September 26, 2021 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – 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. 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 wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘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.’”
Manure is not particularly pleasant, but it helps trees and other plants to be fruitful. Similarly, there are things that function rather like manure in our lives, things we don’t enjoy but that help us to grow and be productive. We need the Lord’s help to engage in practices that form our lives in positive ways even though we experience them negatively. May God help us to engage with “manure” so that we might bear much fruit and glorify God (John 15:8).
Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.
When it comes to blunt literalness, the NRSV wins the prize for its translation of Luke 13:8. Whereas many recent translations prefer a more polite “fertilizer,” the NRSV goes with “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.” The Greek word translated here as “manure” (koprion) had the basic meaning of “dung” or “excrement.” Koprion functioned as fertilizer, of course. But the word referred to what animals left behind in the field after they had eaten, whether it was used as fertilizer or not.
This “manure” shows up in a short parable of Jesus. A man planted a fig tree and was angry when it failed to produce figs. He told his gardener to cut down the tree, but the gardener interceded on behalf of the tree, offering to put manure in the ground around the tree in hopes of helping it to be fruitful. Thus endeth the parable.
As I reflected on this passage from Luke, I found myself wondering “What is my manure?” At first I was more in the “fertilizer camp,” wondering what helps me to bear fruit in life. But then I moved over to the “manure camp.” I started pondering the question “What unpleasant things help me to be fruitful?” Manure, after all, is a rather distasteful thing. But, in spite of this fact, it turns out to have a significantly positive impact when worked into the soil around a tree. Unsavory manure is a crucial ingredient in fruitfulness.
What would be an example of “manure” in my life? What unpleasant things have helped me to be fruitful? I think, for example, of studying languages while in graduate school. My PhD program in New Testament required me to achieve competency in at least six languages (biblical Greek, biblical Hebrew, Latin, Aramaic, academic French, and academic German, in addition to English). Some of my fellow students were genuine linguaphiles, that is, people who love learning languages. But I was not. I received no pleasure from investing hundreds of hours memorizing vocabulary, sorting out grammar, and struggling to translate obscure sentences.
But, the “manure” of language study helped me to be fruitful in ways I truly valued. In particular, learning Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic enabled me to understand the Bible more truly and interpret it more accurately. (Don’t you wish you knew the literal meaning of koprion? Well, maybe that’s not a great example. Never mind.)
Why is it valuable to identify the “manure” in our lives? Because this can help us do things or endure things that we don’t enjoy, but that help us to be fruitful. I expect there are things you need to do at work or at home that aren’t what you prefer, even though they lead to a beneficial payoff. Moreover, identifying the unpleasant experiences that add value to our lives can also help us to be grateful. When I look back on the language study I did in grad school, for example, I feel thankful for God’s help in getting me through something that I found tedious and irksome.
Sometimes the practices that help us grow spiritually can feel rather like manure. Though we don’t enjoy them, we do them because we know how important they are in our formation. I will confess, for example, that I don’t particularly like memorizing passages of Scripture. This sort of memorization doesn’t come easily to me. Yet, when I finally internalize the words of a key biblical text, I’m glad I invested so much time and effort in a practice I don’t especially relish.
As I wrap up today’s devotion, I want to ask you some simple questions. See if these help you to think in new ways about the “manure” in your life.
What is your “manure”? What things or experiences that you don’t enjoy help you to be fruitful in life?
Can you think of “manure” that helps you to flourish in your work? In your spiritual life? In your relationships? In your personal well-being?
Is there a kind of “manure” that you’re avoiding, even though you know you should engage with it?
Talk with a wise friend or with your small group about the “manure” in your life. See what you learn about yourself and others through this conversation.
Lord Jesus, I know that sometimes I’m like the fig tree in today’s parable. I fail to bear fruit because of the absence of “manure” in my life. Forgive me, Lord.
Help me, I pray, to do the things that will enable me to be fruitful, even when I don’t enjoy them. By your Spirit, may I have the discipline to engage in practices that lead to fruitfulness. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Give It One More Year
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Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.