The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree: Jesus Expects Productivity              

“Jesus also taught this parable. A certain man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it but discovered there were only leaves. He then said to the gardener, ‘Look, I have been coming here for three years expecting fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down. Why should it take up space and rob the soil?’ He said to him, ‘Master, let us give it one more year. I’ll turn over the soil and fertilize around it. Then, if it bears fruit, well and good. If not, that is the time to cut it down.’” (Lk 13:6-9)

Jesus uses parabolic teachings extensively. Each one is appealing, concise, and original. Nearly one-third of Jesus’ teachings are parabolic, symbolic, or allegorical. Compared with an abstract concept, a parable is easy to relate to. They help us understand human problems, while not allowing us to be sidetracked by human personalities. It is irrelevant whether any parabolic character ever actually existed. While parables do not record factual events, every situation is plausible and pragmatic.

Although this parable is comparatively short, Luke labels it as “a parable Jesus spoke” (Lk. 13:6). For Jesus to use a fig tree as the centerpiece in His parable is a perfect illustration. Figs are a favorite food in the Middle East. They have been growing throughout the world since Eden. Adam and Eve made clothing of fig leaves in the attempt to hide their guilt and shame (Gen 3:7). Fig trees in the Word of God are often used to illustrate the prosperity of the Jews. Conversely, the lack of a good fig harvest was often viewed as a sign of God’s disfavor. “If the people disobey, there will be no figs on their trees” (Jer. 8:13). To “live under the shade of your own fig tree” is emblematic of enjoying life to the fullest (I Kgs 4:25). Prophets often used the concept of the destruction of fig trees to represent God’s judgment on the people (Hos. 2, Jer. 5, Hab. 3, and Joel 1). Baskets of figs alternately stand for obedient people or disobedient people in Jeremiah chapter 24. In Micah 7, the prophet explains how barren fig trees stand for spiritual starvation. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “you cannot get good figs from a bad tree.” He then explains His allegory. We will know people by the fruit they generate (Mt. 7:17-20).

Many of the parables of Jesus address lack of productivity, ill-preparedness, sloth, or indifference. The servant who receives only one talent does not invest it for the master. Five foolish virgins fail to plan and cannot minister to their master. The elder brother refuses to celebrate the return of the prodigal. Poor Lazarus begs at his gate while the rich man feasts. When the priest and the Levite pass by the victim of a robbery, they do nothing. In the Parable of the Sower, 75% of the ground yields no crop and Jesus explains why. “Anxiety, greed, and covetousness choke the Word and it becomes unfruitful” (Mk. 4:19).

The analogy of fruitful trees and productive persons are common throughout the New Testament. The Romans are informed by Paul that Believers are expected to exhibit fruit for God (Rom. 7:4). The Colossians read in their letter from Paul how it is evident the Word of God has been fruitful in their lives (Col. 1:6). The Corinthians are told by Paul that he who plants a vineyard will eat of its fruit (I Cor. 9:7). Jude makes the analogy that false teachers are like lifeless trees (v. 12). The author of Hebrews states God’s admonishments brings forth from us the fruits of righteousness (12:11). John the Beloved sees the Tree of Life which bears twelve types of fruit which heal the nations (Rev. 22:2).

Reconciling Two Related Passages

What makes this parable especially fascinating is that Jesus deliberately curses a fig tree in a separate event. The tree Jesus cursed is a real-life situation, while the tree discussed in His parable is simply an illustration. Jesus’ direct action of the cursing of an actual tree lends weight to the truth He is trying to convey. Consider the following passage. This same story is also found in Matthew 21:18-20.

“Seeing in the distance a fig tree with leaves, he walked up to it to see if he could find any fruit. He found only leaves for it was not yet fig season. Then Jesus spoke to the fig tree and said, ‘no one shall ever again eat fruit from you.’ the disciples heard him say this.”  Mark 11: 13-14

In the middle of this account is the passage about the cleansing of the temple by Jesus (Mk. 11:15-18). The story then continues.

“In the evening they went out of the city. But early in the morning, as they walked by, they noticed the fig tree had withered away to the roots. Then Peter remembered and exclaimed, ‘Master, look how the fig tree you cursed has shriveled up.’”  Mark 11: 19-21

The cleansing of the temple occurs between the time the tree is cursed and Peter’s comment the next morning. He and His disciples had gone to Bethany from Jerusalem to spend the night. Jesus curses the fig tree on Monday, and they begin their journey back to Jerusalem on Tuesday. Peter calls attention to the fig tree Jesus had cursed the day before (Mk. 11:20).

