The Fig Tree
(Ex.3:1-8, 13-15; 1Cor.10:1-6, 10-12; Lk.13:1-9)
Have you ever noticed how often trees feature in the Bible? Apart from God and his people, trees appear more often in Scripture than any other form of life.
There’s the Tree of Knowledge at the start (Gen.1:11-12) and the Tree of Life at the end (Rev.2:22). A tree stands near running waters in Psalm 1 (Ps.1:3), and the Wise Men’s frankincense and myrrh come from trees (Mt.2:11).
There’s an almond tree (Ecc.12:5), apple tree (Song.2:3), chestnut and fir (Ez.31:8), and a cedar and myrtle (Is.41:19). Zacchaeus climbs a sycamore (Lk.19:4) and Jesus talks about mustard trees (Lk.17:6).
In fact, every major figure in Scripture is connected in some way with trees. Noah receives an olive branch (Gen.8:11), Abraham sits under the Oaks of Mamre (Gen.18:1), Moses finds a burning bush (Ex.3:2-5), Joseph is a carpenter (Mt.13:55) and Jesus even dies on a tree.
Why are there so many?
Well, trees are a natural part of life, and the Bible reflects real life. But trees also mirror Jesus. Like Jesus, they’re a strong, natural and beautiful part of life. They offer us shelter, nourishment and protection. They clear the air, reduce our stress and anxiety, and have healing powers.
Research has also found that trees help reduce crime and make us more generous and trusting. [i]
But trees also teach us things. They teach us the importance of living in the light, of having strong roots and of getting good nourishment.
And they teach us to be fruitful. That’s what Jesus is talking about in his famous Parable of the Fig Tree, in today’s Gospel.
In ancient times, Palestinian fig trees were valuable. They bore fruit ten months of the year, and their fruit was very popular. In Jesus’ story, the gardener has spent years nurturing that tree, encouraging it to mature and grow fruit, but it has produced nothing for three years.
The vineyard owner has lost patience and wants it gone. However, the gardener wants to give it another chance. He promises to fertilise it and care for it, and if it’s still unfruitful after another year, then he’ll let it go.
In his book, The Cultural World of Jesus, John Pilch says that the vineyard in this story actually represents the people of Israel, and the fig tree represents Israel’s leaders, the Scribes and Pharisees. The vineyard owner is God, and he’s unhappy that these leaders have been unproductive for much too long. He thinks they’ve effectively been stealing from the people, and should go. [ii]
Jesus, however, is the gardener, and he wants to give them another chance. That’s why this story is often called the Parable of the Second Chance. But it’s not just about ancient Israel; it’s also about us, today.
Indeed, how many of us live unfruitful lives?
The stories at the start of this passage, about people being killed in two tragic incidents, remind us that our lives are fragile and we really aren’t in control. As Solomon wrote, ‘time and chance happen to everyone’ (Ecc.9:11).
So, here’s the point: we need to become more fruitful before it’s too late.
Every Lent gives us an opportunity to nourish our spiritual trees and to produce more fruit. Yes, God is patient, but we don’t have all the time in the world. For some people, this will be their last Lent, and therefore their last chance to put things right.
Now, what type of fruit does God want us to produce? I’d like to suggest that there are three kinds of fruit he’d like to see from us.
Firstly, there are the Fruits of the Spirit that St Paul talks about: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal.5:22-23). Do you produce all these fruits? Do they reflect your life today?
Secondly, there’s the Fruit of Good Works, which St Paul also talks about (Col.1:10). What good works are you now doing for others? What should you be doing for others?
And finally, there are the Fruits of Praise. It is important that we love our neighbour, but we must love God as well (Heb.13:15; Mt.22:34-40). Do we spend time getting to know God? And how do we express our love for him?
God loves us totally, but true love is never a one-way street. God’s love for us can only become complete when we love him in return.
So, this Lent, let’s remember the trees.
We are all branches of Jesus’ tree. What fruits will you be producing this year? (Jn.15:4-6; Rom.11:17–18).
[ii] John J Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Cycle C. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 1997:56-57.