Then he (Jesus) told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, `For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
” `Sir,’ the man replied, `leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’ “(Luke 13:6-9)
We live in an age where everything is disposable and is readily replaceable. In the past, things were made to last and to be used for decades. Houses have solid walls that break the nail if you should try to hammer it in. Nowadays, pieces of the wall will probably fall out when you do the same. In Japan, I have seen disposable hand phones used and discarded daily as a fashion statement. All it takes is to change the SIM card. We are all consumers in a throwaway age.
The attitude of disposable and replaceable items may have infiltrated into our culture concerning people. We see people as assets, commodities and investments. These are financial terms and underlie our perception of people as things that either add or take away value. Things are disposable and replaceable. People who do not meet the sales targets are dismissed with disdain to their abilities. Others who do not do well in examinations are shunted to the “poorer” classes. Handouts are given to the handicapped but rarely a job offer. And those who are over the retirement age are given a handshake, a watch, and shown the door (unless they own the company, of course!). Persons are judged by their abilities to achieve, pass examinations, physical capabilities and the social perception of the frailties of age. Persons that do not measure up are disposed of and replaced by others, who are expected to provide value.
The toxin of disposable and replaceable persons has also permeated into our churches and our spiritual life. Our spirituality has become one that demands fast results. Disciples of Jesus Christ are mass produced by completing the course requirements of classes in discipleship 101, 201, and 301. After an evangelistic rally, we “count decisions for Christ” as if totalling sales after a trade exhibition. A well known Christian leader estimates that 80% of stress to a pastor comes from 20% of the congregation. He advises that pastors should avoid these people. Instead pastors should only associate with those people who give them the least stress. No longer are Christian leaders advised to walk with those who do not shown any “signs of growth.” If after a short period together they do not show any changes, these leaders are advised to go to others who are more “receptive.” The early church fathers understood spiritual growth as a lifelong process of salvation. The modern church fathers however call for instant “conversion.” If there is not, send them away and not waste time with them. As the farm owner in the parable exclaims, “Why should it use up the soil!”
The man who took care of the vineyard is not willing to give up on the fig tree yet. He knows that for the fig tree to bear fruits there must be certain essentials; the loosening of the soil, the application of fertiliser, and time. These are essential ingredients in horticulture as it is in our spiritual life.
Much of our spiritual life is hidden below the surface of our everyday life, like the roots of a fig tree. Sometimes because of past bad experiences and some traumatic emotional issues, there are areas of our spiritual life that are tightly packed like the soil in the roots of some plants. These compact areas exclude oxygen, minerals and other nutrients that give life. These tightly packed areas make us feel safe because we do not have to face the demons in them. It is out of sight, and hopefully out of mind; these angers, bitterness, unforgiveness, and self-righteousness. These compact areas are known as the hardness of our hearts. Unfortunately, these compact areas exclude the love of Christ and stunt our spiritual growth. That is why, the farmer has to dig around the roots and loosen the soil so that adequate aeration and nutrients may reach the roots. In our spiritual life, we too have to release and drive off the demons of anger, bitterness, unforgiveness, and self-righteousness. The early church fathers call this the purgative stage of our spiritual growth. It is the loosening and shaking that prepares us for spiritual growth.
The farmer next adds fertiliser which provides the essential nutrients for growth. The nutrients of spiritual growth are the Word of God, the empowering of the Holy Spirit, and the Christian faith communities. The nutrition of the Word of God is not us reading, studying or memorising the written text. It is the Word of God reading, studying and memorising us! It is immersion and assimilation. This together with the empowering of the Holy Spirit is illuminative, which is the next stage of spiritual growth. Spiritual growth is relational and occurs within a Trinitarian shalom in a church community. The tree, the soil and the fertiliser become a holistic matrix of growth.
True growth takes time. It is important to recognise this. The man who takes care of the vineyard understands this, and thus is willing to stake his reputation with the vineyard owner. In spiritual growth there is nothing disposable. Everything that takes place is precious and irreplaceable. We cannot take away anything because everything that had happened to us, whether positive or negative, makes us who we are. Spiritual growth is when we redeem all our experiences by washing it with the blood of Christ. This transformative action takes time. The early church father recognises this stage as unitive in the sense that in our redemption, we unite with God.
Jesus Christ is the caretaker of the vineyard who has saved us from being marked for destruction by his saving work on the cross.
(1) Is there something you want to confess to God? Take some time off. In a quiet place, ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you the hardness of your heart. Write it down on a piece of paper. Pray for God to loosen it.
(2) How will you get the Word to read, study and memorise you?
(3) Being patient is one of the hardest part of spiritual growth. Pray to the Lord to give you patience.
Help me to know the hardness of my heart. Help me to loosen it, to break it up, and to expose it to the brightness of Your Light. Please help me to feed daily on Your Word, internalising and actualising it. Give me humility to learn from Your people. Make me sensitive to the prompting of Your Spirit. Lord, give me time to know You.