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Gospel according to Luke 13: 6-9 (NIV)
6 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. 7 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?’
8 ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig round it and fertilise it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”
“Parables provoke interpretation … Parables demand interpretation, and multiple, diverse and successive commentary is their destiny.”*
This short parable of Jesus about a recalcitrant fig tree appears only in the Gospel according to Luke with no further elaboration. What then are we to make of it?
Two people engaged in a short conversation about the fig tree. We need not regard the vineyard’s owner and the vinedresser as representing two different persons of the Holy Trinity. Nor need we regard the periods of time, “three years” and “one more year”, as representing set proportions of historical time.
Could the vineyard’s owner and the vinedresser together represent the kind of internal dialogue of One who had the authority to remove a planting that remained stubbornly unproductive? Demonstrated here is the tug between justice and mercy, a paradox to which God alone has the final answer. As eternally holy, God cannot countenance sin in his presence. As eternally loving, God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2: 4).
The warning for the fig tree reminds me of the warning of John the Baptiser: “The axe has been laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3: 9).
Over recent years I have, I admit, prayed with increasing earnestness for the imminent return of our Lord. It seems to me that the affairs of this world are deteriorating rapidly when compared against the standards that our Lord requires of his people. I find myself wondering how much worse can matters become? But then, after reading a few chapters of the Hebrew Scriptures, I am reminded that circumstances were quite grim two-to-three millennia ago too. Moreover there is the warning of The Teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes (7: 10):
Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”
For it is not wise to ask such questions.
Thank you Lord that you have afforded me the extra time I needed to repent, to be humbled and to surrender to you. Thank you that your grace and mercy are now allowing others the opportunity to turn to you too.
- John Dominic Crossan, Th.D. in Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Paul J. Achtemeier (Gen. Ed.), Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1985.