The Fruitless Fig Tree
1. What we are given for today is the parable from Jesus about a fig tree planted in a vineyard. It sounds unnatural for a fig tree to be planted in a vineyard, but it seems that it wasn't all that strange after all. Figs, along with grapes, have been altogether quite familiar in Israel from of old; they have been used as tree stands letting the grape vines be entwined upon them. Well, because [this one in our story] was planted in the good earth of the vineyard, as a matter of course, it was expected to be fruitful. But yet, there stood the fig tree fruitless for years. Jesus began to speak as follows: "A certain man planted a fig tree in a vineyard, but when he came to look for its fruit, he didn't find any," (verse six). So, finally, the owner of the vineyard ordered the garden keeper to chop that tree down.
Better Chop It Down!
2. First, let's listen to the words of the owner of the vineyard. He says, "Even though already for three years I have been coming to search for fruit on this fig tree, I have never found any at all. So, chop it down. Why let the ground be plugged up for this?," (verse seven).
3. Just before this parable the following words are found. "Unless you all repent, you will perish the same way," (verse five). In other words, this parable is given in the context of "the judgment of God." When we compare the judgment of God with the words of this owner, these words have a very strict ring to them. "Better chop it down!" We will see in our mind's eye behind such words the image of a cold blooded and ruthless man. We compare that with the image of an angry God handing down his judgments in a pitiless manner. I'd say there are more than a few feeling resistance to the words of the owner.
4. But, as you think about it, it wasn't anything special that the owner was commanding. Normally, what we'd think would hardly be different.
5. I'm not good at throwing things away. My disposition to hold onto something until it is totally useless probably is a trait I get from my grandmother somehow. A lot of things with no function and no use stay around and start taking up space. When we moved last April, it turned out that we had quite a lot of unnecessary objects stored around. So when done, we ended up throwing away most of it. But it wasn't me who did the pitching out, it was my wife who did it. And even though she threw it all away, it never bothered me a second. In the end I knew her judgment was right. Anyone who is always packing useless things is not called wise. It is common sense to pitch anything that serves no purpose or is useless.
6. The tree appearing in this story does not yield fruit even though it has been at the fruit bearing age for fig trees. Two years go by, then three years, but it doesn't have fruit. In the first place, according to the law of Moses even if a tree has fruit, it can't be eaten right away. It can't be eaten for three years. The fruit from the forth year will be an offering to the Lord. Then after the fifth year it can be eaten. So, even had it yielded on the third year, it would be edible on the forth year still ahead. But, in reality, no fruit had come at its third year either. When you think about that, it's not odd for the fig tree to be judged as useless and unfit for the earth. "Chop it down" is every bit a commonsensical judgment call. Even if there were some who felt resistance to the figure of this owner in some way or another, we'd probably be the first to say "chop it down" if we had been standing there in his shoes. That much, in a sense, would have been within our rights.
7. Besides that, if we take it further, there is a background to this parable in the Old Testament. The Israelites are time and again compared by way of illustration to figs, grapes, and other fruit. For example, resembling the situation of the owner in today's parable, we find the following words in Isaiah. "For the one I love, a song of the love of the vineyard will I sing. My loved one used to have a vineyard on a fertile slope. He removed the rocks making it quite arable and planted for good grapes. He set a watch tower in its midst, dug out a winepress, and waited for the good vines to bear fruit. But, the fruit it bore was sour grapes. ... What should I do for the vineyard, what is there still that I have not done? Though I have waited for good grapes to yield, why have sour grapes yielded?," (Isaiah 5:1-4).
8. Figs and grapes are different. But the point they have in common is in that someone's expectations have been betrayed. The fig tree is not just useless. It also corresponds with the figure of humanity which has continuously betrayed its trust and expectations. In Isaiah God lifts his voice of lament with "What should I do for the vineyard, what is there still that I have not done?" It is the same even in this parable from Jesus. The figs have not been growing wild along the side of the road. They have been set in a vineyard. They have been planted in good soil. There is even a gardener there to care for the plants. When we consider the Old Testament background to this parable, the figs are not trees that have been turned wild. It assumes they've been tended to by hand already. In other words, "despite all that" it is then "for three years already, even though I've come looking for fruit on this fig tree, I have never found any on it." Therefore, to say "chop it down" is an altogether quite sensible judgment call.
