The Parable of the Unfruitful Fig Tree
Like all of Jesus' parables, it's tempting to interpret the Parable of the Unfruitful Fig Tree in a way that makes us feel good and points to the other guy. It's easy to see that Jesus was talking about the Jewish establishment of the time. The fig tree long represented the people of God and Jesus was nearing the end of his three year public ministry. However, that wouldn't do the parable justice. We must look at the parable with sinner's ears and a repentant heart.
It's also easy to say, "Jesus was talking about the Jews of his time when he cursed the fig tree and cleared the temple courts in Mark 11, he was talking about them—those other people. But Jesus doesn't want us to root out the evil in the other man. He wants us to root out the evil within us and within those things we hold most dear. It is only then when sanctification (the true healing of ourselves) really starts to take hold in our lives and he begins to transform us, our families and our church.
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”
Just before Jesus tells his disciples this parable, some people were present that were asking Jesus about two disaster-related current events. First let me add that these two events, the murder of Galileans and the falling tower of Siloam, just add to the reality of the Gospels. This isn't the sort of thing people make up.
What kind of questions do you ask when a disaster or terrible event occurs to a community, family or an individual? Most of us have at least briefly entertained the notion, "What must have they done to bring a catastrophe upon themselves." But Jesus responds with a formidable, "I tell you, no!" People who perish in disasters have not sinned any worse than anyone else. He forever eliminates the reality of fatalistic or deterministic notions of that sort. That type of thinking is hogwash.
But in the same breath, he then explains, "But unless you repent, you too will all perish." Did he really mean "perish" if we don't repent? How often must we repent? Once and for all? I expect that he means that repentance is a ongoing process throughout our lives as he explains elsewhere in his teaching. He wants us to be salt of the earth, which means we must continually be salted with fire. We must be continually repentant. Not just once. This is part of our sanctification. Repentance prepares us to be in the kingdom of heaven as his bride.
Next he explains why we must be repentant with the Parable of the Unfruitful Fig Tree, which not only applies to the Jews of his day, but also to us. If we are not repentant, we cannot bear fruit. When we do not realize our sin, we hide our eyes from it, and we cannot be cleansed of it. Sin then lurks deep within. We must call a spade a spade in our hearts so God can prune the sin from our lives. Our sin prevents us to produce fruit. Sin allows tares flourish rather than the wheat. But repentance destroys the tares in our lives and allows the wheat the grow. Repentance says to God, come in under my roof and clean my heart. I cannot be cleansed without you. We call out in humility, like the Psalmist cries out to God, "Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me."
Only in a humble state, we can love others. We cannot love others when we are not humble, because then we look down on them from above. We must love others with that lowly childlike love—not the 'I'll teach you how to love from my high ground' type of love.
In this parable the vineyard owner probably represents God, the caretaker represents Jesus, and the tree represents the nation of Israel as well as us individually. It's interesting to note that the vineyard owner also exhibits characteristics of Jesus especially when compared to when he cursed the fig tree.
In Mark 11:14 as Jesus passed a barren fig tree just before he cleared the temple courts, he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” Then after his outrage at the temple because of all the money changers, he and his disciples passed the withered, dead fig tree. Again, we mustn't point fingers at the nation of Israel, but more so at our own heart. How do I sell the word of God for profit? How do I pump myself up in front of others for my personal gain and reputation in society by what I say about Jesus and his Church—for good and bad? We must learn from the parable, repent and have the sin pruned from our lives.
Finally, let's connect how this parable relates to the lesson of the fig tree. It's a short parable that has always been a mystery to me. In this lesson, Jesus is talking about the final times. He explains how we should know when the kingdom is near.
Matthew 24:32-35“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
This lesson may apply to both the Church (the New Israel) as well as us individually. God knows that his Church will one day produce good, delicious and nourishing fruit. And at that time the kingdom will have come in full. But just before then, the Church's branches will be budding out into leaves. His people will be full of joy and love. His people will be in great expectation.
Jesus makes it clear though, that though the leaves will be sprouting from the tender twigs of the pruned branches of his Church, "heaven and earth" may be about to pass away. So, there may be great tribulation and difficulty at the time as well. But during that time, God's people will be entering a period of great joy, hope and love.
I must add that this seems to apply to the 'end times', however, it most likely also applies locally to us individually. There have been many martyrs who were budding out in the great joy, hope and love, despite the trials and the painful deaths they experienced.
But the message from the Parable of the Unfruitful Fig Tree is to allow Jesus, our caretaker, to fertilize us with his word and to prune us through our repentance. Our merciful God graciously grants us one more year. Take that year and see how God makes you flourish anew. The alternative is not an option.
Image: The Vine Dresser and the Fig Tree - James Tissot