On Saving a Fig Tree

Both Matthew and Mark have brief stories of Jesus cursing a fig tree for not bearing fruit even though it is not the season for figs. The story is puzzling and some people think Jesus is just throwing a childish tantrum.

Fig trees, like vines, have much resonance throughout the Bible and the Gospels are almost certainly referring to some of the verses about them. In 1 Kings 4: 21 it says: “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all of them under their vines and fig trees.” Micah prophesies that “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4: 4) In contrast to these images of well-being, Jeremiah complains that “there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.” (Jer, 8: 13) The fig tree appears to stand for Israel as a whole in these instances and they make Jesus’ curse of the fig tree understandable as a prophetic warning that Israel is on the verge of becoming irremediably fruitless.

In Luke, Jesus refers to two recent disasters:: Pilate’s mingling the blood of some Galileans with his sacrifices, and the collapse of the Tower of Siloam. (Lk. 13: 1–5) He scotches the blame game where we assume the victims deserve what they got, but warns the crowd that all will perish in an equally horrible way if they do not repent. Paul refers to a series of disasters at least as ghastly in First Corinthians: the Israelites fell, were destroyed by serpents, or destroyed by the Destroyer on account of sinful behavior. In both examples, there is a mixture of natural causes and human causes, both of which show Israel suffering disaster for failing to bear fruit, like the barren fig tree.

The small parable in Luke (Lk. 13: 6–9) gives us a different take on the fruitless fig tree. The owner is losing patience after three years without fruit and demands that the tree be cut down, but the gardener pleads for one more chance. The gardener will make an extra effort and see if that makes the tree bear some fruit. One wonders if this gardener will ever stop pleading for one more year, year after year. This is in dramatic contrast to the threatening words of imminent disaster the precede the parable.

Jesus’s cursing the fig tree for not bearing fruit and Jesus’ parable seem to work at cross purposes. Is there a resolution to this tension? The Old Testament reading adds weight to the gentler position in Luke. Yahweh, speaking to Moses out of the burning bush, promises to deliver the Israelites from Egypt and bring them to a land where they will find, among other things, fig trees, as Moses’s sermon in Deuteronomy promises. (Ex, 3: 8; Deut. 8: 8) Hosea spoke of Israel as “like the first fruit on the fig tree, in its first season.” (Hos. 9: 10) This initial commitment suggests that God will not give up on Israel easily, and probably not at all, no matter how barren the tree. We can ask ourselves: Are we like the owner who has given up on the fig tree that is human culture today, or are we like the gardener who will keep on trying when we fail to bear fruit year after year?

In his first Epistle, Peter says that Jesus bore our sins in his body on the tree. (1 Pet. 2: 24). Could this tree be the withered fig tree? In the parable in Luke, the gardener says he will put manure around the barren tree. Manure is considered a waste product, but farmers know that it brings fertility. Is Jesus, the stone rejected by the builders, (Ps. 118: 22; Lk. 20: 17) himself the manure that makes the withered tree bear fruit again as Gil Bailie and Paul Nuechterlein suggest? Are we willing to give of ourselves for the sake of others who seem to be as barren as the fig tree?