Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The Unproductive Fig Tree


Luke 13:6-9

The fig tree is a common fruit tree in Palestine. It is referred to more than sixty times in the Bible. It bore fruit ten months of the year with the early figs emerging in the spring before the leaves appeared. Fruit trees do not ordinarily produce fruit for three years after the young saplings have been put in the ground. Consequently, the three years that figs were expected in the Parable of the Unproductive Fig Tree would be the fourth, fifth, and sixth year after the tree was planted.

The fig tree in this story had produced no fruit for three years. A fig tree is planted not for shade or ornament or for any other purpose other than to bear fruit. So when the owner saw no fruit on it for three successive seasons, 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?"

But the gardener who had cultivated that tree with special care pled in its behalf, "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." Even the patient gardener would agree that the tree must be cut down if it failed to bear fruit the next year, especially after giving it additional care.

The parable ends there. We are not told whether the tree bore fruit the next year or not. What is important in this parable is that the fig tree was given special attention. It is also important to note that the fig tree took up precious space in the vineyard. Since only one fig tree is mentioned special care must have been taken to plant it where the fig tree would do well. So not only did the tree reduce the number of grape vines the vineyard could support, this unproductive tree was "wasting the soil", using up its nutrients without producing anything in return.

I have a small garden and in my garden I have planted fruit trees. While these trees are maturing, they receive a great deal of my attention. They are watered, fertilized, pruned and examined carefully for any disease or defect. However, because I have a limited amount of space, if the mature tree produces no timely fruit, I remove it.

The care the gardener planned to give it during the following year was no doubt the care it had during the three previous years. He had cultivated and fertilized it more than he would a mature tree because he was inducing it to produce fruit. In light of his previous efforts, his attitude was astonishing. He volunteered to expend another year of effort on a tree that showed no promise of ever producing fruit. The attitude of the owner was also surprising. He had a great deal to lose in terms of hired labor, fertilizer, and productive land.

The intervention of the gardener and the patience of the owner after three fruitless years are difficult for me to understand. Yet such is the loving concern and patient tolerance of God.

In the parable of the wicked tenants (Matt 21:33-44), Jesus tells the story of the owner of another vineyard who, at great cost to himself, gave his tenants three opportunities to collect the fruit that was rightfully his. This parable, considered at length in the next chapter, gives us a hint as to the fate of the fig tree in the first parable.

The three fruitless years in the first parable and the three opportunities for the tenants to produce the required harvest in the second, represent God's longsuffering attempts to give the nation of Israel a chance to "bear fruit", to demonstrate that a nation could exist governed by the two great principles that provided the foundation of their own, God given legal system: love of God and loving service to humankind. Prophets like Isaiah, Amos, and Jeremiah faithfully provided a "Thus saith the Lord", but their messages were not heeded. Jesus' words recorded in Matthew 23: 37-38 make clear the consequences of Israel's failure to respond to the Heavenly Landowner's special and patient attention.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate.

One of the adjectives attributed to God in the Bible is "longsuffering". For 1500 years, the time between the Exodus and the time of Jesus, God put up with a great deal from his "chosen people". Discrimination, anarchy, idolatry, arrogance, and legalism are faithfully chronicled in both the Old and New Testament. In spite of these failures, God gave Israel a fourth and final "year".

While these parables speak specifically to the plight of the Jewish nation in the time of Jesus, they have a universal and timeless application. Given the 2000-year history of the world since these parables were recorded, it is obvious that civilization is living in a fourth and final "year". The outcome of this parable depends on our response to God's care and cultivation.

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