My mother has always had a bit of a green thumb. I can remember growing up having to help plant various flowers and shrubs around our house and in our yard. My job was to clear the ground so I had the task of digging out rectangular patterns in the open spaces and along the edges of the house and yard. What was planted changed from season to season and year to year but it was a forgone conclusion that something was going to be put in the ground to be nurtured and grown. There was never a shortage of greenery and practically every reasonable open space had some manner of plant in it.
I do remember, however, our one attempt to plant a fruit tree. I can’t remember what precipitated the idea to do so but we went to one of the local nurseries or home improvement stores, I can’t remember which, and bought our first, and only, fruit tree. We decided to plant an apple tree just off the end of the house, with the hope that we would one day have fresh apples to pick. We seemed to have found a good spot, one that got plenty of sun and had rich soil beneath it. Though I was generally a meat and potatoes kind of kid at the time, and what teenage boy isn’t, I was fairly excited about the prospects until I found out that the first few years of apples are generally not edible, since they tend to have a sour taste that no one could like.
We watched, checking week after week, looking for some sign that the tree was going produce. When the buds gave way to small, light green colored apples, I knew that the fruit might not taste good. It was only the first year and as I had heard, you should give the tree some time to mature, to soak up the soil, to come into its own. I decided to risk it though, when the first buds gave way to tiny little green piece of fruit. The first bite told me I made a mistake. I’m not one of those people that likes other people to share in my misery when I eat something bad (think back a few weeks to the Geico raccoons). And I’ve tasted some not so great things in my life but that first-year apple was among some of the worst. I don’t know what exactly is was about it that made it taste so bad but I decided it would be a while before I ate anything else fresh off the vine.
This story of my experience is somewhat reminiscent of the story we read in Luke 13 about figs and fallen people; about retribution theology and divine patience; about repentance – second, third and fourth chances. Luke’s story is a story and a story retold, a means of sharing truth in a simple way for a people in their time. As with last week, it is also a story filled with symbolic meaning, meaning tied to the people in their place and their time but meaning that is still relevant to us today as we attempt to follow Jesus in our time and place.
Luke 13 begins with a news flash. In our day, it might be a breaking story on KOTA or a beeping alert on our cell phones: Galileans killed by Romans during Sacrifice. We would see a news reporter holding a microphone in front of a camera, interviewing a local witness to the tragedy who would be alternately enraged and devastated. Then it would be back to the studio where a panel of Torah scholars and temple officials would have a roundtable discussion on the state of Israeli-Roman relations. There would probably be talk of retribution theology, ‘we deserve this for our sins’, and then hardliners on both sides would argue about the interpretation.
In our day, Jesus might be among those discussing the matter at a coffee house. Someone says, “Pilate killed a bunch of Galileans while they were at worship. And he mixed their blood with the blood of the sacrifices on the altar.” They probably expected Jesus to be outraged, after all, Jesus is a Galilean, raised in Nazareth. I can imagine a tense hush as people sitting around begin to listen in and wait for the response. In our version of this I can see Jesus let out a soft breath and look the crowd over before answering.
“Do you think those murdered Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Not at all. Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die. And those eighteen in Jerusalem the other day, the ones crushed and killed when the Tower of Siloam collapsed and fell on them, do you think they were worse citizens than all other Jerusalemites? Not at all. Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die.”
I imagine Jesus looking around the room and seeing confused faces staring back at him. I can see Jesus leaning forward, elbows on the table and hands raised for emphasis as he prepares to explain in a very Jewish way, the parable.
“A man had an fig tree planted in his front yard. He came to it expecting to find figs, but there weren’t any. He said to his gardener, ‘What’s going on here? For three years now I’ve come to this tree expecting figs and not one fig have I found. Chop it down! Why waste good ground with it any longer?’
“The gardener said, ‘Let’s give it another year. I’ll dig around it and fertilize, and maybe it will produce next year; if it doesn’t, then chop it down.’”
The writer of Luke ends the story there, as though Jesus parable is the final word and everyone gets it. In his day, the writer might be correct, but for us, we could use a little help sorting the symbols here.
If you remember from last week, when we look at symbols, we understand them as the sign (signifier), what the sign points or refers to (signified), and what the sign means. As before, we will walk through this idea of defining each of these things to arrive at a meaning for the story we are looking at. I believe in doing this, we will find a good interpretation of the story and its intent, at the very least, one that speaks to the journey that we find ourselves on now. This week, we will look at the fig tree, the landowner, and the gardener.
First, we look at the fig tree itself. According to some sources, “After the grape, the most valued fruit was the fig (tĕ ēnâ), mentioned fifty-three times in the bible.” The fig tree provided not only an important crop, which could be used to make food for use in a variety of situations (dried figs were made into cakes that could be carried by warriors and travelers), but also provided large areas of shade with some trees measuring thirty feet in height and twenty-five feet in diameter. Figs were used by Egyptians who were recovering from malnourishment, with the prescription being to give them “a piece of fig cake and two clusters of raisins” along with water. Figs also had the potential of producing several crops of fruit each year, with the sweeter fruit harvested in late summer and another crop near the beginning of winter.
