Gospel parables, an Orthodox commentary

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The barren fig tree


This parable is written in the Gospel according to Luke:

"A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of the vineyard, behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: and if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down" (Luke 13:6-9).

In Gospel Palestine, people often planted fruit trees in their vineyards. Three years had to pass before the fruit of the fig tree would ripen and be fit for harvest and eating. The fig tree in the parable did not bear fruit after the three-year period. "Why cumbereth it the ground?" says the owner of the vineyard. The roots of this fig tree also soaked up the moisture that the grape vines needed, growing around it, which wasted much water, which was also scarce in Palestine. All the same, the vine dresser tries to persuade the owner to hold off on his decision to destroy the barren fig tree, saying: "Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: and if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down." The Old Testament nowhere mentions use of manure, and an ordinary fig tree does not need any. Thus, this vinedresser is proposing extraordinary measures to help fig tree bear fruit.

The Jewish had people preserved the folk-tale of Achicar (5th century BC). The legend runs "My son, thou art like the tree which did not give fruit, in spite of the fact that it grew next to a spring. Its owner was forced to cut it down. The tree said to him: 'Transplant me, and if I do not bear fruit in the new place either, then cut me down.'" In reply, the owner said: "When thou didst stand next to the water, thou didst not bear fruit. Why then should fruit appear on thy branches if thou shouldest stand in a different place?'" Jesus used this well-known folk tale in His parable, but gave a different end to a different request.

In the parable of the barren fig tree, the theme is God's long suffering with His chosen people, as with the fig tree in the vineyard. The vineyard is the world and its peoples. God expected His chosen people to believe in His Son and to repent and live according to faith in Him. Human failure brings down God's wrath, shown in the guise of the owner's decision to cut down the barren fig tree. But the kind-hearted Christ (the vinedresser), suffers throughout the course of His public ministry to bring the people to the saving faith and the fruits of His labors. He entreats His Father to put off the judgment of people, until His teaching and deeds could save all those who still could be saved (Luke 13:7-9).

The Savior's kind heart is the deeper theme of the parable. The three-years wait of the owner for the vinedresser is the three years of Christ's public ministry. The fourth year is the year of popular rejection of Christ by the people, His crucifixion, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and the subjugation of Israel by the Romans. The Savior also curses the barren fig tree not long before His passion (Matthew 21:18-20, Mark 11:12-14; 20-21).

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