In Luke 13, Jesus tells a parable about a barren fig tree. The tree is planted in a vineyard, and the owner is unhappy because the tree is not bearing fruit. “Cut it down,” he says. But the vintner says, “I’ll dig around it, fertilize it. Let’s give it one more year.”
And the vast majority of the commentaries and reflections I’ve read about this story say something to the effect of, “See, God is willing to give us sinners one more chance. God is merciful . . . and yet God’s mercy is not unlimited.”
But I just can’t get on board with this reading, because it involves two major assumptions that I’m not willing to make.
First, this interpretation assumes that the vineyard owner represents God. Why would we assume this? Jesus doesn’t say it. Jesus doesn’t even imply it. Within the context of Jesus’ teaching, God is abba, the loving father. The rich are, at best, blinded by their wealth; at worst, they are heartless oppressors.
So why in the world would we just assume that Jesus wants us to equate God with the owner of a vineyard?
Second, this “God is merciful, but . . .” interpretation assumes that the vineyard owner says “yes” to the vintner’s request. I even read a retelling that concluded with the owner saying, “O.K., but just one more year.”
Funny, I thought. That last part isn’t in my Bible. The vintner makes the request and next thing we know the parable is done and Jesus is upsetting some religious leaders (again) by healing on the Sabbath.
So I can’t go with the “God is merciful, but . . .” theory.
I don’t think the owner is God. I don’t think the vintner is Jesus. I’m not convinced that Israel is (or we are) the fig tree.
Whoever the owner is, he seems to think that a fig tree is worthless if it’s not producing figs. But that simply isn’t true. The root system of the fig tree is vital for slowing down soil erosion. The branches of fig trees were often used as trellises for grape vines. There are lots of ways a fig tree can be useful.
(I commend to you this beautiful piece about the importance of trees–fig and otherwise.)
I really don’t like to allegorize the parables at all. But maybe we could think about some of us as the fig tree. Those of us who are unproductive, those of us who are not worth much in the eyes of the world, those of us who do not act like others think we are supposed to act. Maybe the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, the children, the misfits . . . maybe some of us are the fig tree.
Unappreciated. Vulnerable. Necessary.
And maybe those of us more appreciated, more accepted . . . maybe we are what we are. What we have been, what we should always be: people who are listening to Jesus’ story in wonder and awe. People willing to tend the world and the people around us.