My husband and I bought a house in Prairieville, Louisiana in the winter of 2011. It was a new construction home, so we had the opportunity to select the landscaping we wanted to have. One of my favorite things about living in south Louisiana was the fall harvest of Satsumas. These delectable little oranges were a highlight to my fall grocery shopping. They are small oranges that are easy to peel and mostly seedless. Neighbors and church members would gather the fruit from their over-productive trees and bring them up to the church to share with all of us clergy. It was a wonderful gift!
So, when we were selecting our landscaping, we asked for three Satsuma trees on the side of our house. South Louisiana is the perfect place for Satsumas to grow; the weather, the sunlight, and the landscape are all ideal for Satsuma trees. The landscaper reminded us that it may take a few years for the trees to bear a lot of fruit, but that we may see some our first year. Fall rolled around in 2012, and we had twelve Satsumas. We were so excited that we ate them all within twenty-four hours.
The Gospel lesson from Luke 13 is a powerful reminder of the importance of bearing fruit. Jesus is speaking to the crowds, and some who were present were concerned about the treatment of some Galileans who suffered at their deaths. In Old Testament theology, the understanding is that a person encounters whatever fate that their life choices lead them to; in other words, to quote my Old Testament professor, Dr. Roy Heller, “You do good; you get good. You do bad; you get bad.” This is the background for what Jesus tells the crowds about the Galileans and those who died at Siloam. The assumption was that those who had died in such awful ways had done something to deserve such terrible deaths.
In essence, Jesus tells the crowds that those who died were no worse sinners than those who were still living. He is undoing all the cultural and religious assumptions of his time. He is calling the crowds to repentance for the things they have done that have not “earned” them a horrible death. This kind of repentance is not simply a preschool-aged conversation between two children that involves one apologizing to the other, only to find that, moments later, the same offense has repeated itself. This repentance requires transformation and change on the part of the one repenting.
And here is where Luke places the parable of the fig tree. “He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” This kind of repentance requires transformation, and the end result should be fruit—good fruit born from the once-bad fig tree.
Bearing good fruit is certainly not an easy task. Trees that bear fruit are constantly growing and changing; they are losing their leaves and growing new ones. They are spurring new branches, creating stronger bark for better protection; they are converting sunlight into energy, carbon dioxide into oxygen. And then, of course, they are producing fruit that can sustain life.
It was easy for my husband and I to sit back and reap that small first harvest of Satsumas in south Louisiana four years ago. I imagine that those trees have begun to produce more and more citrus each year. If you’re a fruit tree, bearing good fruit comes naturally, for the most part. But not so for us humans who are incredibly complex creatures, faced with things like sin, free will, job demands, family needs, personal care needs, illness, relationships that are in danger of falling apart; the list is endless. We humans have a more difficult time bearing good fruit all on our own with all of these other things to distract us. We struggle with bearing fruit at all when we suffer from mental illness, addiction, and self-loathing. It is close to impossible to bear good fruit when we are constantly captivated by smart phones, social media, instant messaging, and the many other screens that consume our attention.
And that is why we pray. We pray the collect for the third Sunday in Lent in order to ask for help and remind ourselves that without God, we can do nothing to help ourselves. We are too frail, too broken, too tired, too overcommitted to do it all by ourselves. We are incapable of doing it alone. We need our God to keep us outwardly and inwardly. We need our God to dig around our roots and aerate our soil. We need our God to fertilize our soil in order that we might bear fruit worthy of the one who created us.
The Rev. Alina S. Williams is the Chaplain of the Upper School at Parish Episcopal School