The Barren Fig Tree

A young man who worked in his father’s shop caught an employee stealing. He went to his father, told him the story, and asked: “What should we do with the fellow?”

“Give him a raise,” his father replied.

“A raise?” his son asked in astonishment.

“If he was stealing, it means he’s not earning enough,” the father explained.

I am sure that you were expecting the thief to be punished, not rewarded, for stealing, just as the young son in the story undoubtedly was. But the father’s sensitivity to the situation, and his understanding of how it should be handled (although not applicable in every case of theft) indicates that there are others ways of looking at things. He saw an employee who was good at his job, but struggling to make ends meet, and saw a way of retaining his services while assuring more loyalty and honesty from him in the future.

I am also sure that you are now wondering what this little anecdote has to do with the parable we are looking at. Little, really, except to illustrate two important points that come in very useful, especially when studying the parables. One, always look beyond the obvious. And, two, observe things from a different perspective. They can serve to change how you react to a given situation dramatically. As an example, if a cup or plate breaks in a Jewish home, the automatic response is “Mazel tov,” which means, “What good fortune!” How can breaking crockery be good fortune? Something of relatively little worth has been destroyed, but in the process has served to tell the person responsible that he was distracted; now that he is more focused, he will avoid greater damage! Looked at with similar understanding, any mishap that takes place in our lives can be seen as something positive rather than negative.

And that brings us to the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree. It’s a simple story. A man owned a vineyard with a fig tree that didn’t bear fruit for three years. He told the gardener tending it to cut it down, but the man told the owner to give it another year. He would dig around the tree and add manure. If it still didn’t bear fruit, he could cut it down. 

What’s a fig tree doing in a vineyard? It isn’t something that is unusual as fig trees provide vines support to grow. And the two plants are associated many times in Scripture. To mention a few, we can find references in Psalm 105:33, Joel 1:7; Micah 4:4, Jeremiah 8:13, and The Song of Solomon 2:13. 

This parable can be found only in Luke’s gospel, but there are references to fig trees in the other synoptic gospels. We can find a story about a fig tree not bearing fruit in Matthew 21:18-22 and Mark 11:12-14,20-25, but the accounts are totally different. In these two stories, Jesus curses the fig tree because it doesn’t bear fruit although it has leaves in abundance, but in Luke’s story, there is no mention of leaves and, even though it isn’t expressly stated, there is leniency and an extension of time, not the instant judgment we find in the other two stories. 

All three writers—Matthew, Mark and Luke—speak about a fig tree in another context: end times. The three versions are identical, practically to the letter. “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Matthew 24:32-33; Mark 13:28-29; Luke 21:29-31).

Although some interpreters have tried to connect the stories, there is nothing really linking them to the parable under study other than a mention of a fig tree so we can safely ignore the others and consider this as a unique story. As with the other parables we have been covering, we will not provide you with an interpretation of the text, but show you how to arrive at a conclusion that is not only spiritually valuable but makes logical sense.

Considering context

The thirteenth chapter of Luke begins with a rather chilling call to repentance. Jesus was chatting with a group of people, when some of them told him that Pontius Pilate, the prefect of the Roman province of Judea, had put a few Galileans to death. Around the same time a tower in Siloam, a neighborhood south of Jerusalem’s Old City, had collapsed crushing eighteen people to death. If the people were expecting sympathy from Jesus, there was none to be had. On the contrary he said, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” (Luke 13:1-5).

In the culture of his time, calamities were often an indication of the sinfulness of the victims, but Jesus is repudiating that notion, warning that catastrophe awaited all who did not repent. Then he tells them this parable, and because it fits into context so well, it appears as though Jesus is warning of impending, but delayed judgment. 

What's the Symbolism?

There are seven elements in this story: a landowner (the ‘man’), a gardener, a fig tree, a vineyard, fruit (or a lack of it), soil that is dug up, and manure. 

The landowner is quite obviously God. The vineyard is the nation of Israel. (We explored these two in The Parable of the Wicked Tenants in our previous issue). The fig tree is the people of Israel. That’s us, today. The fruit is the spiritual harvest that faith needs to produce. The gardener is a little harder to assess. Various scholars have put forward theories, and while each interpreter has his own reasoning for proffering them, none fits all the variables in the story. Let us, therefore, try to discover who the gardener is.

We can usually find clues by looking for other references to the term in Scripture, but the only other mention of a ‘gardener’ can be found in John 20:15 where Mary Magdalene mistakes the resurrected Jesus for a gardener outside his empty tomb. So is Jesus the gardener? There is a case to be made for this theory.

