Luke 13:6-9 (NRSV)
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
6 Then Jesus 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 wasting the soil?’ 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.’”
IF JESUS’ parables were songs, I don’t think that the parable of the barren fig tree would have made it in onto his ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation. Its tone and trajectory often make people uncomfortable. Reading it through Western eyes in the twenty-first century, in particular, makes it ripe for misinterpretation. It’s hard to look past our first impression — that this is a story about a man who is angry at a tree.
But it’s so much more than that.
To begin with, fig trees were often used as a symbol of the nation of Israel, just as poets might write of a shamrock to represent Ireland or a rose to represent England. So Jesus’ audience would not have had to dig deep
to figure out what he was talking about. This is a parable about his people, their purpose and their potential. The vineyard owner represents God, the gardener represents Jesus, and the three years of barrenness can be taken to refer to the three years between Jesus’ baptism and his death. So the time for fruitfulness is getting short!
While one might get the impression that the vineyard owner is obsessed with efficiency and productivity, if he were, he would not have planted a fig tree in a vineyard in the first place. Fig trees have big branches and deep roots that require space and nourishment. The owner wants the fig tree to be there. He creates space for it and wants it to flourish, just as he wants that for us.
But his frustration is well-founded. Year after year he has returned to the fig tree only to find that this deeply rooted tree that draws sustenance, water and nutrients from his ground uses all this energy and yet never turns it into anything that might nourish others - however much the gardener cares for it.
When we understand the world in which Jesus was speaking, what seems like an unreasonable outburst from a disgruntled landowner becomes a dynamic conversation between the one who owns the land and the one who tends to it about how to remedy the imbalance between what the tree absorbs and what it has the capacity to produce. It’s a conversation that I sometimes wonder whether God the Father and Jesus might have about me — and perhaps about all of us.
It can be so easy to focus on where we are planted and to define ourselves by the places in which our roots find sustenance — roots like my socio-economic background, my family, my educational opportunities and my supporting community. Repentance invites us to shift our focus from what we consume and where we are planted to what we produce and where we are called. When Jesus told this parable, he was looking around at the Jewish people and inviting them to return to their original blessing and calling. God promised Abraham to make his descendants a blessing to all nations. They were not blessed to the exclusion of the rest of the world but for the sake of the world. And so are we.
13:6 - The fig tree is the third tree to be mentioned in the Bible. The first two are the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. Once Adam and Eve have eaten from the tree of knowledge, they see their nakedness and cover themselves with fig leaves. (Genesis 3)
13:7-9 - The conversation between the landowner and the gardener mirrors God’s conversation with Moses after Israel had turned away from God and worshipped the golden calf in Exodus 32. Taking these two passages together, we can see Jesus as the gardener and like a new Moses, interceding on behalf of the people and revealing his patience, grace and mercy.
What was your first reaction when reading this story? How did you feel about the landowner’s attitude to the fig tree? What about the gardener’s response?
Do you think you experience an imbalance between what you receive from God and what you give to the world? In what ways are you challenged to examine what your life produces?
In what ways do we as churches and people of faith receive sustenance, energy or resources that don’t become a blessing to the world around us?
In light of this challenging passage, what could repentance look like for you?
What practical resolutions could you make this Lent to share the ways in which you have been blessed with your community?
Spend a few minutes in silence reflecting on all the things that you have been given that you feel grateful for.
Thank God for all that you have received and for all the ways in which he has been active in your life.
Pray that God would give you the compassion and desire to share your blessings with others. Ask for him to guide you and your community to bear fruit in a way that reveals his love, goodness and care for the world.
Scott Evans is the Church of Ireland chaplain to University College Dublin, producer of The Graveyard Shift Podcast and co-founder of Paradoxology, a prayer space at Ireland’s Electric Picnic music festival. He grew up in Bangladesh and his life has been a series of crazy decisions, odd adventures and bad haircuts. He is also the author of 3 books, Closer Still, Beautiful Attitudes and Failing From The Front (& Other Lessons From The Lives of Losers.) He loves Vietnamese food, coffee, writing, Aston Villa and Jesus.