He also spoke this parable: “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’ But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.'” (Luke 13:6-9)
First things first. Let’s get some context to this parable. When we look at the backdrop for Jesus’ story, we see that it is actually bookended by two warnings which Jesus gives to the Jewish people and their religious leaders. So the fig tree, I believe, represents the Jewish nation of Jesus’ day as a whole. Scripture often uses a tree or vine to represent the Hebrew nation. See, for example: Jeremiah 2:21, Jeremiah 11:16-17, Psalm 80:8-11. In fact, Jesus’ parable very closely resembles the language of Isaiah 5:1-7, which you can hopefully read in conjunction with this lesson.
A fig tree, it turns out, normally takes three years to reach full maturity. If by the third year it hasn’t started to grow fruit, then the tree’s chances at production are fairly certainly over. (It’s interesting to note that, at the time of this parable, Jesus had spent about three years of His public ministry in Judea.) Yet, in this case, the vineyard keeper and owner agree to give their fig tree just one more chance. Now, as we think about the two characters in this parable–the owner and the keeper of the vineyard–let’s not make the mistake of concluding that these two men were working from different motives regarding the fig tree’s fate. A fruitless fig tree does its owner no good whatsoever, and so the vineyard keeper is merely anticipating the desire of the owner when he begs to give the tree yet one more opportunity. This beautiful quote from Christ’s Object Lessons reads, “The owner and the dresser of the vineyard are one in their interest in the fig tree. So the Father and the Son were one in their love for the chosen people… Every means that the love of God could devise would be put in operation that they might become trees of righteousness, bringing forth fruit for the blessing of the world.” Even as the tree refuses to grow fruit, the Gardener doesn’t abandon it or stop caring for it, does He? Instead, He lavishes even more nurture and care on it! An entire extra year is given to this tree, with every possible opportunity provided for its chance of growth.
So, what happens next? Well, did you notice that Jesus does not tell us the fate of the fig tree? That’s because the parable is, in fact, an invitation. It was an invitation to repentance for the Jewish nation of Jesus’ time, and it’s just as much of an invitation for us today. It’s as if Jesus is saying to each of us, “The end of this story is up to you. I’m holding out My arms of mercy wide open to you. Will you please accept Me?”
Now, let’s jump over to Matthew 21:19 for a second, right up to the very the end of Jesus’ ministry. Here, Jesus finds yet another fig tree by the roadside: “And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, ‘Let no fruit grow on you ever again.’ Immediately the fig tree withered away.” Isn’t that interesting? As we come to the conclusion of Jesus’ ministry, it’s as if we see the fate of the parable’s fig tree played out right in front of us! Tragically, the Jewish religious leaders and the Jewish nation as a whole chose to reject their Messiah. Also notice that while Jesus found no fruit on the tree, He did find of lot of leaves. You see, leaves in Scripture represent our works – our attempts to achieve our own righteousness and overcome our own guilt. Adam and Eve, for example, sewed fig leaves together to try to cover up their shame. It makes sense, right? Leaves are superficial and pretentious. They’re nice to look at, but they hide what’s underneath and can disguise the health of the tree. I read this interesting quote: “A tree which bears only leaves exists only for itself. But when fruit develops, it reaches out to a thousand unborn generations” (Leslie Hardinge, With Jesus in His Sanctuary). Jesus distinguishes the leaves from the real fruit which can only come through God’s work in us.
As we conclude our study, we come to what I feel is the “punch line” of our lesson. You see, for people like me it can be kind of intimidating to read parables like this. It makes me worry whether I’m producing enough fruit or not. Maybe I need to try harder? Work on my self-discipline a little more? But then, as I was writing this blog, I ran across Hosea 14:1-8. And it blew my mind. It reads, “O Israel, return unto the Lord thy God…. I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely…. I will be as the dew unto Israel; he shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon…. They shall revive as the corn, and grow as the vine…. From Me is thy fruit found.” Did you catch that? Isn’t that fantastic news!? God is saying to us, “Don’t you see? You can’t produce any fruit! Only I can produce fruit in you, if you will let Me. So stop trying to do it one your own! Your fruit can only ever come from your relationship and growth in Me. From Me is thy fruit found.” Wow. I am both encouraged and humbled by this powerful reality check. I want so badly to do it all myself sometimes. I want to please God and earn His love, but I keep falling so utterly short. Maybe you can relate, too? Well, maybe it’s time for me to stop trying and start abiding…
Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5)