The uniqueness of this miracle compels our attention. Jesus heals lepers, raises the dead, performs exorcisms, and cures blindness. The last miracle He performs is the restoration of a severed ear (Lk. 22:51). Because His miracles are constructive, the cursing of the fig tree stands alone. It differs because it is destructive. It should be noted that this is done to a tree and not to a human being. A big lesson is taught for a small price. We should not be concerned about a tree being judged but concerned about our own judgment. The only reason Jesus does something this dramatic is to underscore an important truth. The cursing of the fig tree is deliberate. Jesus does not curse this tree simply because He expected to find something that was absent. It is an object lesson that teaches us to either produce or be judged.

Arbitration of these two passages is not difficult. The events are separate but connected. Jesus probably teaches the parable immediately after Peter calls attention to the withered fig tree the following day. In the parable, the tree is threatened with being cut down. In the actual event, the tree completely withers. The physical withering of a fig tree is essential to dramatize the parable which immediately follows. Through this real-time event, followed the next day by a parabolic teaching, the disciples gain a more complete picture. Both cases combine to graphically illustrate Jesus’ intolerance of stagnation.

There is an additional distinctive difference between the event and the parable. Jesus never names Himself or His disciples in any of His parables. In the real and literal cursing of the tree, both Jesus (Mk. 11:13) and Peter (Mk. 11:13-21) are both mentioned. When Jesus curses the fig tree, it is not given a chance. However, in His parable, the fig tree is given an opportunity to bring forth fruit. Jesus further explains His strategy when He gives His lengthy sermon about spiritual growth in John 15.

“I am the true vine. Every branch in me that will not bear fruit, he burns. Any branch that does not reproduce is pruned to bring forth more fruit. Abide in me. As the branch can’t bear fruit except it is connected to the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, and you are the branches. He that abides in me and I in him displays much fruit, for without me you can do nothing. If a person will not abide in me, he is cast forth as a withered branch and men throw them into the fire to be burned. My father is glorified as you bear much fruit as my disciples.”  Jn 15:1-8

The teachings of Jesus are always harmonious. The concepts of a tree in need of special care, a branch cast into fire, or a fig tree withering is fundamentally the same analogy. Multiplication is rewarded while stagnation is punished. The fig tree is depicted as being owned by Jesus. He has a right to expect Believers to generate fruit. It is Christ Himself who sought the figs. After three years have elapsed, fruit should have been evident. He finds none.  

Fig Leaf Excuses

Some trees are alive but bring forth nothing but leaves. Such a tree was locally referred to as a “hypocrite tree.” Leaves shelter the figs from harsh winds. They are important to the tree, but only as they help supply fruit. A Palestinian fig tree has green fruit which is often concealed among the branches. Although a fig tree can give shade, it is a secondary benefit which any tree can provide. A fig tree will not be allowed to live if shade is all it can generate.

From a distance, the fig tree appeared as if it might have fruit, but close examination proved otherwise. It was pretentious in that it was something other than what Jesus sought from it. Jesus did not curse the tree because it was barren, but because it gave a false impression. This tree appeared to be something it was not.

Disappointment

The owner tells the vinedresser he has been passing by this tree for three years. The number three is often seen in God’s Word as a period of completeness. There are three men in the fiery furnace. Jonah was in the fish for three days. After the Damascus Road, Saul is blind for three days. Jesus was in His tomb for three days. The period of three years mentioned in this parable validates each of us has ample time to propagate what He is seeking from us.

The Jews had a magnificent temple and performed dynamic rituals, but they were only fig leaves. Stagnate Christians misrepresent Christ. They give others the impression God requires no commitment to grow and develop. The parable begs several questions. How often must Jesus come to inspect me? How many times must He caution me? Why should I be spared if I continue to appear to be something I am not?

Every time Jesus came by this tree, He looked for fruit. He does not send someone to check on the tree’s progress but comes personally. He seeks the evidence of righteousness in every Believer. Leaves, blossoms, and pretty buds will never suffice. The owner is impatient, as sufficient time has already been given for the tree to validate its existence.