In our story, a tree is about to be cut because it is bearing no fruit. The owner has been extremely patient, returning year after year in the hope of finding fruit but finally tiring of it, he orders, “Cut it down. Why should it be wasting the soil?” John the Baptist speaks about trees being cut when some Pharisees and Sadducees came to him for baptism. “You brood of vipers!” he scolds them. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7-10).

What is the fruit of repentance?

On the day of Pentecost Peter preached a powerful sermon to thousands of people gathered in Jerusalem for the feast. By the end of his sermon, Scripture says that the people were cut to the heart (Acts 2:37). That’s remorse. But that is not enough. When they ask Peter what they needed to do, Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). 

Repentance follows remorse. As understood in the Biblical context this is a change of purpose: a repudiation of the old life of sin and an acceptance of a new life that renounces the ways of the world and embraces the ways of heaven. The fruit of this change should be evident in the way we think, speak, and act. One such indication is our willingness to make amends for our sinful ways because restitution follows repentance. 

Consider David’s sin against Bathsheba. When confronted by the prophet Nathan, David confessed, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13), but didn’t he have an obligation to confess his wrong to his partner in crime too? Don’t we have a similar obligation towards the people we sin against? We expect God’s unconditional and total forgiveness when we go for confession and that is what we receive, but isn’t restitution required as well? For example, if we have stolen something from somebody, don’t we have to return what we have stolen before confessing our sins? Or do we just hang on to the stolen property and say, “It’s ok. We are forgiven”? We may not be able to repair all our sins, but we should certainly remedy those we can.

You are probably familiar with the story of the short tax collector named Zacchaeus whom Jesus visited one day. He had the proverbial “change of heart” when he encountered Jesus, but didn’t just say he was sorry for all the wrong things he had done. Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:8-10).

Jesus, himself said, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). How many of us have given this even the slightest thought? The Pharisees most certainly didn’t because they believed their antecedents would get them into heaven, but John told them that the ax was waiting to chop them down.

But then Jesus shows up, and although the crisis is not lessened, it is temporarily suspended to see if a few changes might make a difference to the productivity in the people. However, the difference of opinion between the gardener and the owner in the parable and the acts of digging and fertilizing the soil simply do not fit the theory of Jesus being the gardener. 

 So who is the gardener, then?

We may get additional clues by examining the parable in greater depth and looking at similar stories in Scripture. Since this is essentially a story of judgment being delayed and/or immediate destruction avoided, where have we heard anything similar before?

We find one story in Genesis 18. Three angels came to visit Abraham to tell him that his wife Sarah and he were going to have a baby. They were both shocked and amused at the news, not surprisingly because they were a really old couple! Before these men left, they told Abraham that they were going to visit Sodom and Gomorrah to see if the reports of their wickedness were true. If it was, they would have to destroy those cities. Abraham pleaded for the salvation of the cities, and after a protracted negotiation might have succeeded but unfortunately there weren’t even the ten righteous people (read: people bearing fruit) that he had bargained for to be found. Still, Abraham managed to save a few: Lot and his family.

We find another story in Exodus 32 where Moses intercedes for the people of Israel. When Moses went up Mount Sinai to speak with God, the Israelites built a golden calf and began worshiping it. God’s anger burned hot. The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation” (Exodus 32:9-10). 

Despite the personal assurances of his own safety and the security of a brighter future that God gave him, Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? (Exodus 32:11). And because of his intervention, the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people (Exodus 32:14). Later, Moses interceded for his people again, and though God said punishment would be forthcoming, he stayed his hand. (see Exodus 32:30-34).

There are several other stories where the prophets of God have pleaded for the people of God. In most instances they identified with the sins of the people. Ezra was one such prophet (see Ezra 9:6-15); Daniel, another (see Daniel 9:4-19); Nehemiah, a third (see Nehemiah 1:3-11). God paid heed, and in this we see that the gardener in our parable might be the intercessor, but not just any person interceding; it is the leader as intercessor!

This suddenly makes the parable of special interest to the leaders of the church. Just as the Jewish leaders were responsible for the people under their care—the fig tree in our story; Christian leaders are responsible for their flock in the Church today. This might seem like common sense, but as a wise man said, there is nothing common about common sense. Consequently, it is the responsibility of the gardener to ensure the tree in his care bears fruit. And he will be held accountable. 

(There are other parables and stories about how the responsibility for not bearing fruit lies with the tree—that is, the person. The stories about Jesus cursing the fig tree would be examples of this, but as Jesus is not assigning fault to the tree in this parable, we will ignore any problems inherent in the tree, itself, that prevents it from bearing fruit.)

Are people bearing the fruit of repentance today? If they are there should be evidence all around us, but there isn’t any. The Church looks like a tree in winter, shriveled, dried, and bereft of fruit or foliage, and only somebody in total denial would disagree. There are people like that. I visited a Bishop in a country that will remain unnamed who gave me a proper dressing down for suggesting the Church was in trouble, telling me that contrary to what I was saying, the Church was booming like never before. I dropped by to attend the Sunday service on my way out to find two parishioners in attendance. Booming, indeed! He must have had one the week before. That’s an impressive 100% increase! Well, I did say that perspective matters. 

