Translation Tony Dickinson
This story of the barren fig tree carries within it some fundamental questions, which are resolved today no better than they were 2000 years ago. Christianity will always have something to say about the fact that profit takes precedence over care for the living…
What is the point of this story about the barren fig tree? A landowner who orders the cutting down of a tree which doesn’t produce fruit? What could be more natural? And a workman who asks him to wait. Where is the Gospel teaching? Commentators, since the first centuries, have responded by using allegory: they said that the meaning of the text was hidden. And that it was up to the Doctors and other bishops to give understandable explanations. And here is the hidden meaning: the fig tree represents the Jewish people, or all the pagans who bear no fruit because they do not wish to believe in Jesus. And the landowner is God who begins to lose patience and become angry. But the workman, who is Jesus, intercedes and promises to look after all those people and he will perhaps save them. Then God is happy to continue waiting. But why question God’s patience? Why would God wish to eliminate those who do not follow the message of Jesus? It is the Christian commentators who have had these wicked thoughts. Is it God’s impatience or human impatience? Really, nothing proves that this allegorical interpretation was Luke’s intention.
Let us stay with the literal meaning of the story, instead of going in search of explanations outside the text. The fig tree was a tree widespread in Israel. It was commonplace to find it among vines; the Bible very often links the fig tree and the olive tree with the vine. And it’s around these three fruits of the earth that a large part of the economic life of the rural regions turns. We need to keep that in mind if we wish to understand the parable.
The landowner isn’t interested in the fig tree but in the figs. He is looking only at the profit, he wants his capital to earn and has not really understood that a fig tree demands attentive care, that it needs loving attention in order to produce fruit. But the landowner has the time to spend only once a year and to note that he does not have his profit, that this fig tree is yielding nothing for him. There is no place for ventures that do not yield quickly enough. Kill it; cut it down.
The worker in the vineyard, who works on this land every day, does not think only about immediate profit. He suggests taking time with this tree and waiting a year before cutting it down. He is thinking about its continued health which needs attention, tender loving care. Manure is needed to feed it, and the earth around it needs aerating. Good living conditions come first, then productivity. You mustn’t kill the venture too quickly under the pretext that profit is slow in coming.
We don’t know what was decided in the end, whether that landowner allowed himself to be swayed by the humane arguments of the vine-dresser. The parable doesn’t reach a conclusion. It opens on to hope. Hope that the landowner will not look only to his profit, that he will accept a little better care being given to this poor tree. We always have to hope before committing an act that is irreparable.
Of course Jesus was not a businessman. And the situation of rural Palestine 2000 years ago was not that of our developed countries. All the same it is striking that Luke feels the need to draw attention to the good health of living things before looking at what they are not producing. He is saying that the search for profit must not prevent living things from living.
Obviously we know all that. It does not prevent our society from crashing into these fundamental questions and risking its own destruction: we eliminate trees, forests, human beings, societies, businesses because they do not yield enough. The evangelist sensed that two thousand years ago as he told this little parable. He invites us to hope, to think more about life than about profit. We must hope and cultivate the earth with patience so that life may subsist. Such is the law of God. We must be God’s gardeners.
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