Just give me one more chance! This, of course, is the desperate plea that a mother or father hears when one of their children is trying to maneuver their way out of a particular consequence or punishment. And every parent knows the litany of excuses. I didn’t really mean to hit my brother. It’s not my fault the ball bounced and hit the lamp off the table. I promise, I was going to clean up that mess eventually. Just give me one more chance!
But, you know, I think throughout our lives, we frequently find ourselves making the same desperate plea. In those moments when we know an opportunity has passed us by and it will likely not return again. When we know we have broken a promise or left commitments unfulfilled. When we know we have hurt someone we love. Those are the moments when that desperate plea rises up inside of each one of us and we cry out, “just give me one more chance!”
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples what is traditionally called “The Parable of the Unproductive Fig Tree.” But I think we could just as easily call this “The Parable of Just One More Chance.” According to the parable, there is a landowner, a fig tree, and a gardener. The landowner has planted a fig tree in his vineyard. For three years the landowner has come looking for fruit but found none. Now the reality is that this fig tree is probably even older than three years because according to Old Testament law, the first three years of a tree’s growth were allowed to elapse before the fruit was even considered clean. So, the landowner would not have been looking for fruit during those first three years. Now the landowner has been looking for fruit for an additional three years, which means that this tree is likely at least six years old – three years to mature and develop and then three additional years to bear fruit. From an agricultural perspective, this tree has had ample time to grow and develop and bear fruit and yet there is still no fruit. So, we can understand why the landowner has grown angry and impatient and simply wants to chop the tree down and get rid of it. When it comes to his vast vineyard, this one tree is just wasting the soil.
But here is when the gardener enters the scene. The gardener listens to the landowner’s complaint and remarkably he defends the tree and pleads for “just one more chance.” Even though the tree hasn’t done anything in six years, the gardener says leave it alone for one more year. And that’s not all, the gardener wants to dig around the tree and fertilize the tree in order to promote growth and fruitfulness. Now you have to understand that fig trees were known to be aggressive plants that actually deprived surrounding plants of nutrients. Nobody fertilized a fig tree. That would have been considered excessive and perhaps even unnecessary. And so, what the gardener is suggesting is that this unproductive tree should not only be given another chance, but that special care and special attention should be provided beyond what would normally be given.
So, what do we make of this parable? A landowner, a fig tree, and a gardener. Some people have looked at this parable and assumed that we are the fig tree and that God is the landowner who has come searching for fruitfulness in our lives. And when he finds no fruit, significant consequences will ensue. The problem with this interpretation is that God is seemingly depicted as the one who angry and impatient, the one comes to judge and condemn and ultimately has to be convinced to show mercy and be persuaded to give us another chance. This doesn’t jive with the picture of God that we see throughout Luke’s gospel account. Luke tells us that God is like a Father who runs out to meet his prodigal son while he still a long way from home. God is like a woman who throws an extravagant party when she finds her one lost coin. God is depicted as the One who rejoices in showing mercy, not as One who has to be convinced or persuaded to give just one more chance.
So, perhaps what we need to do is to turn this parable around, so we can see it from a slightly different angle. Perhapswhen we turn this parable around what we find is that the landowner is us. Perhaps we are the ones who have grown angry and impatient with the fruitlessness in our lives and in the lives of others. Perhaps we are the ones who are swift to judge and condemn and quick to enact punishment. Perhaps we are the ones who are frequently unwilling to offer another chance. Think about it. When it comes to our relationships, or our jobs, or our ministry, or even our own sense of value and purpose in life – how often have we been like the landowner? How often have we been angry, frustrated, resentful, ready to cut things off and move on, unwilling to offer another chance? Or perhaps we have been the one denied another chance by someone else. In either case, the angry, frustrated landowner seems to represent our typical human response when things are not working in our lives.
But the gardener offers a different perspective. Despite the fact that this tree is barren and has consistently failed to bear fruit, the gardener is the One who says let’s not cut it down, but let’s take extraordinary measures to ensure that it has everything it needs to bear fruit. The gardener is the One who has mercy and who offers the tree another chance. Now that sounds a lot like God, doesn’t it? God enters into the barren places of our lives, not to cut down and destroy, not to judge and condemn, but to offer the gift of new life, to ensure that we have everything we need to be fruitful and whole and fully alive.
We, like the landowner are often angry and impatient, quick to judge and enact punishment. But God, like the gardener, enters into the barren, unfruitful, desperate places of our lives in order to offer another chance.
Now within the context of Luke’s gospel, this parable serves as an illustration of the nature of repentance. Some have read this parable and come to the conclusion that what Jesus is saying is “don’t be like the unproductive fig tree” – repent and bear fruit or else. But perhaps what Jesus is saying is don’t be like the landowner. Perhaps the message of repentance that is found in this parable is that we are called to be less like the landowner and more like the gardener. If repentance literally means to turn around, then this parable challenges us to turn away from anger and impatience, to turn away from judgment and condemnation, and instead turn to look at the face of the gardener.
The One who doesn’t give up on us.
The One who provides what we need to live abundant life.
The One who declares the year of the Lord’s favor.
The One who offers another chance.