This past Sunday my church walked through the parable of the barren fig tree in Luke 13:6-9, exploring what it means to be open to God’s tilling of the dirt and the muck of our lives as we say goodbye to summer and welcome the fall. Strangely enough this is actually the fourth time in the past 6 months that the image of the fig tree has surfaced for me in my personal study and devotions, and to be honest I don’t even like figs all that much (unless they are in the form of a gluten free fig newton).
Every time I come across a fig tree in scripture I find myself seriously wrestling with the image. The tree is always barren, there is always a threat to cut the tree down, and there is always some sort of discussion about God’s judgment, our sin and a coming destruction. Luke 13 is no exception.
But the more I continue to reflect on the image of this fig tree, the more hopeful it seems to become. The more fruitful it becomes. And over the course of this past week I have been uncovering fresh perspective in Luke’s call to consider the image of the tree as a hopeful expression of the spirit’s working in my own life. After all, as my pastor suggested this past Sunday, nothing we do or experience is outside of the spirit’s reach.
A Motivating Question
“There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?”
– Luke 13:1-2
Before we arrive at the fig tree we are first presented with a motivating question or statement in verses 1-6 that helps provide us with a bit of context. Considering the circumstance of the fallen “Galileans” mentioned here (which is not mentioned anywhere else but does fit with other passages concerning Pilate), some followers of Jesus had begun to wonder about the reason for their death. Namely, as Jesus goes on to imply, they had begun to wonder if it was the sin of the Galileans that led to their suffering?
The idea of suffering as a sign of individual sin was a popular belief in Jesus’ day. Recognizing this, Jesus goes on to answer this (implied) question with a question of his own.
“Do you think (these Galileans) were worse sinners than all the (others)?”
We can be tempted to think many things in the face of suffering and loss. Is God good? Why does God allow this to happen? Why does this happen to (us, them, me) and not to others? What is the point of this suffering? Did something we (they) do cause this suffering to happen? All of these questions have to do with the way we perceive God’s relationship to us and to the world, and this is what the followers of Jesus were trying to wrestle with. Scholars understand the ones asking these questions were likely considering the challenge of following God (and Jesus) in the midst of a complicated political system, one that flows out of the persistence of Israel’s exile and the destruction of their temple and God’s seeming absence in the midst of ongoing oppression. These are human questions that reflect a common human experience shared with Israel’s long and storied past, and it should be noted that asking these sorts of questions is not the problem that we find in this passage. In fact, the question(s) are a part of what set them into relationship with Jesus.
The problem, rather, has to do searching for answers to their questions in the wrong places, places that lead them towards making false assumptions about God’s relationship to us and to the world. These false assumptions are what Jesus looks to challenge.
“Do you think (they) were worse sinners…?”
Equating suffering with the personal sin of the “Galileans” has led them to entertain a false dichotomy. As Jesus insists, if they suffered and died because of their sin then that must mean they were worse sinners than those of us who are still alive. So, logically speaking, in order for me to avoid similar suffering and death I must make sure to be less sinful than they were…. or more “fruitful” than they were.
To which we arrive at Jesus’ final and definite answer to this whole line of reasoning- “NO!”
This sort of false dichotomy leads nowhere helpful, nowhere good, and yet so often it is the first place we go in our efforts to reason with God in the midst of our own suffering or the suffering we perceive around us. We need a reason. But the truth is when we follow this line of thinking we end up divided, hating God, hating others, and ultimately hating ourselves. We are left, as Jesus is about to point out, as a barren tree in a barren landscape relegating everyone else to equal barrenness.
And so Jesus leads them towards a different way of thinking about God’s relationship with us and the world. a way that does away with this false dichotomy and opens itself up to the Spirit’s work.
“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
The Art Of Repentance
And here we arrive at a pivotal point in this passage, a point that I have found (so far) to carry equal force in all of the other “fig tree” references in scripture as well: the idea of repentance.
Repentance throughout the Gospel has little to do with living “perfect” or fruitful lives. It has everything to do with which direction we happen to be looking when we consider the fruit of our lives. In the case of the Gospels, we are either looking in the direction of Jesus or away from Jesus, and repentance simply means to turn our eyes in the direction that Jesus is heading, in the Way of Jesus.
Without the idea of repentance we are left with only the negative in this passage in Luke. As the chapter begins, they suffer therefore they are unworthy. They suffer therefore God no longer cares for their circumstance. The world is seen as a complicated, politically laden mess and therefore must be outside of God’s grace. But of course the truth of these kinds of assumptions, as Jesus points out, is that they force us to draw the same conclusions about our own lives as well. If this is how God looks and deals with the world, then this is how He must look and deal with me as well. Their suffering means that I have to earn God’s care for me. Their suffering means I must prove that I am more worthy of the grace that I have been given. Likewise, to find myself a sinner means I must deem myself equally worthless in the eyes of God.
Jesus chooses to answer their own line of reasoning with a question of his own, because He knows where their assumptions are leading. He switches the focus from “them” to “you”. He goes straight to the heart of the matter. If they think this is how God sees the Galileans, where does this leave them?
And then Jesus goes on to offer a story, a parable, about a lonely fig tree and its lack of fruit.
The Man and His Vineyard
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none.”
Parables tend to place their audience directly into the story. Look hard enough and you will find you and me in the starring roles. So the first question I found myself asking is, who is the man in this picture? For me this is the most important question to ask because who we see the man to be determines who the tree is in this passage, and who the tree is determines our response.
