The Manure Man
Jackson Snyder   June 19, 1996

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Luke 13:6-9

The Honey Wagon

   Baseball season just ended.  Many of us remember back to our youth and how we thought we might grow up to be big leaguers.  My brothers and I used to practice baseball all the time.  A farmer we knew, Farmer Rose, let us to practice in his cow pasture.  But the pasture had its drawbacks: it had cows and cow's manure -- piles and piles of it everywhere.  We used to use the dried "chips" for bases; but look out for the fresh ones!  They were dangerous, causing nasty slips and messy landings!

   Farmer Rose also raised feeder pigs, cattle and corn.  We could smell those pigs a little, but we couldn't tell where he kept 'em.  Until one day Farmer Rose drove his truck up, hopped out, and told us, "You betta get outta hya, boys.  Da honey wagon's comin' through."

   And out of a distant barn, we saw a tractor pulling a crazy contraption that we learned to be the honey wagon.  As we stood outside the fence, we noticed that the closer the honey wagon, the more intense the foul smell.  "That can't be a honey wagon - It don't smell like honey," I told Farmer Rose, who was standing with us ball players. He replied, "Ya dummy!  We call dis here wagon a 'honey wagon' cawse we fill 'er up with pig manure!" (He said sh@*!) I remarked, "That pig manure sure stinks mighty bad." But the farmer countered, "Not to me it don't -- to me it smell lok money." 

   I asked, "Are ya gonna dump the honey wagon in the crick?" "Grow up, kid." He put his gloved hand on my head.  "Dat honey's goin' on da vegetable gahden - gonna make 'em summer tomatas big and juicy."  When he took his hand from my head, I felt my hair, then smelled my hand, just to make sure he didn't leave any honey behind.

   That's how I learned from Farmer Rose that manure has great value as a fertilizer.  All the nutrients, sulfates, and nitrates in the manure combine with the soil to promote much greater plant growth than the soil alone might have.  Thousands of years before those "Big A" fertilizer trucks and their Ammonium Nitrate arrived on the scene, some poor old prehistoric donkey pulled a primitive honey wagon from the pig sty to the family garden, with a "manure man" walking close behind.

   It's hard to reminisce about playing baseball in my youth without remembering the wisdom of Farmer Rose, the foul smell of his pig manure-covered boots, and the great pains we boys took in avoiding the sloppy, smelly cow paddies in our mad dashes for home plate.

 

Interpreting the Text, Luke 13:6-9  
   Jesus was, in many ways, like Farmer Rose.  He was a real man -- a down-to-earth man -- a hard working man -- a man of the soil -- a man who knew how to work with his hands, how to raise animals, how to farm, how to turn the fruits of his labor into profit. And he knew that the simple folk around couldn't understand deep theological speculation; they didn't know exegesis from isogesis, doctrine from dogma, an epistle from an apostle, or a pericope from an apocraphy.  So he spoke to them in stories they could understand -- earthy stories -- hard-hitting stories -- stories that we call parables.  Stories that could be interpreted on two levels: a simple level for the theologically uneducated or disinterested, and a deeper level for those initiated into mysteries.

   Today's text features one of Jesus parables - a parable that has a meaning that can readily be understood by anyone who knows the purpose of a honey wagon, yet has a deep significance easily passed over.

Luke 13:6-9 (NRSV) Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. {7} So he said to the gardener, '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 spoiling the ground? {8} He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. {9} If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"

   Jesus is in a synagogue preaching on the Sabbath, or Saturday.  He is preaching his way to Jerusalem, where he will finish his tour.  Synagogues were buildings where Jews would gather on the Sabbath to hear teaching.  "Synagogue" and "church" are synonymous – they perform the same function.

 

The Story of the Vintner and the Gardener

   Jesus tells the story of a vintner and his vineyard; there is a fig tree in the midst of the grape vines.  Obviously, the fig is out of place - grapevines are to grow in a vineyard, not figs.  The vintner did not plant this tree in his vineyard, but someone else did, we don't know who planted.  He complains about this tree to his hired man, the gardener.  The fig tree hasn't had fruit for years.  In fact, not only is it barren, but it's spoiling the ground for the grapevines.  The vintner gives the gardener a strong order, "Cut ‘er down!"

