The Parable of the Fig Tree
The Parable of the Fig Tree, in Luke 13:1-9, is sometimes hard to preach about. Ted Johnston, over at the surprising God blog, brought it up a couple of days ago and invited comments on it. I posted my thoughts in the comments section of Ted’s post and I thought I’d reprint them here for those of you who may not have seen them there:
I think the vineyard owner is the Father, the gardener is Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is the fertilizer. The fig tree is humanity.
The fig tree exists to bear fruit but it’s not fulfilling its purpose. Humanity exists to participate in the Triune Life as the children of the Father (Eph. 1:5) but we also are not living up to our purpose. If something isn’t achieving its purpose it might as well not exist, that’s why the vineyard owner says that he might as well destroy the tree. Not because he hates the tree but because he recognizes the pointlessness of having a tree that doesn’t bear fruit and his desire is to see it achieve it’s purpose.
At this point in reading the parable I think we all, because of our fallen nature, make two false assumptions:
First, we think that the fig tree can make a conscious decision to change itself and begin to bear fruit. We forget that trees do not think and have no choice. They bear fruit based on the soil, rain, sun, and other conditions around them. So, Jesus says our failure to live up to our purpose is like something (a fig tree) which has no conscious control over its own destiny. Because we all fell in Adam it is no more possible for a human being to suddenly, on his own, say “oh! I’m not being who I’m suppose to be, I need to get busy” than it is for a tree to say “oh! I’m not bearing fruit, I better get busy.” The only way we’re going to achieve the purpose for which we were created is if the Good Gardener (Jesus) creates the conditions for us to naturally grow up to be what we were created to be.
Secondly, we assume that the gardener is not a very good gardener. The gardener says to the vineyard owner “let me work on the tree and we’ll see if it bears fruit” and we – in our fallenness – automatically assume that it is going to be a dangerously close thing. We think, “oh no! what if the gardener fails? what if he can’t do it? the tree will be destroyed!” But how do we know that this gardener isn’t the very best gardener the world has ever seen? Maybe he’s so good there’s no danger at all of failure on his part.
So, I would say this is the moral of the parable: the Father created us to live as his children, but we’re not doing a very good job of it. If we aren’t going to live as the children we were created to be then there’s no point in our existence. As human beings we even sense this ourselves as we struggle with depression, despair, and suicidal thoughts. Because of our fallenness we, like a fig tree, are incapable of fixing ourselves. So, the Father sends the Son – the greatest Master Gardener of all time – to heal us, make us whole, and enable us to grow up to be the children of the Father that we were created to be. It is his work, he is doing it, and what we need to do is repent of our false belief that he is not The Master Gardener and believe the truth that he knows how to make us healthy enough to fulfill our purpose. And how does the Gardener make us healthy? By nourishing our lives in his Holy Spirit – the fertilizer that brings the fruit of the Triune Life.
Once we see the fig tree in this way we can see how this parable further explains Jesus’ comments about the people who died tragically at Pilate’s hands and in the natural disaster. The thing about all agriculture, including the tending of fig trees, is that it is very easy to look at a barren tree and assume that nothing is happening. The natural process of health and maturation takes time and patience – and it is not visible to us. We look at people around us, friends and family, and when we don’t immediately see the fruit of the Spirit in their lives we assume the Master Gardener is not at work in their lives and the Vineyard Owner is ready to destroy them. In fact, we can become so blind in our judgmentalism that when bad things happen to these “fruitless” people we assume that we are witnessing the Vineyard Owner’s destruction of them for their failure to be what they were created to be.
But here’s the thing about the destruction of the fig tree: it never happens! The parable ends with the Master Gardener saying “don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” So why are we all so worried? We don’t trust the Master Gardener will take care of it. And that is what it means, in the light of the gospel, to “perish.” To perish is to experience all the fear, anger, and grief that comes from not trusting that the Master Gardener will be successful. When we don’t trust that he will succeed we try to make ourselves fruitful, or trying to harangue and cajole our friends and family into being fruitful, and that is the living death that comes from believing that we’re our own saviors instead of believing that Jesus is the Savior and that he has saved us.
~ Jonathan Stepp