Give It One More Year
Have you ever asked, "What difference does it make?" I spend half of my life building something, only to see it make very little, if any, progress against the overall darkness. What difference does my little job in my little corner of the world make anyway?
I found some unusual encouragement on this subject recently in Jesus' parable of the fig tree:
"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).
To farming-familiar ears, the gardener's response would have been surprising. Fruitless trees are not only worthless to an owner, they also cost him important space and nutrients needed by other crops. And three years is plenty of time for a fig tree to produce. Asking for a fourth makes no sense. Yet the gardener asks for a fourth. He shows mercy when mercy doesn't promise to make a difference.
Perhaps more unusual, I think the parable also offers an example of Jesus doing the right thing when he'd rather not. Consider the story's conflict: The owner wants the tree to be cut down; the gardener wants it to be redeemed. The owner wants to stop; the gardener wants to continue. Is it possible that Jesus could be both the owner and gardener in this parable? If so, how might it encourage us in our daily work?
Being fully man and fully God, Jesus is not "a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but . . . one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are . . . " (Heb. 4:15). In other words, he knows what it is like to be us. For example, Peter's rebuke in Matthew 16:23 elicited a response revealing the humanness of the Messiah: "Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me. . . . " Then again the following week, Jesus showed his frustration with the "unbelieving and perverse generation," asking "how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you" (Matt.17:17)? And at Gethsemane, he begged for the cup to be taken from him (Luke 22:42-44).
My work rarely feels this heavy, but our temptations and frustrations are at least related. They testify to an undesirable and universal weight that all of us feel. Even Jesus was tempted to quit too soon. Jesus was both the owner and gardener, but he didn't quit.
Jesus' humanity and divinity raises a practical question: When am I the owner who wants to quit, and when am I the gardener who presses on? Personally, I fluctuate from day to day. Not Jesus. Without exception, he chooses in the end to be the gardener. Whether I can see a difference in the work I've been called to do or not, he had his reasons for continuing to nurture me. He keeps requesting "one more year" for me. I need to do the same for others.
Questions for personal reflection, online discussion, or small groups:
- Are there people in your daily work who make you want to give up on them? How can you help these people grow instead?
- Practically speaking, not every employee or relationship can receive indefinite attention. How do you know when it is time to dig up a tree and move on?
- Consider your own fruitfulness. Does your behavior try the patience of those around you? Does it try God's patience?
- For more on this topic, read How to Love Annoying Coworkers.