by Margie Van Duzer
Many years ago my pastor said to me, “Margie, there are two kinds of people in the world – truth people and mercy people. You are a truth person.” In other words, he was gently suggesting that I had some room to grow in mercy. I am quick to see my weaknesses and sin. Unfortunately, perhaps even a bit more quick to see the faults and sins of others. This is especially true for anyone who messes with my loved ones. I can quickly recall the horrible bedside manner of a medical expert who visited my son years ago. Or, that unfair treatment my other son received in the hands of a less than enlightened basketball coach. My kids have long since gotten over such slights. I have not. Mercy is not my strongest suit.
In one of my most recent grudge-holding moments, I came across a Eugene Peterson sermon* on Luke 13:6-9 – one of the fig tree parables. Now, I consider myself pretty familiar with the New Testament but somehow over the years I had missed this story. And in the wonderful way that only Peterson can do, he made the text come alive. I have now spent weeks pouring over and praying with this parable.
A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, “Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?” And he answered him, “Let it alone, sir, this year also, ‘til I dig about it and put on manure. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
And as I have lived with this story I find that I have moved around a bit.
I was first drawn to the owner. He had the instinctual response to cut the tree down. Of course cut it down! Who needs its ugly and totally unproductive presence? And, in my imagination, it’s not just unproductive, its counter-productive – its unhealthy state is causing a stench. Get rid of it. Get it out of here. Chop it down. I took pleasure in the idea of getting rid of the bad fig tree. If I could get rid of this fig tree (and of course by extension, the current object of my judgment who I believed was responsible for my yucky feelings and circumstances), then obviously all would be well.
Unfortunately (or fortunately?), that is not the end of the parable. And after a while I found myself migrating from the owner’s shoes into the shoes of the gardener. The parable continues with the gardener encouraging the owner to let it alone. Let it be. Darn. Okay. So I won’t cut it down. Still, I took some satisfaction in imagining manure being spread all around the fig tree. Some translations use the term fertilizer but manure is so much more vivid. It brought up memories of the cattle feed lot near my grandmother’s farm, where when the wind was right, the foul aroma could make my stomach lurch. I relished pouring that manure around the feet of the person who was the current target of my wrath and indignation. Yes, I could use my Ignatian imagination prayer exercise and really get into that image of the bad fig tree in a sea of manure doing its slow and smelly work. I could pray this. After all, I was praying Scripture.
All this is true. However, I could not read and re-read this passage without realizing that ultimately it was a parable connected to mercy and forgiveness. In fact, the Greek root word used in the gardener’s request to “let it alone,” is the same word used in the Lord ’s Prayer, “forgive us our sins….” I knew I was being reminded of the need to let go of holding on to my grudge, to be merciful and forgive. Yet, one thing is to pray that prayer out of obedience. It is another thing altogether to fully and emotionally enter into it. I could do the former, but not the latter.
This is where the last shift came. In my imagining the parable, and recognizing my inability to fully forgive, I began to imagine myself not as the owner or the gardener, but finally as the fig tree itself. Yes, I, too, am not producing the fruit, especially the forgiveness fruit, that God would ultimately desire from me. And part of my growth process involves welcoming the manure that the gardener wants to spread around me; manure that may not smell so great, but that is doing a deep work to make me a more healthy fig tree.
As I ponder this, I once again realize that it all comes back to surrendering myself to my loving gardener. A gardener who is patient and does not give up. I submit to God’s process of growing me in forgiveness. I can’t force it. I can’t make it happen. I can only humbly bring myself to God, submitting to what God sees as necessary for my growth in mercy.
I wish I could tell you I no longer need the manure, that I am a fully healthy fig tree. But remember, I am a truth person and so I cannot. But, by living into the truth of this parable, perhaps, just perhaps, I am growing a bit more in understanding about God and God’s mercy.
Margie Van Duzer
*Sermon from As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Eugene Peterson, pages 249-255.