The thing about a parable is that it can be read from many different angles, with different results. Like those silhouetted pictures that can be a vase or a pair of faces, depending on where you place your focus, or those animated holograms which seem to move and change as you turn them this way and that. I think that the reason that Jesus used parables was because he was conveying a truth too complicated, too large, too perfect to be captured in one still frame, one stark image, one unambiguous slogan. When we ask of a parable, does it mean this or does it mean that, the answer is probably “yes.”
So this parable of the fig tree: a strange little story of gardening and efficiency, mercy and manure.
In Genesis, God creates the world and all that is in it, and it grows and puts forth fruit, and it is good. God creates the human, and places the human in charge of tending the garden; Adam is the gardener, charged with nurturing and protecting and cultivating the land.
Is the gardener Adam, then, pleading for the life of the fig tree even though it is producing so poorly, failing in its purpose, taking valuable nutrients from the soil for nothing? Is it Abraham, bargaining for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah – if I can find you just fifty righteous men, will you spare the whole city? What about forty, or thirty, or ten? For just ten figs, will you spare the whole tree?
And God agreed, and sought out the righteous of the city, and found only the family of Lot, and plucked them out of there before the destruction of the city.
Maybe that’s how Paul read this parable, because in his letter to the Corinthians, he says,
“It’s a scary world out there and scary things can happen – serpents and all sorts – so you’d better straighten up and fly right. Don’t put Christ’s mercy to the test. You shall not test the Lord your God.”
But Jesus reads the signs somewhat differently. He refuses to blame the Galilean rebels for the violence that Pilate visited upon them, and he will not attribute the construction accident at the Temple to unrighteousness. Jesus says, “It’s a scary world out there and scary things can happen. They happen to all sorts of people, good, bad, indifferent – because that’s what people are, all of them: good, bad and indifferent all at the same time. Repent, straighten up, so that you can concentrate on the mercy and love of God instead of living in fear of the random acts of fate.”
And he tells this story.
A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” (Luke 13:6-9)
Let it alone for one more year; let it alone.
I am reminded of the story at the end of the book of Jonah – not the part about the whale or the fish or whatever sort of marine animal swallowed him up, but the part after he was spat out on the beach, after he walked three days into Nineveh, that city whose name is synonymous with Sodom, whose reputation was as bad as Gomorrah. The part after he preached repentance to them, the fear of God, the forty days they had to make their penance, turn their lives around, to turn their lives over to God. The part after they listened, and proclaimed a fast, from food and drink, from evil ways, from violence and from rich robes; from the king to the smallest sheep, all were dressed in their disgrace with sackcloth and ashes.
And God looked upon the city that God had promised to destroy, and said, “Look how they have borne fruit.” And God let them be.
Jonah was furious. He had come a long way and gone through a whole lot – storms, man overboard, fish belly, faceplant on the beach, and a long, hot hike through the vile and violent city. And now, he feels, it is all for nothing – God is not even going to smite them! He is furious, and he tells God this is just why he didn’t want to come in the first place: “I knew it!” he shouted, “I knew that you were going to turn around and forgive them, because that’s just what you do, isn’t it? All love and mercy and grace and forgiveness! All this trouble for nothing! You might as well just smite me instead!”
And he went off in a huff and sat down outside the city. God arranged for a shade tree to spring up and shade him, and after Jonah had let off some steam and cooled down some, he began to feel a little better about the world. Then God sent a worm to attack the root of the tree, and it died overnight. The next day the sun was back in full force over Jonah’s head and a hot desert wind completely blew his cool. Again, he railed at God, and again, God gently pointed out that Jonah had nothing to be angry about.
“Did you plant the tree, or water it, or tend to it?” asked God. “If you, then, are so keen to reverse the punishment that befell this tree, how much more ready should I be to restore the city of Nineveh, a city full of my children, not to mention their innocent animals?” God told Jonah a parable about a tree, about the fruits of repentance, about love and mercy.
Jonah’s worldview was steeped in judgement and anger, revenge and punishment. God’s view of the world noticed how dangerous those things were in the hands of God’s people. Perhaps that is why Adam and Eve were warned away from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
God urged instead mercy and justice, love and forgiveness, patience and tenderness.
When you wonder, when someone asks you, what did I do to deserve this? – remember the workers killed at the temple by the falling tower, whom Jesus specifically absolved of any particular blame for their accident, for their misfortune, for their demise. This did not happen, he said explicitly, because they were evil or sinful. God is not punishing you, any more than God punished Nineveh.
When you hear the televangelist telling the victims of a hurricane or worse that this is God’s punishment for something that they have done, that we have done, that God refused to help their children because they didn’t pray right; remember Jesus’ words: Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No. God loved even Nineveh.
When Jonah went out of the city to the east, he was still running from God, just as he had on the ship, but God followed him, and explained to him in the parable of the tree God’s never-failing love. When your shade is gone and the sun is hot on your head, remember, God still loves you. God is forever waiting for ways to show mercy to you, in the comfort of a friend, in a whisper from the Word, in the silence of the night.
In his work on Jesus’ language of story and prayer, Tell it Slant, Eugene Peterson, who authored the Bible translation known as The Message, notes that, “Our translations obscure the identity of [the] word that Jesus prayed from the cross with Jesus’ earlier word in the story of the Manure and the Fig Tree. The farmer’s order, ‘Chop it down!’ is echoed in the Holy Week ‘Crucify him!’ Jesus prayer to his Father, ‘Forgive them,” is a verbatim repetition of the gardener’s intervention, ‘Let it alone.’”
The same word that Jesus prays from the cross is the word that the gardener uses to plead for the life of the fig tree.
It is the same word that Jesus taught us to use in our own prayers, Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
Our judgement, of ourselves, of our enemies, of our friends, is no match for God’s forgiveness, no match for Jesus’ words from the cross.
Therefore repent, says Jesus, not because you are afraid of what might befall you: who knows what corners your life will turn, what fruit it will grow? Therefore repent, says Jesus, do not continue to test the Lord your God, because your God is ever waiting for your return, patiently, every year saying, “one more year, let it be, let it alone, forgive it, because it hardly knows what it is doing.” Repent, because God’s mercy endures forever.