The other day, God challenged me from his parable of the fig tree in Luke 13. “What fruit have you borne me,” He asked me. I feel the need to quote the parable.
He also spoke this parable: “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’ But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.’”
His question caught me completely off guard. I’ve spent so much of my time and energy working on being faithful to the obligations before me that I haven’t paid attention to the fruit of my faithfulness. I’ve been working hard in my garden. I’ve been planning and planting and watering and planting some more, and tilling and weeding, and planting some more. It never occurred to me to see if there were any veggies for me to pick.
What kind of a gardener never picks his veggies, never looks to see if he has veggies to pick? A fair answer might be “a stupid one.”
God describes Himself as a gardener, and He makes it abundantly clear that He’s looking for fruit. Remember the other fig tree? When Jesus was coming into the city, He was looking for figs, and He was pretty upset when He couldn’t find any. He took out the fig tree. He killed the tree because it wasn’t producing any fruit.
Now I already know that most commentators talk about how that other fig tree was a prophetic picture of how Israel had lost its place of fruitfulness to the new work that was “coming into the city”: the church. Yada yada yada. My point is that He’s looking for fruit. He’s expecting fruit.
I’m raising some spectacular kids, but they’re bringing some remarkably ugly philosophy home from the public schools. One of the worst is this: “You don’t have to be concerned if you can’t do it, you just need to try your best.”
Yes, there’s some room for grace when we’re dealing with little kids. But we hang onto that mentality: It doesn’t matter if I succeed or not, as long as I’m doing my best. (This is best when said with an indulgent smile, almost a sneer.)
That attitude makes good garden fertilizer.
What employee among us would keep our job if we continually said to our boss, “I gave it my best, boss, but I just couldn’t do it.” What coach would keep us on the team if we continually made excuses for why we weren’t keeping the other guy from outscoring us?
And yet we say that to God all the time. And unlike the boss – who will fire us – or the coach – who will kick us off the team, we expect God to not only keep us on His team (which He will) but to give us His best blessings! Fortunately, our relationship with the Creator and Redeemer of All Humanity is not based even a little bit on what we can produce.
On the other hand, a relationship grown in grace doesn’t give me permission to not produce fruit. The excuse of “I gave it my best” doesn’t work with Him. He doesn’t want my best anyway. He didn’t pour the resources of Heaven into my person so that I could ignore the Power of the Almighty and use my pitiful little muscles, my pitiful little will? (Someone has said, “Do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place? Do you think that's air you're breathing now?”)
I can hear the boss now: “Son, why isn’t that foundation prepared by now/” “Well, Sir, I just couldn’t dig that well. The soil is so hard, and my hands hurt. I tried my best!” “Son, why aren’t you using my backhoe for that? And I’ve already assigned Fred and his bulldozer to help you. Why are you not making use of him?” I’m guessing that I wouldn’t keep that job too long if I held that mindset.
And He doesn’t seem to care if we think He’s being fair about it. The fig tree that He killed because it had no fruit: it wasn’t the fig season, and yet He seemed to think He could expect figs. In the parable of the talents, He says this about Himself: “… I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed.”
So God is challenging me about fruit. If I am not producing fruit, it is because I am either using my muscles, or I am not doing the work for which He has called me, or I am not paying attention to what’s growing on the vine where I am working, perhaps.
So what’s the consequence of not bearing fruit? “So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. ‘For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Yikes. If I am not bearing fruit, then the things that God has given me, the seed (to return to the metaphor of the garden) will be taken from me and given to someone who actually produces fruit. I’m afraid to look too closely into that “weeping and gnashing of teeth” phrase, but I can tell you that I don’t want to see it first hand!
Fortunately, fruit-bearing is not a case where the final exam is 100% of the final grade. In the Luke 13 passage, the Master comes looking for figs – for the third year in a row- and finds no figs, no fruit. Since this is the third year of fruitlessness, he’s upset because the tree is using up the ground and giving nothing in return. He issues orders to cut the tree down, but the Gardner, Jesus, interrupts Him and says, “Hang on, let me till around it and see if I can get some fruitfulness out of it this year. Otherwise, let’s cut it down next year if it’s still fruitless.”
So I have a chance: if my garden shows lots of activity, but not much fruit, then I have opportunity to clean some things up and take another run at fruitfulness. If I haven’t brought much into the storehouse yet, if Father hasn’t been pleased with the fruit He finds on me, I can submit to Jesus’ digging around my roots and filling it with crap (which He calls fertilizer) and I can grow some fruit. I can pull my talents out of the ground and find someplace to invest them. I can begin looking at my garden for fruit, not just work to do.