Contaminated Soil

In this parable, the owner asks why this tree is encumbering the ground. A non-productive tree absorbs nutrients and minerals needed by the surrounding trees. To “cumber” is a Greek term used only here in the New Testament. “Katargeo ” means “to make something barren, ineffective; to be of no effect; to cease; to bring to nothing.” Jesus uses this powerful term when He asks why He should allow this tree to make the ground around it sterile.

Jesus is saying, “Explain to me why this tree stays here and weakens the surrounding soil?” He is asking why this tree should continue to prevent the ground nearby from growing anything. To make the analogy between a fig tree and a human, Jesus might well ask each Believer, “Why should I allow you contaminate others and stunt their spiritual growth?”

The weakened soil is not simply unproductive. It is also counterproductive. The barren tree is not harmless, for it saps resources it does not deserve. Such a tree is not only useless, it is injurious to the surrounding trees. The Pharisees in their expensive attire looked impressive but did nothing to help the common people around them.

The Ultimatum

Continued growth would have been impossible had the owner not recognized the problem and given the vinedresser a mandate. This fruitless fig tree has an unfulfilled responsibility. The application of the parable becomes clear as it unfolds. We are to ponder what Jesus expects from us and how much time He has spent in His efforts to nurture us.

As we saw earlier, the number three can indicate the completeness of a given era. The “three years” the master had come hoping to find fruit could represent the extensive period that followed the nation of Israel being “planted” in the Promised Land. God continued to expect progress, but the Sadducees and their religious aristocracy continued to digress. They are consistently labeled by Jesus as hypocrites (Mt. 23:13-29). The withered fig tree is symbolic of the withering condition of Judaism. It was an emblem of the shriveling national religion. As Jesus commences His ministry, John the Baptist announced, “every tree that does not bear fruit will be cut down and burned” (Lk. 3:9). As Jesus concludes His ministry, He echoes the same sentiment (Jn. 15:6).

Pragmatic Application

Fig trees require exceptional care and so do the followers of Jesus. He is aware of our fruitfulness or barrenness. He does not wait three years to check on His trees but inspects them on a regular basis. Throughout the period in this narrative, the owner is continuously disappointed.

The vinedresser asks for mercy and patience. He offers to dig around it and make a trench to hold water. Intercession is made for a probationary period so the tree can reinvigorate. This additional year is an indefinite time of grace. This period is granted by the owner for the tree to finally fulfill its purpose. Receptivity of these treatments is the only thing that can save this tree.

The vinedresser admits the possibility all future work might be in vain. He adds, “I trust it will bear fruit, but if it does not, then cut it down.” Something must change if the tree is to be spared from the woodpile. A worthless tree is expendable. The owner does not mourn the loss of this type of tree. He knows there are other trees that can be planted and nurtured in good soil.

This parable demands introspection. “Can I do more for God than I am doing? Do I truly have a right to be in His vineyard if I give nothing to the one who owns me? If I have stagnated in personal spiritual development, am I hindering others by contaminating their soil? By my apathy, am I suggesting God is not concerned with how I may negatively affect others? If I do not allow Jesus to stir up the soil surrounding me, how can I grow, develop, and provide a rich harvest for Him?”

The vinedresser understands the tree’s value or lack of value. He says if next year it is still non-productive, we can cut it down. It is only a matter of time before God’s vineyard will be cleared of all barren trees. Judgment awaits fruitless trees. God will not waste resources on those who will not respond favorably.

The master agrees to give the tree a fair period of grace to bear fruit. He waited three years and was willing to wait another year. There is a limit to His patience for He does not indicate He will wait longer than that. We are forced to ask ourselves how we will spend the next year of our lives. Jesus may examine my life every day. The Lord has invested in you like the owner has invested in his tree. God claims His right to expect fruit from every one of us. This parable is carefully designed to awaken us to our opportunities and responsibilities.  

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POINTS TO PONDER:

1. Name something that motivates you to be productive.

2. According to Hebrews 12:11, what type of fruit are Believers expected to produce?

3. In Matthew 7:16, on what type of tree are figs never found?

4. What does Jesus show is a way to figure out a person’s true character? (Mt. 7:17-20)

5. What subject is James addressing when he asks if a fig tree can bear olives? (James 3:10-12)

6. God has invested heavily in me. What specific things has my life provided for Him?

7. On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the highest) how would I rate my productivity for God and His kingdom?

Maxim of the Moment

You have to be careful about being too careful. - Beryl Pfizer