The parable of the fig tree: 3 interpretations

Matte Downey, Jul 20, 2020, 6:35 PM

One of the more obscure parables which Jesus tells is found in Luke 13:6-9. "A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. He said to his gardener, 'Look, I've come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I've never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil's nutrients?' The gardener responded, 'Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.'" (Common English Bible)

This story comes after a discussion on the connection between oppression, suffering, and right living. Jesus dismantles the idea that those who suffer are more sinful than others, but then tells his listeners that unless they change their hearts and lives (metanoia), they will die just like those unfortunate ones who were slaughtered by Pilate or were killed when a tower fell. It is a mixed message in some ways, but Jesus seems to be telling people to take their focus off of judging others and onto reevaluating their own lives. He also reorients the discussion away from the mistakes of the past and onto the opportunity for repentance (changing one's mind and life) available in the present. Jesus is inviting people to change their lives in order to move forward in a good way.

With that conversation as a backdrop, Jesus tells the story of a fruitless fig tree. There are several ways of interpreting this parable. The Catholic tradition took this story to mean that God is always checking to see if Christians are bearing fruit worthy of their baptism and conversion. If not, they will be condemned. In other words, faith without works is dead. While this could be seen as a fair interpretation of the parable, it does leave out the emphasis on mercy which seems to be the main point of the story. I have no doubt that this rather harsh reading of the parable has been used by church leaders to admonish their congregants into complying with church practices.

The Protestant tradition has generally seen the owner as God and the gardener as Jesus. God demands fruit or evidence of faith, but Jesus requests mercy and patience from God in order to make more favourable conditions for righteousness (fruit) to appear. The main problem with this interpretation is that the members of the Godhead are pitted against each other. God is portrayed as an absentee owner interested solely in return on investment. Jesus is the ally who saves the unfortunate tree from destruction (at least for the moment). This is a dismal and harmful portrayal of the Trinity. This interpretation also contradicts Jesus' declaration that divine love is exhibited in sacrifice, not demands.

A Jewish take on the story would relate it back to the laws concerning harvest in Leviticus 19:23-25. "When you enter the land and plant any fruit tree, you must consider its fruit off-limits. For three years it will be off-limits to you; it must not be eaten. In the fourth year, all of the tree's fruit will be holy, a celebration for the Lord. In the fifth year you can eat the fruit. This is so as to increase its produce for you; I am the Lord your God." (Common English Bible) In this reading of the story, the owner is a Gentile, unfamiliar with Hebrew husbandry, and the gardener ends up teaching the owner the proper way to steward the earth. It could be that the gardener removed the fruit from the tree for the first three years in order that it would not be eaten. After another year of care, enriching the soil and leaving the fruit alone, the tree would be primed to produce mature fruit. This interpretation focuses on learning good stewardship and resisting the urge to amputate or cut off that which is not immediately profitable or fruitful.

How does this parable relate to the earlier conversation about suffering and sin? I believe that Jesus is directly undermining the idea that God is a landowner who cuts things down (kills them) if they are not producing fruits of righteousness to his satisfaction. God does not destroy people, either through natural disasters or through the murderous actions of a power-hungry despot, because they are sinful. God does not destroy; God creates. God plants, God digs in the soil, God spreads manure. And God waits patiently, often leaving things alone to see what develops. God is a gardener and we are part of the beloved garden.

Our faith traditions play a large part in how we interpret scriptures and how we see God. When we have been told one thing over and over again by trusted leaders, it can be hard to see things any other way. That is why it is important to learn from other traditions, to seek out a multitude of voices, to ask more questions and make less definitive statements, and to prayerfully listen to the Spirit. Followers of Jesus do not own the truth; we humbly seek the truth. The invitation Jesus extended to his followers still extends to us today: Come, follow me. Let me show you who God is. Let me challenge and correct your misperceptions. Learn my ways. Unlearn the ways of empire and domination. Repent (change your way of thinking and living).

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