I like figs. They are not something I ever give much thought to, and I honestly can’t say I’ve ever actually seen a fig tree. But for the past couple of weeks, every time I turn around, I’m hearing or reading something about that poor, doomed fig tree that Jesus talked about in St. Luke’s Gospel.
There are other references to fig trees in the Gospels, and one might even wonder if perhaps Jesus didn’t care for figs at all. Apparently he saw one without fruit and cursed it on the spot, causing it to wither right then and there. But Luke’s fig tree is given a second chance. This sad little tree has a gardener who thinks he can help it out, even though it’s not borne any fruit for three years. That’s not just merciful, it’s downright optimistic!
Now, not being a fig tree, it’s hard for me to imagine that the sort of thing the gardener has in mind is actually ‘help’. The gardener proposes to cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it. This seems fairly innocuous on the surface. However, cultivation requires breaking up the ground around the base of the tree, and fertilizer, well, is manure. They just hadn’t mastered that really cool Miracle-Gro Spray stuff back in the first century (although the name would have worked. . . okay, bad pun!)
In context, the fig tree probably symbolized the Jewish people, who had, for the most part, been unresponsive to Jesus’ teachings. The three years of barrenness would obviously represent the three years of Jesus’ public ministry. So the message is obvious: be responsive to the Word of God, or be cut out of the vineyard.
But I’m thinking there is more to it than that. Perhaps the fig tree had never been properly cared for. After all, it was in a vineyard, not a fig grove. So, maybe it just got neglected. Maybe that’s why the ground around it was too hard to allow life-giving waters to reach it’s roots. Maybe it’s roots were rotten. There just isn’t enough information given to make a final decision. All we know for sure is that the tree was in danger of being cut down if it didn’t start bearing fruit, and that the gardener cared enough about it to try and save it.
And the manure? Well, I know I often have to be pretty covered up in it, figuratively speaking, of course, before I start growing and bearing any sort of fruit. Sometimes it takes the gardener whacking up the ground all around me and covering me with fertilizer to get my attention, to inspire me to take any sort of action. And, failing that, the threat of imminent destruction is a pretty powerful motivator for me.
Specifically, I can get very comfortable with situations that are life-threatening to me. Not usually in a literal sense, but definitely in a spiritual and emotional sense. I don’t even notice my peril a lot of the time, because I’m still covered up in pretty green leaves, and so you can’t tell I’m not bearing any fruit unless you get really close to me and look under the leaves!
And why a fig tree, anyway? Why not a date tree, or an olive tree? Those seem to be more plentiful in the Holy Land. Perhaps it is because the fig tree is more rare, more unique. That makes it all the more valuable. So, if I, like the fig tree, have great value and rarity, then I need to take care of myself. I need to keep my soil loose enough to absorb healing nutrients, and I need to accept life’s fertilizer as a means to something better to come.
So, if I am receptive and responsive to the ministrations of the Gardener, then I will bear beautiful fruit, which will in turn bear more fruit. How can I resist? Especially since he has been so patient, and given me so much extra time and effort.