Third Sunday of Lent: The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree | Jeff Nowers | March 24, 2019
Lent, as we all know, is a rather somber season in the church calendar. It’s a time when we go through 40 days of soul-searching, as it were, just like Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism. It’s also a period when, in the assigned Gospel readings each Sunday, we encounter Jesus in the thick of his public life. Jesus is no longer an obscure, insignificant carpenter. He has a following, and as he moves about the region of Palestine, particularly in Galilee in the north, he achieves significant notoriety—for what he does and for what he says. Some of what he says takes the form of parables—short stories that illustrate important instructive lessons.
Jesus’ parables, however, are not always clear; they often appear as riddles, difficult to decipher. And this isn’t accidental. In fact, Matthew’s Gospel indicates that Jesus intended his parables to be perplexing, to distinguish those who would be able to grasp the point of his teachings from those who couldn’t. For us today, the puzzling nature of Jesus’ parables leaves the task of making sense of them very open-ended. There just isn’t one way to understand their meaning. So I think we need to read the parables with the insight of how they’ve been understood in Christian thought over time, on the one hand, and by putting our own imaginations to work, on the other hand.
The parable that appears in today’s Gospel is a simple story of a barren fig tree. It’s told by Jesus to underscore his prophetic warning that judgment is coming to anyone and everyone who doesn’t repent. If you recall last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus laments that Jerusalem has come to symbolize a widespread rebellion and turning away from the goodness of God. In the Old Testament, this was an enduring part of Israel’s history, which is why numerous prophets like Elijah, Jeremiah and John the Baptist emerged to denounce social injustices and to call the people back to right relations with each other and with God. Jesus stands in that prophetic tradition, but there’s an added urgency to his message. Judgment is real, and it’s coming is imminent. Or is it?
That’s the question that parable of the barren fig tree leaves open for those in Jesus’ day and for ourselves in the present. We, too, are facing a form of judgment. We’re all aware that our planet is heating up at an alarming rate, thanks to the abundance of carbon that we emit daily into the atmosphere. The consequences are already playing themselves out in extreme weather patterns generating food scarcity and endangering other species. Here in Toronto we are plagued with an affordable housing crisis, and the social effects are being felt in unpredictable ways. Are we too far gone? Are we now receiving our just deserts? Or is there yet hope for our world that things will be as they ought?
The parable of the barren fig tree doesn’t finally answer these questions with a definitive yes or no. That’s because it holds judgment and hope together in tension. Judgment is represented by the owner of a vineyard. In his vineyard is a fig tree, which hasn’t yielded any fruit in three years. It’s fair to assume that this isn’t a new tree because the owner would’ve recognized that it takes a number of years for a young sapling to root itself firmly in the ground and produce consistent fruit. So this is a tree that likely was fruitful but then stopped producing figs. The owner is getting impatient; he’s waited three years for nothing. So he thinks the tree should be cut down because it’s wasting soil nutrients that should be going to his grape vines. But along comes the owner’s gardener who represents hope and patience. He tells the owner, “Give the tree one more year. Maybe with some added fertilizer it will bloom once again.” What happens in the end? Does the tree fall to judgment? Or does hope triumph so that the next year it produces figs again? We don’t know; the parable leaves us hanging.
What would you do with the fig tree? It isn’t producing figs, and it’s sucking nutrients from the soil. Cutting it down seems justified. But perhaps another year with more care and attention might yield a full batch of figs. That’s also a reasonable decision to make.
From one vantage point, on a macro level, humans at large are like the fig tree. Our world is not as it should be, and the consequence of our behavior—our failure to bear fruit—is impending doom, which is already being felt. Our karma is judgment. But perhaps we still have a shrinking opportunity to get ourselves on a better course—to rekindle the flame of love for God and neighbor.
From another more immediate vantage point, however, each of us is like the vineyard owner and the gardener. The circumstances of our lives lead us into a dance between judgment and patience. It might be related to an unfulfilling job: Do I end it now, or do I give it another year? It might have to do with a friendship that has soured: Do I move on from this person, or do I hold out hope that things will improve? We could even relate this to how we’re imagining renovating our church: Should we dispose of our old worn-down pews, or do we give them a new lease on life? The answer to these questions isn’t clear. That’s the point of the parable.
Another point, maybe less obvious, is that the owner of the vineyard is the one who seeks to execute judgment, while the gardener stays hopeful and recommends patience. Judgment, which has a finality and irrevocability to it, often stems from power. Hope and patience, however, come from the place of the gardener, the one who serves. In the end, if we must overcome an impasse between judgment and patience, perhaps it is patience and hope that remain always alive. In the affirmation of faith that we’ll say together in a few moments, we’re reminded that Jesus did not seek to retain the seat of power but “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” Following Jesus is an exercise in training ourselves to temper the sometimes necessary power of judgment with the patience of servitude.
That’s how we practice love of neighbor. Judgment may be sometimes be required, but our default position is patience and hope. And to that end, we can only hope that, in the mystery of God’s forbearance, the dark clouds of judgment now hovering over our planet will be lifted so that we’ll see the light of God’s radiance shining through all things.