March 3, 2013
There’s something about fruit that’s … well … inherently fruity. The sight of a resplendent bowl full of lascivious bananas, cherries, oranges and other tropical treats is a feast for the eyes, and a promise of tasty plenitude. Fruits’ whole evolutionary purpose is sensual and sexual – they tempt us (and other animals) to eat them with their fabulous colors and sexy shapes so that they can then spread their cleverly hidden seed packets around the world and reproduce. There’s a reason the serpent tempted Eve with fruit of the forbidden tree - as opposed to forbidden Brussels sprouts or broccoli: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” (Genesis 3:6).
As fruits go, figs are particularly naughty. To begin with, we have their use as Adam and Eve’s impromptu clothing of choice to cover themselves up when they realized they were naked. Even today, the term “fig leaf” is a colloquialism for something meant to hastily cover something naughty up. In pagan Greek and Roman culture, figs were associated with Dionysus/Bacchus, the god of wine and drunkenness. They were also related to Priapus, a satyr associated with physical desire. In Mediterranean countries today (including Greece), “the fig” is known as an obscene gesture, whereby the thumb pokes out from between the index and middle finger (mimicking female genitalia).
Given figs’ image, it is interesting that they have a prominent place in thie week’s Gospel reading, the “Parable of the Fig Tree.” The parable begins, “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard … ” (Luke 13:6). This “intro” – to 1st Century listeners – would have been kind of like the sentence “A drag queen walks into a church …” In addition to its naughty reputation (which Luke – an educated Greek – would have been aware of), a 30-foot fig tree with hairy, leathery leaves about a foot long would have stuck out like a sore thumb in a stately, well-ordered vineyard. Having a fig tree planted in your vineyard is kind of like inviting a drag queen to a monastery – things are going to get very … colorful.
So back to Luke’s fig tree … the vineyard owner in the parable complains to his gardener that the tree has not produced fruit: “See here! 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?” (vv.7). After doing a little research on fig trees and vineyards, I came to the conclusion that the two are more or less incompatible. To begin with, fig trees like to promiscuously spread out their roots (“very invasive”), which would be very troubling to finicky, high-maintenance grape plants in their neat rows: ”The area surrounding the vineyard should be clear of all trees and brush,” meaning fig trees are right out, particularly in the middle of the vineyard (“Ron’s Top Ten List of Viticultural Mistakes“). Secondly, if a fig tree’s roots (which are near the surface) are damaged, it will not bear fruit. Tromping all around the fig tree, doing vineyard maintenance, is likely to do just that. So the vineyard owner is expecting fruit out of a tree that he has put in the completely wrong place. First Century listeners (who were likely farmers, or at least familiar with farming) would be thinking, “The man’s an idiot”.
When we are planted in the wrong place, it’s hard for us to bear fruit too. We can go along to get along, trying 100 different ways to be something we aren’t – and we may even get good at it – but we won’t fully flower, blossom and bear our fabulous, freaky fruit. We’ll be a barren fig tree trying to be a grape vine. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) people raised in homophobic environments know exactly what that cramped, unhappy fig tree feels like. Luckily, the wise gardener offers some helpful advice to the landowner: “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down” (vv.8-9). In a graceless, punitive society, Christ is the one bargaining for us for safe space and time. Sexual minorities in particular need spaces where we can be ourselves and safely confront and transform the s___ that gets dumped on us. In Washington, DC, the Wanda Alston House offers homeless LGBT youth a safe place to stay, regroup, and begin their lives again. Spaces like this are needed in every city, where rejected LGBT youth frequently end up on the street.
This Lent, let’s think about the ways that we are trying to thrive in hostile environments. Are we expecting ourselves to be just like everyone around us so we can get along? Do we need to draw a safe perimeter around us so we can thrive? Are there people in our communities who need safe environments? There is more to life than just surviving. We all need to access our Inner Fabulous so we can be fully flowering, fruitful (and fruity!) trees. And you don’t have to be LGBT to be fabulously fruity - we just happen to have a little extra practice.