Translation Canon Tony Dickinson
This story of the barren fig tree carries within it some fundamental questions, not resolved today any better than they were 2000 years ago. Christianity will always have something to say about the fact that profit takes precedence over giving care to 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 Christian commentators who have had these wicked thoughts. Is it God’s impatience or human impatience? There is really nothing to prove that this allegorical interpretation was intended by Luke.
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 only once a year does the landowner have time to spend and to note that he is not getting his profit, that this fig tree is yielding nothing for him. There is no room for undertakings that do not produce fast enough. Kill it; cut it down.
The worker in the vineyard, who works every day on this land 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 good health which needs attention, tender loving care. Manure is needed to feed it, and the earth around it needs aerating. First you need good living conditions, then you get productivity. You mustn’t kill the undertaking 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 out on to hope. Hope that the landowner will not look only to his profit, that he will accept this poor tree being given a little better care. 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 proves 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 work this earth with patience in order that life may subsist. Such is the law of God. We must be God’s gardeners.
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