9. So, we need to take another look here in this passage about what it says on God's judgment. Most often we resist depictions of God's wrath. We feel a resistance against the harsh words of this owner in this parable. But what the owner is saying is not improper or hardly strange, so it is neither wrong nor weird if God shows his anger towards us or if he hands down judgment. Much rather, the truly important thing is that we admit that by our very natures we exist as helpless to being judged and being taken down. Even if God judges and destroys the world, it would not be an immoral or an abnormal act. [As master of the universe it is within God's sovereign right.]
Leave It Be For This Year
10. When you understand this, it seems that the especially surprising thing being said in this parable is not in the first half of it but rather the second part. The words of the owner to "chop it down" are a normal judgment call, but on the other hand the very very unusual words are those of the gardener that come after his.
11. So, let's take a moment to listen to his statement. The gardener answered the owner, "Master, leave it be for this year. I'll dig around the tree and fertilize it. Then, next year it may bear fruit. If it is still no good after that, chop it down," (verses eight and nine).
12. The gardener asked that the fruitless fig tree might stay on till next year. Were the tree to remain, there would be no particular benefit to the gardener. Instead, it would only add the extra work load for him of digging around it and giving it fertilizer. Nevertheless, the gardener petitioned the owner on behalf of the tree. The parable ends with the words from the gardener. In the final analysis, the message to be implied by that is that the owner did not reject the gardener's words. As a development in the story this is not what you'd expect but it is rather surprising.
13. In addition, a surprising thing happened but not just in this parable, but outside the parable, in the real world of life. This parable only appears in Luke's Gospel [and not the other three]. Also, similarly, there are the words of Christ in it that Luke's Gospel alone transmits. When Christ was hung on the cross, the Lord prayed, "Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing," (chapter twenty-three and verse thirty-four). Please, please leave it alone for this year. Please do not chop it down. Next year it may have fruit. In his having spoken like that, we see on the cross the figure of the gardener who showed mercy and who was so strangely attached to a fruitless fig tree that was just wasting space.
14. Even more though, it wasn't only on the cross. Jesus' petitioning didn't end then. His intercession still continues now. Paul wrote the following verses. "Who can judge us in sin? He who died, no rather, he who was raised from the dead, Christ Jesus sits on the right hand of God and intercedes on our behalf," (Romans 8:34).
15. Actually today's not the first time I preached from this passage of scripture. Exactly two years ago in March, I preached from this. Since then one year then another year's time has flown by. But the world still exists. Our church also exists. We have been allowed to appear before His presence unchanged. We worship the Lord today too the same as that day. Do we deserve this? I don't think we do. The gardener requested "one more year" for him to leave the tree that had never yielded forth fruit and the owner thought his offer was good and that they should wait. The surprising thing being said in this parable really takes place in us.
16. Well, the words of the gardener end with "If it is still no good after that, chop it down." But nothing is said conclusively about a year later regarding whether the fig tree gave forth fruit or if it didn't have fruit and was chopped down. This means that the heart of what Jesus meant to say in this parable was not on whether the tree was ultimately to be cut down or to be left alone. None of that mattered. The place we ought to be looking is on the point that the tree still stood though it deserved to be cut down because of the way it was.
17. As I mentioned at the beginning, this parable is given in the context of "God's judgment." When we think of how that it is on God's judgment, our thoughts inevitably turn to whether we will be chopped down or saved on "the last day." However, the parable of Jesus draws our eyes so apt to turn to "the last day" back to "now, this hour." For, the main thing is not "the last day, but "now, this hour" in which we stand under the intercession of Christ and are shown God's mercy and patience. As of Wednesday the church calendar will enter Lent, Passion Season [of the Lord's suffering]. As another year passes we have been able to welcome in this hour for this year as well. Even for this year we are allowed, especially as an hour of repentance, to spend this period of time. It is always the "now, this hour" that has do to with repentance. We must respond with gravity to this hour given to us as a gift of grace for now, for the very present moment. Paul had something to say on this, "Right now is the hour of grace; right now is the day of salvation," (Second Corinthians 6:2).