   But the gardener, who is closer to the soil, who loves this out-of-place fig for its shade and fruit in past years pleads for it.  He tells the vintner, "Leave it just this year -- I'll dig and bring the honey wagon ‘round and throw some manure on it; see if that doesn't do the trick.  If not, we’ll cut ‘er down."  (Proverbs 27:18: Anyone who tends a fig tree will eat its fruit, and anyone who takes care of a master will be honored.)

 

Interpreting the Story

   Cursory readings of the parable give us some advice about how to coax figs out of a barren tree -- fertilize it and see what happens.  But the deeper meaning must be ferreted out through careful reading and spiritual insight. The vintner represents the Yahweh the Creator.  The vineyard represents the people he cares for. The fig tree is more difficult; but when we see it in light of Jeremiah chapter 8, we know that fig stands for the legalistic, idolatrous, and dead religion of the scribes and Pharisees, in whose churches he was preaching, and whose denominational center was the ill-fated temple in Jerusalem.  The fruit of the fig tree represents fruit of this dead belief system – for there is absolutely no fruit at all, and there hadn't been for years.  The "manure man" is Jesus, and the manure is his nourishing Word.

   The parable is saying, in essence, that God would command the destruction of the religion of the legalistic Pharisees and scribes, and their temple -- for it was yielding no fruit whatsoever.  Not only was it unproductive but such religion was "spoiling the ground" for those who sincerely desired to grow in grace.  Through their traditions and rulebooks, these religious highbrows "loaded folks down with heavy burdens, and would never lift a finger to help."  Although they have all the trappings of being godly -- they wear the right clothes, say the right things, run with the "in crowd" and are hailed by the people as being righteous -- their religion was a false and ungodly sham, and they themselves were no better than devils masquerading as angels of light.

   Yet Jesus intercedes for even blind Pharisees.  He offers his blessed and liberating word to ALL that will hear.  Words such as "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled."  Words such as "Your sins are forgiven - take up your bed and walk."  Words such as "You will receive power after the Holy Spirit comes upon you."  Words such as these and the spiritual power behind them are the fertilizer that makes for abundant fruit.  Words such as these and the spiritual power behind them are the wonderful words of life we sing about in our time!

   Yet the very ones who the Father and Son most wanted to reach with light and life -- these religious masqueraders – wouldn’t hear him. Instead, they plotted and planned his death in hope of forever keeping the yearning masses from receiving the life-changing good news.

 

Jesus Was an Outsider

   You see, the religious leaders didn't like Jesus, the manure man, not because he broke Yahweh's laws, but because he broke their denominational rules.  Yes!  That’s right.  Jesus was a rebellious outsider from the faith.  They called him a demon-possessed wino; he hung around with the wrong crowd -- sinners, tax collectors, godless Samaritans, shady women, much younger men; he was ritually unclean, he touched the untouchable, like lepers; he carried disease, prayed for prisoners without a permit, worked miracles on the Sabbath, he drank blood and ate flesh, he didn't wash his hands before he ate it and drank, he left his candy bar on the toilet tank, he spurned all their social values; he was a religious heretic, an ultra-liberal, a cult leader -- he interpreted the Law in non-traditional ways, he contradicted their hero Moses over and over again, he wore the robes of a teacher, but he never graduated from the right seminary;  he was violent, and violently against their system of sacrificing animals, he overthrew their finance tables, he criticized them at every turn, he was consumed with zeal; and he even dared to commit blasphemy by forgiving sins, even those of a convicted adulteress who deserved to be stoned!

   It’s no wonder he was rejected by every established religious denomination of his day.  He was rejected by the Pharisees -- they thought he was too liberal; the Sadducees -- they thought he was too conservative; the Essenes -- they thought he was too radical; the Zealots -- they thought he was a wimp; the Herodians -- they thought he was too lean and mean; the Gnostics -- they thought he wasn’t real.  He was rejected by the fundamentalists, the liberals, the pagans, the heathens, the evangelicals, the neo-evangelicals, the orthodox, the neo-orthodox, the post-orthodox, the conservatives, the ultra-conservatives, the radical fringe, the dispensationalists, the denominationalists, the Calvinists, the secular humanists, the social elites, the old-liners, the main-liners, the free-willers, the free-lighters, the new-lighters.  All these dry, dead, religious groups rejected him.  Why?  Because unlike Farmer Rose, these religious phonies were so criminally entrenched in their “religion” that they wouldn't know the value of good manure if it slopped 'em in the face.

