Here’s a story Jesus told that gets at the issue:
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
8 “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” Luke 13: 6-9
You could call this the parable of the impatient vineyard owner. If he has been growing fruit for any length of time, he should know that it takes four or five years before a fig tree bears fruit. So what’s his problem?
You could also call this the parable of the wise gardener. He knows better than to challenge his boss on a day when maybe he had a bad night’s sleep, maybe he’s had a fight with his wife, but clearly something is making him irrational.
So instead of offering a challenge, he offers an alternative. Let me try a couple of things over the next year. If those don’t work, then go ahead. Cut it down.
What non-gardeners may not know is that what he’s proposing to do is to continue what he’s been doing. Fig trees prefer two things for success: a constrained root ball and organic fertilizer. The gardener is saying he will dig around the tree to keep its roots from growing too large. That will keep the tree from growing too large. And he will continue to apply fertilizer, which in those days was exclusively organic, to nourish the tree.
If you’ve ever lived downwind of an organic farm, you know that organic fertilizers have an aroma all their own. Things like manure and dead fish are rotten and they smell that way. And yet, they provide what plants need to grow.
Here’s my takeaway for the formation of spiritual fruit.
- First, it takes time. If you want sweet spiritual figs in the life of young Christians, expect to wait a while.
- Second, it may require constraints. We’re used to thinking about the constraint of pruning that strengthens the vine by limiting how many directions it grows. But this story describes strengthening a tree by constraining the root ball. For this particular fruit a smaller tree must be maintained by limiting the extent of the root system.
- Finally, it requires a particular kind of fertilizer and this is still true today. Fruit requires organic fertilizer: dead, stinky stuff. If you’re keeping your young Christians out of the dead, stinky stuff – if you’re keeping yourself out of the dead, stinky stuff – you won’t see fruit.
Time, constraints, and dead stinky stuff. Not what we like to look for in our fast-paced, “you can have it all” super-hygienic lives. But if we want fruit that will last, these are what we must choose.