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.”’
In the grounds of Lambeth Palace is a fig tree, planted by Cardinal Pole in 1556. He was the last Catholic Cardinal of Canterbury and so this fig tree pre-dates the Reformation. The remarkable thing about this tree is that it still bears fruit and the catering team at Lambeth still use the figs every summer.
In the bible the fig tree is incredibly symbolic and so when Jesus tells a story about a fig tree, depending on the setting of the story people will automatically understand a great deal in what is NOT being said.
The literary background to this parable is generally taken to be Isaiah 5:1-7 and the Song of the Vineyard. There the owner takes great care to nourish his vineyard but despite his best efforts it yields only bad fruit. In discussion with the listeners then the disappointed owner decides to destroy the vineyard completely.
Intriguingly the Isaiah passage also offers a key to understanding the Song. The vineyard is the nation, and the vines are the people.
In Jesus story we are presented with a vineyard, but the concern is not with the garden itself, nor even the vines, but a fig tree which consistently fails to bear any fruit. In anger and frustration the owner decides to “Cut it down!” (Luke 7). The tree is given a reprieve and the promise of additional care by the vine keeper in the hope that next year some fruit will appear.
Commentators generally argue that the fig tree is symbolic of the leaders of Israel in Jesus day who are failing to provide the kind of leadership required. Ken Bailey offers the possible interpretation that the discussion at the heart of the parable is a discussion between mercy and judgment.
With the background of Isaiah 5 in the minds of the hearers they are expecting that this unfruitful tree will be destroyed. But Jesus’ story takes an unusual turn with the introduction of the keeper of the vines. Bailey says, “Judgment requires that the tree be dug out for the stated reasons. Mercy pleads for more grace and a second chance…[This] tension is deep within the heart of God.”
Mercy pleads for one more chance and then acts to make fruitfulness a possibility. The story indicates that the tree cannot produce the necessary fruitfulness out of its own resources, it needs something from the outside. But even with the application of the fertiliser the tree must respond. And of course, as is so often the case in Jesus parables, we don’t know what happens.
I am grateful for a God who consistently holds out the possibility of one more chance. But recognise also that there is an onus to respond to this generosity and mercy if judgment is to be avoided. The same is true in our relationships. It is right that Mercy and Judgment should sometimes argue within us. And it is right that, acting out of the mercy we ourselves have received from God, that Mercy should win, and provide one more chance.
Recently, Archbishop Justin Welby on a ‘state’ visit to the Vatican, took a cutting of the fig tree at Lambeth and presented it to Pope Francis. It was then planted in Rome as a symbol of the truth that old enmities can be overcome, and fruit can grow where once there was only barrenness.
Who generously holds out to us
The possibility of one more chance
Strengthen us in turn
To be people known for mercy
And less a people of judgment.
For to act in Mercy
Is to act like you.