   Jesus does not definitively end the parable, but history does, Yahweh does.  We learn from secular history that the Lord Sabaoth yanked that worthless, barren, fig tree up by the roots and scattered the rotten dried up figs in 70 AD, when he made a destructive public appearance after his resurrection.

 

Now Let's Bring This Parable From Jesus' Time Into Today 

   Nothing much has changed in 2000 years.  The temple and the synagogue have become church buildings.  Even Jesus' New Covenant has become a codified, rarified and mortified instead of remaining a living word of faith.  His fertilizer has been mined into a moneymaking enterprise.  Christianity is big business.  The Scribes have become seminary professors; the Sadducees, professional "ordained" clergy; the Pharisees, TV evangelists and authors of popular books on fig tree horticulture, many of who are full manure and not the type that fertilizes, but only stinks. 

 

Trees Trashed

   When Jesus reached Jerusalem, right after he prophesied that the temple would be destroyed, he tells another parable of the fig tree, one that points to a sign for our times.

Luke 21:29-31,34-36 (NIV)   "Look at the fig tree and all the trees. {30} When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. {31} Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near." {34} "Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap. {35} For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth. {36} Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man."

   Yes, there are now many old, barren fig trees in the vineyard, more even than in Jesus' day.  But now, in what has become the end of the world, as we have known it, some barren figs are beginning to sprout leaves and fruit.  Some the trees have even been found in the desert, all gnarled with age, but now with a leaf here, a fig there, and olive somewhere else.  Trees that have never before produced fruit are beginning to bloom forth.  And this is one of the final signs of the coming of the Lord of the vineyard.  Soon, he will be driving along in his little ol’ backhoe and yanking all the fruitless figs from the ground they are spoiling, figs weighed down with decadence and anxiety, spoiled by modernism and heresy, ruined by vast sums of money and great popularity.  Yahweh Sabaoth will close in on them like a trap so fast that and they will not know who uprooted them.  He will accomplish this feat today, tomorrow, or the next day, whenever he feels like it.

 

Revolution 

   You may wonder, am I advocating that we revolt against the tradition of our church for the sake of being a radical new idea?  Should we leave the denomination so we can find some better soil?  No, I'm not saying that at all.  The Methodist Church is a good place to be.  Even a busted clock tells the right time twice a day.  The revolution we the people of God in this church need is not temporal, but spiritual, an event that used to be called "a Holy Ghost Revival."  (And we’ve been having that on Thursday nights.  All the gifts are flowing now in the cell group!)  Yet although the church and its institutions are the modern-day counterpart of the dead fig tree, they will remain in the vineyard by the design of the Lord of the Harvest; they will continue to be fertilized by the Word; until they either yield fruit or they are burned up to make room. 

   One of the great dangers signs for the believer or the church is to become comfortable in your personal traditions when the signs of the coming of the Son of Man are so obvious in these days.  You can stick by your guns and proclaim, “We’ve never done it that way before.”  But honey, when HE does a new thing, either you get on board or you miss the boat.  It’s as simple as that.  The boat is fixin’ to set sail from this church right now.  ALL ABOARD! 

   Don't get too comfortable in your religion!  Be alert!  Watch and wait!  Stand your Post!  Abide in the vine.  And get to work for the coming Kingdom.

 

Another Parable And Call To Discipleship

   Here’s another quick parable.  In Hampton Court near London, there is a grapevine under glass; it’s over a thousand years old and has only one root; it’s two feet in diameter.  Some of the branches are 200 feet long.  Because of the skill of the gardener, the vine produces several tons of grapes each year.  Even though some of the smaller branches are 200 feet from the main stem, they bear much fruit because they are joined to the vine and allow the life of the vine to flow through them.   A thousand year old vine bearing fruit 2000 feet from the root.

   Friends, get connected to the old vine; be nurtured by the great farmer.  Get off the old-line and on the mainline!  Be fruitful before history repeats itself in these last days, and this little fig tree of a church ends up without one stone left upon the other.  Jesus is moving mightily in this church.  Make a new commitment.  Do the right thing.  Seek Christ in spirit and in truth, not in your dead traditions or in some way you learned 40 years ago.  Find out what the Spirit is doing HERE AND NOW!   Let the great gardener fertilize your spiritual ecosystem.  Let Jesus' Word be the "Miracle Grow" upon which your biological and spiritual life is nourished.  Become branches of the true vine, and, like the grapevine in Hampton Court, live for a thousand years.

 

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