So here’s what I know. The man appears to be the owner of the vineyard, this much is clear. The man is also the one in the story who calls for the tree to be cut down because of its apparent lack of fruit (“Cut it down! Why should it use up the ground?”). Beyond this though is where scholarship seems to be divided, approaching the question of the “man” in one of the two following ways:
1. In some commentaries, the man symbolizes God the Father, the Vinedresser is Jesus, and the tree is Jerusalem. In this view, the passage looks to echo themes of exile, the fall of the temple, and the judgement of God’s people. Some scholars view the passage this way because the most common interpretation of the fig tree is as a symbol of the temple and Jerusalem.
Hand in hand with this is a Judeo-Christian tradition that represents Jesus as the one who goes to the Father on our (humanities) behalf (Hebrews 7:25). As a part of His ministry, Jesus sees our circumstance and takes our prayers and our concerns to the Father (John 17:20-22). Jesus enters our suffering and failures and struggles and pleads our case to the Father, much in the same way as Abraham once pleaded for the case of Sodom. Scholars see this reflected in this passage as well. Jesus comes into the picture as the “vinedresser” in verse 7 in order to “plead” the case of Israel and Jerusalem (the fig tree) and make the request to delay the Father’s judgment for one more year (verse 9).
But of course this leaves us with a couple of problems. If we view it this way, it forces us to read verses 1-6 in an entirely negative context. Repentance in this case is not about hope but about their eventual (prophesied) failure to be obedient to God. The vinedresser lobbying to give the tree one more year becomes less about grace and more about a judgment already made. And of course, in my opinion, along with this we are also forced to wrestle with two opposing views of God, with the Father and the Son differing in their perception of what a good judgment is.
2. The second option, which also happens to be the direction I lean towards, finds scholarship connecting this passage more directly (and intimately) to verses 1-6. If we hold the first six verses in view, we find the man in the parable is the one making assumptions about the fig tree that the vinedresser hopes to challenge. If we look at it from this perspective, the man fits very well with the “some present at that very time” in verse 1 who were asking Jesus about the Galileans. In this case, Jerusalem (or in a more general sense, the place in which we live) is the vineyard while the Vinedresser is Jesus “addressing” their questions by challenging their assumptions about the Galileans (or in a more general sense, the others) whom I see symbolized in the tree.
The Lonely Fig Tree
For me, this second option fits better with the nature of the parables in the Gospels. Parables always proceed from an incident or a question that Jesus encounters along His journey towards Jerusalem, and the parables are offered by Jesus as a way of shedding light our circumstances and questions through revealing the truth about God in “hidden” ways. In this passage we find the honest questions that come from living in a world that does not look the way we believe it should, of a God that we sometimes feel is more distant and more removed from our world than we expect Him to be. To which we arrive at this lonely fig tree standing in the middle of a vineyard. So to further apply this parable to our present day, if the Vineyard is the place in which we live and the man in this picture is a reflection of you and me, what can the vinedresser teach us about God’s relationship to us and to the world?
First, I discover a God who has chosen to enter into our world, through Jesus, into the vineyard in which we live.
Secondly, I find a God who judges impartially rather than in the way of Pilate. One of the more powerful pictures in this parable is that of a tree stuck between these two opposing forces. To be judged by the world is to be left wanting and unworthy according to who the world says we are, and Pilate emerges here as a foreshadow of the lack of impartiality that eventually finds Jesus hanging on his own barren tree. To be judged by God is to see ourselves as purposed and worthy according to who Jesus sees (and declares) us to be- a people freed from the bindings of our own questions and assumptions and made alive in the spirit just like the woman whom proceeds this story in verses of 10-17. What is also worth noting is the way the ending of chapter 12 sets us up to encounter this message of impartial judgment.
Thirdly, I find a God enters into our world in order to plead the case of grace, the cause of love. Give them “one more year” the vinedresser says to the man, and see what comes from my digging and fertilizing and tilling and caring and growing. And how amazing is it that the primary picture of this caring, this growing is by using the manure, or the “shit” of our lives and this world to do this.
Yes there is suffering. Yes there is feelings of hopelessness and uncertainty. Yes we do have to contend with our lack of fruit and not measuring up again and again and again. But there is hope to be found in this parable. There is hope to found in Jesus. And this hope comes from learning to see and trust in God’s way of dealing with the messiness of our world and our lives, to repent and look in the direction of Jesus, in the direction of Jerusalem and the barren tree that he bore for the sake of the world.
As this passage points out, this is not easy. That much is clear. We want answers in the moment. We want to know why and we want to know how and we want to know when. But the truth about the work that Jesus is doing is that it requires trust, it requires patience. As I have already said, this passage looks at the suffering of the world, and then it turns our questions in on ourselves. “If” this is what the mess of the world means for them, what does that then mean for me? And then in the end of the passage it turns it back around again.
If this is what God is doing in my life, how much more is He doing in and for the world.
This is what hope looks like. This is where I find power in interpreting the “man” in this passage as you and me. The untold assumptions, and the unasked questions that Jesus pulls out of us is our tendency to judge the work of others in order to feel better about our own lack of fruit, to feel more certain about where we stand according to the judgement of Pilate. But through the act of repentance, the Spirit of Jesus sets each of us on equal footing in the light of God’s impartial judgment. Jesus’ persistence in asking each of us to offer one more year of grace, and then another, and then another yet as I imagine in my own eyes… is a grace that flows all the way back to us and then back out into the world once again, reforming our perspective and changing our assumptions along the way. This to me is what it means to anticipate the fruit of the spirit’s work in our world and our lives even when we can’t always see it so clearly.