6 And He began telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. 7 And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; 9 and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.’”
In which I break my promise and write a bit because I’m feeling rather depressed and feel like I need to take a moment and meditate.
The fig tree was an important staple in Israel. It was a source of food and judging from passages like 1 Kings 4:25, where it describes the reign of Solomon as one in which every man lived in safety under his vine and his fig tree, they were fairly plentiful at least at one time.
Some commentators always equate language of the fig tree with Israel proper. I don’t think that was necessarily Luke’s intent here. Luke isn’t speaking to Israel, he’s writing to a Gentile who would have little background with Old Testament symbolism.
I think the point in including this section right next to the above passage describing calamities and the need for repentance is to once again stress that passage’s moral: “Unless you repent, you likewise will perish.”
Not to get too far off the rails, but I find it interesting that the owner is complaining about the lack of productivity from the tree. It is using up the resources given to it for itself. It’s sucking up water and nutrients and giving nothing back in return. It is, in essence, selfish. Rather than providing life and refreshment to those who need it, the tree gives nothing of itself, letting those who hunger starve.
It gives us sort of a context for repentance.
The fate of the tree is ambiguous in the end. The land owner (a stand-in for God) accedes to the farmer’s request to give the tree more time to produce the expected fruit. But the axe is sort of hanging over it the whole time.
We saw this in one of Christ’s earlier parables about the wealthy landowner who opted to build bigger barns and hoard more for himself. The axe fell on him that very night as he slept and he was cut down. There is a sense of urgency in the call to repentance because of our own mortality.
So the call for us today is to produce fruit in our lives. That is, to act as Jesus would, by putting away selfishness and the sense of entitlement that we carry, and by engaging with others and bringing refreshment and life to them through our words and through our actions.