You Must Be Ready, The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
Fig trees aren’t usually planted in grape vineyards. Perhaps the landowner in this parable wanted some shade for his grapes. Maybe he wanted to make some figgy wine. But when, after three years, the tree produced no figs, the owner told the vinedresser to cut it down. In such arid terrain, every bit of cultivated land must be productive. The vinedresser, who knew about figs and vineyards, said that the tree should be given one more year.
The Old Testament prophets repeatedly compared Israel to a vine that is to bear fruit. “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel.” (Isaiah 5:7) The Lord loves his vineyard, but when it fails to bear fruit it is to be “trampled down” and made “a waste.” (Isaiah 5:5-6) Israel will be judged for its fruitlessness.
Jesus’ parables in Luke 12-14 also portend judgment – for those who do not protect the master’s house while he is delayed in returning, for those who mistreat the servants when the master delays, for those who refuse to come to the wedding feast when the king finally returns. Jesus’ Jewish followers would expect destruction of the tree after a three-year delay when there are no figs.
Always look for the surprise reversal in the parables. Here the completely unexpected surprise is that grace intervenes on judgment. We, like the fig tree, are barren because, during a time of delay before the Lord’s return, we do not bear – indeed we fail to remember that we cannot bear – the fruit of the vital Christ-life. We are barren because we do not ask Jesus to produce by the Spirit the fruit we cannot, that of his life in us. But surprise! There is a year – a season – of grace unexpectedly given!
Lent is a time to confess that we do not produce the fruit of the Christ-life and that often we do not care. Lent is time to pray for a “holy longing” for Jesus and to read, reflect and obey – actually, to beg – that by the Spirit, he will bear such fruit in us. “Please, Lord, one more year.”
What if you had only one more year to bear the fruit you cannot bear. Shouldn’t you beg for the grace that is stronger than judgment, to long that you would see him who, in fact endured the judgment for your barrenness? The Grace Giver becomes barren for you and dies on a barren tree, so that he may bear fruit in you that will last until he returns.
It’s no use seeing God as the angry landowner and Jesus as the grace-filled vine dresser. The heart of the Father and of the Son are the same heart. “In this parable mercy and judgment are given voices that are personified dramatically by the owner and the vinedresser who struggle together over the unfruitful vine. The tension itself is deep within the heart of God.” (Kenneth Bailey) Use your imagination to hear the Father and the Son struggling together over your barrenness and deciding together, out of love, to give you one more year.
Lord, thank you that you became barren that I might produce fruit. I beg you, bear the fruit of your life in me. Give me one more year – or perhaps many – to desire and long and seek that I may bear your life into this world while I wait for your return. Amen.
Skip Ryan has wanted to be an Anglican almost all his life. Finally, after pastoring two Presbyterian churches and leading a Presbyterian seminary, he has come home. He's married to Barbara, and they have three grown children.