January 12, 2003

The Fig Tree
Luke 13:6-9

When I moved into the office here at the church for the first time nearly a year and a half ago already, the office was almost completely empty, but there were a few things there. One of them was a tree – and it was a tree. It wasn’t a flower; it was a tree. It was apparently dead. There wasn’t a sign of life anywhere on it. My immediate reaction was, of course, to take this tree and help it find its way graciously to the dumpster out back. I decided to water it with some regularity for the next several weeks. Before long, you could actually begin to see a few leaves springing up. It was almost more remarkable than seeing a dandelion growing through your freshly paved driveway. Where I had no sense that any life whatsoever existed, this tree was coming back to life.

In Luke 13:6-9, Luke recounts for us a parable in which Jesus describes a similar situation. Jesus had just finished speaking about the necessity for people to repent, and then tells this parable as an illustration.

A certain man had a fig tree, as many people did in Palestine back then. In fact, it was the fig, along with the pomegranate and the grape, that impressed the spies whom Moses had sent out to explore the promised land (Numb. 13:23). Having a fig tree, therefore, was not unusual, nor was the fact that the man had planted it in his vineyard. In Palestine to this day, you will often see a fig tree growing among the grape vines, or in a vegetable garden. So here was a man with a fig tree in the middle of his vineyard.

Now the obvious reason for his having such a tree there was that he wanted to enjoy the fruit as the spies had; a fig tree is certainly not something beautiful to look at. But we are told that he never had that privilege. Upon coming to the vineyard, he found that the tree was totally lacking fruit. So the man approached his hired vinedresser and told him to cut it down. Now it’s clear that the owner is not acting impulsively. In fact, he has been similarly disappointed for the last three years; three potential fruit-bearing years that is, not just three years since the tree was planted. Leviticus 19:23 makes it clear that one was not allowed to eat the fruit of a tree during the first three years after it was planted, so this particular fig tree must have been at least six years old. Clearly, there had been an ample period of time for it to bear fruit, but it didn’t and most assuredly never would. Therefore, the only reasonable thing to do was to cut it down. After all, it was only occupying space that could be used more wisely, and it was, as fig trees do, depriving the other plants of their needed nourishment.

At this point, the vinedresser himself offers a suggestion. He would like the owner to postpone having the tree cut down for one additional year. During that time, the vinedresser would pamper it; give it special attention, which would be particularly unusual insofar as fig trees are really quite undemanding and require very little care. Every step will be taken to promote the production of fruit. Then, after this one-year period, if there is fruit, all is well. If not, the ax will fall.

With that, the parable comes to a rather abrupt conclusion. We are certainly led to believe that the owner goes along with the plan and that the fig tree is placed on one-year probation; it is given a chance to turn over a new leaf. Even the outcome is not discussed, nor is it important. Rather, the importance lies in the circumstances surrounding the fig tree itself: its condition, its probationary period, and its possible destinies.

What we must do, then, is consider the meaning of the parable for us. In doing so, let me point out that, unlike some of the other parables, this particular one is not followed by its interpretation. Neither Jesus nor Luke come right out and say, “This is what it means,” as Jesus did, for example, in Matthew 13 concerning the parable of the weeds. Here in Luke 13, we simply have the parable. It is true that most commentators understand the fig tree as being Israel, the people of God, who up until the time of Jesus had produced no fruit. However, they were given another opportunity to bear fruit, an opportunity which they collectively rejected by failing to follow the risen Christ. This refusal brought disaster upon them in the form of the Roman-Jewish war of 66-70 A.D. Such an interpretation seems relatively clear and quite sound, but can we leave it at that? I think not, for surely those principles seen within this parable continue to reflect the human situation and the response of God, even to this day. Let’s turn our attention, therefore, to this parable and its potential influence upon our own lives.

In the parable of the fig tree, we see first of all the necessity to honestly reflect upon the past. In the case of the fig tree, the bearing of fruit was not simply desirable, but expected. Likewise, there was a certain period of time during which this necessary activity could be evaluated. In the Near East, fig trees tend to produce their crops at a specific time of the year, so it becomes relatively easy to determine whether they are producing or not. Growth in the lives of people is equally important, though not nearly as regular or as predictable. As such, it is appropriate for us on occasion to examine the evidence and to see whether or not we are indeed bearing fruit. This does not involve that continual plucking up of one’s roots, that constant introspection to see whether we are growing or not. Likewise, I am not referring to that depressing habit of so many Christians whereby they are forever evaluating their own spirituality; the point of evaluation generally leaves us discouraged. It’s also unproductive, for rather than looking to the Lord for our spiritual nourishment, we look to ourselves, try to put our trust in our own growth, and go nowhere.

I am suggesting, however, that it is indeed appropriate to sit back quietly occasionally and reflect on who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. Isn’t that essentially what the Psalmist did at times? On one of those occasions, these familiar words came to his mind:
Search me, O God, and know my heart,
Try me and know my thoughts.
See it there be any wicked way in me, and
lead me in the way everlasting. (Ps. 139:23-24)
Serious, prayerful reflection. Is my life what it should be? Are there unsurrendered areas that I’m holding on to? Are my priorities in order? Understanding that who I am today affects who I will be tomorrow, if my life continues along the same way that it is now going, if I continue to do the same things, where will I be one year, five years, even ten years from today? Am I yielded to God? Is there fruit in my life? Or have I stopped growing? Am I cold, hard, unproductive, a Christian in name but certainly not in spirit. Perhaps on an even more basic level, am I a Christian at all, or have I either been running or playing games? Serious, prayerful reflection, one of the benefits of the Sabbath in the Old Testament, as well as the sabbatical year.