So what is the problem? The gardeners have their priorities wrong. They occupy themselves with every task imaginable to secure the vineyard except ensuring the trees under their care are bearing fruit. God is calling the gardeners to account today, and since most of them couldn’t care less if trees bore fruit or not, God is putting John’s ax to use. With rare exception, churches are closing in every country in the world, and the gardeners are being put out to pasture. 

Is there a solution? Yes, by being gardeners who are deeply sorry that they have failed and confessing this terrible mistake to God, showing they bear the fruit of repentance themselves. Like Moses, they go to God and cry out on behalf of the people, even offering themselves as atonement: “If you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written” (Exodus 32:32). Like Nehemiah, they sit down and weep at the feet of the Lord confessing not only the sins of the people, but their own as well. “Both I and my family have sinned. We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances that you commanded your servant Moses” (Nehemiah 1:6b-7). Like Ezra they cry out, “O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens” (Ezra 9:6). 

Then they appeal to God for a little more time so that they can dig around the tree and put manure on it. Why dig around the tree? Without getting into too much of technical detail sometimes soil around a tree gets so compacted, roots are unable to penetrate the soil. Compacted soils are also prone to drought. Third, compacted soils often have lower nutrient and organic matter levels. In spiritual terms, we can compare compacted soil to hardened hearts. This is caused by years of religiosity, legalism, unrepented sin and unforgiveness, and the habit of concentrating on an external show of faith than an internal connection with God. This described the Jew of Jesus’ time; it also describes many Christians of today. Little wonder there is no fruit. So how can this soil be broken? There is only one thing that can really pierce the heart and change it: the word of God. Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). If the gardener is to really make a difference to the soil around the tree, he has to pound hardened hearts with God’s mighty sword, and a watered down, sugar-coated, ten-minute homily just isn’t going to do it. It is going to take hours and hours of teaching to break the hard crust of false teaching one hears all around us, with no substantiation either in Scripture or in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the absurdities carried out in the name of inculturation and other deviant practices. 

And then, of course, is the use of manure in the soil. What is that? Well, it is us! Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot” (Matthew 5:13). We normally think of salt in terms of household use as a preservative or a flavor enhancer, but in Jesus’ time it was also used as a fertilizer. Specialists in environmental science and soil chemistry say that salt has been a major method of fertilizing soil for centuries. 

We are required to be that salt. But Jesus adds that in order to be effective, we need to retain the flavor. Salt, however, which is sodium chloride (NaCl), is extremely stable and cannot lose its flavor. The only way it can is if it was corrupted by other compounds. When this mixture was exposed to moisture, the NaCl, which was the most soluble compound, would disappear leaving behind a white powder that looked just like salt, but without any flavor or preservative abilities. This would describe the person who to all external appearances was Christian, but who was far from being a true follower of Christ, totally corrupted by the ways of the world. 

Therefore, the task of the Christian gardener would be to weed out these people who unfortunately seem to be found in positions of leadership in almost every parish in the world, and use Christians who were genuine in their sincerity and devotion to Christ instead. Do note that these are not people who lead lives without sin—such people don’t exist; but people who are conscious of their weaknesses and failings but nonetheless determined to be as faithful as they can be with the grace of God. There are people like this to be found, if only one knows how to look, and if there really is a paucity of such people, they can always be nurtured in the faith. How?

We have one solution. Over the past six years the ministry that publishes this magazine has been engaged in the training of people in the faith with three objectives in mind: to learn it, to live it, and to share it. Called Schools of Discipleship, this year-long program has churned out thousands of people all over the world who have a genuine love for Christ and a desire to serve him. With nearly 100 such Schools in 14 countries, this program is spearheading a new revival in the Catholic Church. If you are a priest or pastor reading this, check out the program and the vision behind it (you will find details elsewhere in this magazine). It might get work in the vineyard started.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? (Romans 10:13-15a). To this one might add, “And how can we send them without teaching them?” 


This parable is left without resolution. What happens after the year is over? Being a natural optimist who also happens to have tremendous faith in Christ and the inherent goodness of humankind, this author believes that at the end of the year the efforts of the gardener bore much fruit and the landowner was immensely delighted with the abundance of figs he found at his next visit. 

I believe that God is igniting a new zeal in the gardeners in his vineyard today—priests, pastors, preachers, and other shepherds of the church—and they will do what they can to bear fruit in the people entrusted to their care. If you happen to be one of these, may God bless you mightily. And may the Spirit be with you. ν

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