associated repentance with confessing to one’s priest or pastor after a really bad misstep (murdering someone, being dishonest with one’s spouse, stealing money from a relative). From what I had witnessed in confessional scenes in movie and through unexplained liturgy in church, repenting and confessing had synonymous in my mind.

In Luke 13:1-5, the call for repentance comes up twice while Jesus is in conversation with folks who are reporting to him that a group of Galileans were murdered by Pilate in their place of worship. Jesus responds, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Jesus, then, tells them about the group from Jerusalem who died in the collapse of the tower at Siloam. He reminds them that the victims were not worse people than the rest of Jerusalem—that their unfortunate demise wasn’t the result of uncommon misbehaviors or wrongdoing. Anyone of them could meet that fate at any time; there is no forcefield around followers of Jesus preventing them from experiencing such disaster. I imagine Jesus saying like, “don’t think you’re special and immune to the harsh realities of this world because you’re following me around town.” It seems as if the followers were preoccupied with the news and Jesus wanted to refocus them. Continuing the trajectory from the previous chapter, Jesus warns them again using the very same phrasing from the earlier verse: “I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

The Greek word used for repentance in this passage is μετανοέω (metanoeó), meaning
a) to change one’s mind or purpose, b) to amend, or c) to change course for the better. It is an active verb, one that calls forth motion beyond the lip service of an apology. “Show me you’re sorry,” mother would say as she focused me on changing course as to not repeat the same mistake. In traditional Lukan storytelling, we are quickly swept into a parable about a fig tree at verse 6, perhaps to explicate what repentance may look like.

The interjecting of the parable “reflects a common pattern in Luke where parables are either introduced or followed by a saying or sayings. In function the literary construction serves Luke's purpose of either pointing to the meaning of the parable through the sayings, or reinforcing the significance of the sayings through the parable. In our text the parable functions to bring home the meaning of the introductory sayings.” – Franklin W. Young

A man had a fig tree in the yard, a tree that had not borne any fruit in 3 years. Surely this is an unusual occurrence as fig trees are supposed to start bearing fruit within 2 years of being planted and then 1-2 times per year after that. They are not regarded as high maintenance trees and though famine is always a possibility—especially amidst imperial-triggered ecological disruption—the barren fig tree should be an anomaly. Now, if one were to cross reference Jesus’ other fig/fruit tree commentary (Mark 11:12-14; Matt 21:18-22), it may appear that fruit trees are routinely problematic, bearing no produce (at least when Jesus comes upon it), and they are cursed by Jesus. It is also to be noted that Jesus is obsessed with fruit- and growth-analogous explanations.

This would not be uncommon to the time. Agricultural, horticultural, and viticultural references are all through the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder calls preachers living in urban centers across the United States to “find equally potent urban images to convey their thoughts about the movement of God in the same way that Jesus did in his primary agricultural context.”

In John 15, he calls himself the true vine, instructing his followers: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” In Matthew 7, he warns his followers to watch out for false prophets: “By their fruit you will recognize them… every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

In the barren fig tree parable of Luke 13, the owner of the vineyard wants the fig tree cut down; it is not yielding what it’s supposed to yield, thus it is wasting soil. The gardener requests that the owner give him one more year to try for fruit. The gardener offers to change their course—to try some new fertilization techniques—to amend the cultivation process in order to bear fruit. Is it that the gardener is repenting? And is it that the lack of written response on behalf of the owner is an acceptance of the repentance? Does the owner give the gardener another chance? Is Jesus offering the crowd another chance?

“It has been taken to be an allegory: featuring the fig tree as unrepentant Israel who will be punished unless it repents; holding forth to Israel a last chance to repent; pronouncing judgment upon the leadership of Israel. The story teaches a moral lesson: unfruitfulness will be punished; manifest the fruit of good living or suffer God's punishment; the need of bringing forth the fruits of repentance. The story is an image (metaphor): Just as a barren fig tree is temporarily spared, so the age to come is briefly postponed; the kingdom of God holds forth the possibility of mercy.” – Charles W. Hedrick 

The gardener’s adamant plea to change course for one more shot at bearing fruit could be what Jesus would like to see from the crowd. Jesus is not merely reprimanding them or inciting fear; perhaps, his repetitive charge to “repent or perish” is an act of mercy in a precarious imperial world where compassion is hard to come by. Calling for repentance, then, is not about condemnation but about change—change for the sake of life and liberation.

All that you touch 
You Change. 
All that you Change 
Changes you. 
The only lasting truth 
Is Change. 
God Is Change.
  • Octavia Butler

Repent is a loaded word. I think about how it has been used often in anti-LGBTQ religious rhetoric and to control people’s reproductive freedoms. I think about how repentance is framed during the Lenten season, particularly in faith spaces that emphasize a personal theology of salvation that allows folks to view repentance as a solitary act that can be done outside of an accountable community. It is an overloaded word; thus I appreciate the parable of the fig tree that follows Jesus’ call for repentance, not because it offers a clear resolution, but because Jesus is talking about fruit. And when Jesus starts talking about fruit, I know he’s talking about change. I know he’s talking about action and tangible results; he’s talking about the kind of fruit that helps us meet the material needs of those who are without. When he talks about fruit, I imagine he’s dreaming of the kind of liberation that regenerates itself. The seeds of the positive produce we bear will become nourishment for the subsequent generations.

I think back on my mother’s occasional frustrations with me. Back then, it seemed like the scolding was about inciting fear so that I’d do the right thing. In retrospect, perhaps “show me you’re sorry” was an act of mercy that said, “I know you can do and be better. The world may not give you another chance, but I will. I want to see you change course. I need to see your fruit.” The followers of Jesus and their ancestors repeatedly found themselves in hard situations throughout the generations. Maybe Jesus is saying, “If you want to survive beyond me, you’re going to have to change. I need to see your fruit. Future generations will know you by your fruit.”

What if finding fruit and repentance is not about turning from wicked ways or the fear of damnation but, instead, about embracing change? What if it were about experimenting—exhausting possibilities in the garden and in the courthouse for the life-saving transformation? What if finding fruit is always the task at hand, for we are always changing? Communal needs are always evolving. Demands for justice are always progressing. There is hope for change in the fig tree.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

— Abel Meeropol, Strange Fruit (performed by Billie Holiday)

For further reflection:
“Don’t be ashamed to weep; ’tis right to grieve. Tears are only water, and flowers, trees, and fruit cannot grow without water. But there must be sunlight also. A wounded heart will heal in time, and when it does, the memory and love of our lost ones is sealed inside to comfort us.” ― Brian Jacques, Taggerung
“Think the tree that bears nutrition:
though the fruits are picked,
the plant maintains fruition.
So give all the love you have.
Do not hold any in reserve.
What is given is not lost; it shall return.”
― Kamand Kojouri
“Plants are more courageous than almost all human beings: an orange tree would rather die than produce lemons, whereas instead of dying the average person would rather be someone they are not.” ― Mokokoma Mokhonoana

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

Rev. Mia M. McClain is the Associate Minister at Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC and a member of the Southern Conference UCC.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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