6Then 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.
Several years ago when I was serving an inner city parish in Detroit, I was on a committee that had to decide what to do with one of the other parishes in the city. Partly this was about the allocation of mission dollars: should we continue to support this parish or let it die?
I was pretty passionate about the closing city parishes. Detroit at the time was in the midst of a terrible recession. The Lutheran church had once had many thriving parishes in the city, but as white flight occurred in the 60’s and 70’s, congregations moved – or closed up shop as their people moved. One congregation went from 1,500 to 500 members in the single year of 1967.
Detroit was dotted with buildings that had once been Lutheran congregations. My local precinct was one of “ours” that had closed up and sold its building to a Baptist church. I drove by another every time I came off the freeway. There was a former Danish church I passed regularly whose distinctive Danish architecture was a painful reminder every time I saw it. I read somewhere that the old Roman rite for closing a parish required the bishop to take an ax to the altar and thought were should make our bishop do the same every time he or she closed a parish – to make visible the wound to the body of Christ and its ministry in that place.
But then there was this parish we were examining. We recognized the blow to the ministry of this congregation when half the homes in its parish were bulldozed to create a freeway, but that was not the only problem. As we examined the life of the congregation itself, we came to the simple realization that “there were no fruits of the Spirit there.” There were a few people (bickering people), and regular worship, but no “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,” no feeding of the hungry and clothing of the naked and care for the sick.
“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?’”
We closed the parish. It was the right decision…just painful to admit.
Jesus is looking at the leadership of the nation – a fig tree sucking up the nutrients from the soil of God’s vineyard and giving back nothing. Jesus could see the future of a city that failed to live God’s reign, that failed to do justice and mercy, to show fidelity to God and one another. He could see that Rome would come and blood would flow in the temple, even as the Galileans had been struck down. He could see that the towers would fall when Rome breached the walls and thousands would perish. He weeps for a city that rejects God’s voice.
God looks for fruit from his fig tree. God looks for fruit from his vineyard. God looks for his harvest from the tenants of his vineyard. God looks for justice and mercy from his church. God looks for justice and mercy from all people.
The warning that Jesus gave to Jerusalem abides. Those who take up the soil without returning fruit abide on dangerous ground. Jesus our gardener, pleads for more time, but now is the time to turn to the life where God’s Spirit rules.