Years ago when I used to teach Introduction to Bible here at the college, I gave the students the first day of every semester a paper and asked them to fill it out. I wanted them to give me an honest evaluation of who they were, where they had come from, what their background was, their tradition, how they would evaluate their lives at that point in time. It was often insightful to me to read and to see some of the struggles that they were going through. They took the time to reflect. We need to stop and think for a few moments once in a while, and try to make an honest appraisal of our lives. Where are we headed? Are we bearing fruit?

But this matter of reflection, I must hasten to add, is not an end in itself. Sometimes it might be encouraging, but often the appraisal at which we arrive is not at all what we had hoped for. One of the things that I like to do from time to time, is to go back and read in my own personal journal. I read one entry recently from twenty years ago. I saw something that I had written and thought, “I don’t deal with that anymore! God is good; I’m making progress. I’m not the same person I was twenty years ago.” There are other times, quite frankly, when I read an entry and scratch my head, thinking “I could have written that today.” In that I feel challenged and encouraged to begin to readdress issues that need my attention.

Just as the fig tree was barren, we sometimes are led to see that our own lives aren’t overly fruitful either. As the fig tree is about to be cut down, we too feel lost and without hope. “If only I would have done things differently.” “If only I would have committed that area, that problem.” “If only I would have trusted Christ sooner.” “If only I would have done this or done that.” “If only, if only, if only.” “If only” are two of the weakest, most useless words in the entire English language. “If only.”

I had a friend, now mind you, he was only in his early 30’s. In talking with him on a certain occasion, he commented about how he regretted that he hadn’t given his life to Christ earlier and that he hadn’t gone to Bible college. “If only I had gone to school, think what I’d be doing today.” He still hasn’t gone, but he continues to say “If only” quite a bit. “If only.” Despair over the past, but “If onlying” doesn’t do a thing for today or tomorrow.

In reality, we’ll never be any younger than we are at this very moment. And we can’t bring back wasted opportunities. But you know one thing this parable tells us? It says, “You don’t have to stop with the ‘if onlys.’” For, just as the vinedresser interrupted, “Sir, leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it,” so too is the Son of God pleading our case at the very throne of grace, even as the Holy Spirit nudges each of our hearts, saying, “Stop saying ‘if only.’ There is still time. Today is another day. God is a God of grace; He wants your life to be fruitful. There’s hope.” Indeed there is. For in the light of prayerful reflection, even if our findings aren’t very encouraging, we can look to a gracious God for help.

Arriving at a biblical awareness of our own shortcomings or lack of fruit is not intended to leave us defeated, but rather to inspire us to leave that behind us and to reach out so that we might be fruitful today and tomorrow. We needn’t mope around in defeat; as long as we have breath, we can be changed. “Lord, I know I have trouble controlling my tongue; take it from me and use it for your glory. I’m so undisciplined; I waste time; help me to make the most of every moment you give me. I continually shy away from opportunities to share you with others; grant me courage. I’m insensitive and unloving sometimes; help me to know what true compassion is all about. I’ve not been the example you want me to be at home; help me to be the same person there as I am in church. I’ve been more interested in doing things my own way; help me to die to myself. I’ve been running from you for so long, Lord; take my life, it’s yours.” Fruitless? Perhaps. But, let me ask you honestly, why stay that way? We’ve been granted probation. We have another chance. And the Spirit of God has been given to nurture our very lives.

But how long will that chance last? For the fig tree, it lasted one additional year. For us? Who knows. A decade? A year? A month? A week? For some, maybe only a day. One thing is certain. The grace period comes to an end. “If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.” God is a god of grace and mercy, but there are only so many tomorrows. While we might not yet be out of time, we must be careful, for we really do not have all the time in the world.

What a marvelous, marvelous parable this really is. What looks like an announcement of judgment, “Cut it down,” turns out to be an invitation to repentance, “One more year.” However, that year, in and of itself, won’t change a thing. But with the vinedresser adding extra fertilizer, there is hope. That’s precisely what God wants to do with each of our lives today. Work with us, shape us, prune us, water us. If we will let him, imagine the fruit that could grow in the coming year.

Have you made your new year’s resolutions yet? How about this one. “Mindful of the past but not bound by it, this will be the year, indeed, the day, when God gains full control of my life.” The parable of the barren fig tree is a parable of a barren, fruitless past, complete with wasted opportunities and unfulfilled possibilities. But it is also a parable of a gracious owner, a concerned vinedresser, and a future full of hope.

That tree that was in my office, by the way, is dead. Those little leaves weren’t lasting. They withered and fell off. Ken Deaver had to vacuum my floor every day. It made its way out of the office and into the dumpster. I have this incredibly increasing suspicion that that’s not what is going to happen to us. We’re going to grow, be fruitful, rejoice, progress, and in the process give God all the glory. God changes lives, and he would like nothing more than to do just that in yours and in mine today.