As Jesus tells this parable, it is in response to the conversation we have just talked about. The people Jesus was talking to and Jesus himself are talking about how certain Jews have experienced several tragic events, one at the hands of the Romans and the other, a result of a natural disaster. Professor John Klotz sees the situation this way,
A fig tree puts out its earliest fruit buds before its leaves, the former in February and the latter in April or May. After the leaves appear the fruit ought to be ripe…The fig tree bearing leaves without fruit was a symbol of Jerusalem. The regular sacrifices and prayers in the temple, the services in the synagogues, and the meticulous keeping of the Law gave the impression of a lush and healthy religious life. But the expected fruit of true spirituality was not there.
As he points out, Jerusalem had the teaching of Moses, the wisdom of the Psalms and Proverbs, the preaching of the prophets, and now the teaching of Jesus, and yet they still would not hear, still could not see. I think the fig tree in this case does represent Israel and that Jesus is saying in effect that the Jewish people are not producing fruit as they ought to have done.
Second is the landowner. The landowner in this story is one who has the right to decide the fate of all things on his land. In Jesus day, many of the landowners were absentee, meaning they lived in the city most of the time, attending to their business affairs and only went to the land they owned to inspect it or settle issues that might have arisen. This was due to the Roman Empire’s commercialization of agriculture which took away the small family owned farm to be replaced with larger, sharecropped farms, with peasants making a subsistence living and the landowners (in the Jew’s case, the temple authorities and high ranking council members in collusion with Romans), living well off the work they did. Landowners were business men and if the tree doesn’t produce fruit, it’s not worth keeping. Again, Klotz points out,
The land owner had a right to expect fruit; that was the purpose of the care lavished on the tree. For three years he waited in vain and then determined to cut it down. The vinedresser pleaded for one more year of grace; then he too agreed to its destruction.
In this parable, however, God is himself the landowner, the Lord over Israel, even if foreigners are occupying Israel. God has brought Israel out of Egypt, as is repeatedly attested to in the Old Testament, and has given them this land. Throughout the Torah, The Histories, the Writings, and the Prophets, God is referred to as king over Israel, with the human rulers called ‘princes’ beneath God. As such, God is entitled as sovereign over the Jews to see them ‘yield fruits’ or repentance, obedience, and worship. Klotz writes,
God had every reason to expect the fruits of faith in the loyalty and obedience of His people, particularly of the people of Jerusalem, where the temple stood and the prophets preached.
In this parable, the sign of landowner stands in for God, a sign whose meaning is one of judgment but also mercy and benevolent care as we will see in the next sign.
The gardener is the one with his fingers on the pulse of the land itself. Day in, day out, the gardener has his hands in the soil, on the leaves and branches. He is connected in a way that the landowner cannot be because he has watched the plant from seed come to what it is. This direct contact with the fields and plants is reminiscent of the prophet.
Throughout the history of Israel, there have always been those who spoke for God and on behalf of the people. In the story of Abraham, Abraham speaks on behalf of Lot and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. During the Exodus, Moses speaks on behalf of the people when God is preparing to strike down that ‘stiff-necked’ people. The writings of the major and minor prophets are filled with stories of those crying out on Israel’s behalf despite Israel’s wandering spiritual ways. Even Jesus himself, the last of the great prophets of the Temple periods, cries out for Jerusalem and on behalf of the Jews, and preaches his message in synagogues and Jewish communities. The gardener is a type of intercessor, one who stands up for someone who cannot stand up for themselves.
When we take all these signs and tease out their meaning, we get a picture of the second chance. Jesus uses the parable in the story to illustrate the point that God (the landowner) has sent the prophets, Jesus included, as gardeners to tend to the spiritual well-being of Israel. The fig tree of Israel has not produced fruits of repentance and discipleship but has instead, gone their own way after their own ideas and desires. They take up the nourishment of God’s love and affection and the tending of the prophet’s teaching and wisdom but produce nothing in response. In the parable, Israel is being given another season to change, to repent, to turn in a different direction, one that leads them toward God.
As we examine our lives, what kind fruit do we produce? Are a people who are taking up the nourishment of God’s love and affection and the tending of Jesus teaching and the Holy Spirit’s wisdom but produce nothing in response? Have we made the faith we profess nothing more than a ritual, limited to an hour or so of good behavior on Sunday morning to assuage our conscience on a weekly basis?
I think these questions are the natural response to the signs in the story and parable we have read in Luke 13. Is repentance, turning our mind and being toward that of God, our response to these questions? Let us examine ourselves, as the season of Lent calls us to do, and respond, amen.
Crossan, John Dominic, and Marcus Borg. The Last Week. 1st (Paperback). New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishing, 2007.
King, Philip J., and Lawrence E. Stager. Life in Biblical Israel. Lousiville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001.
Klotz, John W. (John William). “The vine, the fig tree, and the olive: a study in biblical symbolism.” Concordia Journal 6, no. 6 (November 1980): 256-260.
Peterson, Eugene, ed. The Message Study Bible. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress Publishing Group, 2005, 2012.
 (Peterson 2005, 2012), p. 1609
 (King and Stager 2001), p.104
 (King and Stager 2001), p.104; (Klotz 1980), p.258
 (Klotz 1980), p. 258
 (Crossan and Borg 2007), p.17-18
 (Klotz 1980), p.259
 (Klotz 1980), p.259