The Parable of the Barren Fig TreeThen he told this parable: ‘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 13:1-9
This is really disheartening. It isn't even Halloween yet, but stores and catalogues are starting to advertise Christmas trees, wreaths, etc. I realize a lot of people make their Christmas presents and that can take months, but really now. I'm betting it won't be long before I walk into a store and hear "Now bring us a figgy pudding." I have a feeling not everybody knows what a figgy pudding is; Fig Newtons are pretty much as close as some can get.
I can say I've ever had a figgy pudding, but I've certainly had Mama's fig preserves. One of my aunts had a big fig tree in her side yard and always shared the fruit with us when it got ripe. It wasn't a big tree, but I remember the leaves were huge. They also had a hairy back that sort of made me itch, which is why I wondered why Adam and Eve would choose fig leaves for clothing.
Figs in biblical times were important. There are several references that refer to fig trees and having people sitting under them in the cool of the day. Aunt Edie's fig tree would certainly have shaded several people from the sun for sure. Figs were also a staple food, like grapes and olives. They have their own growing seasons, two a year, and it takes a while for a new tree to start bearing fruit (most sources I checked said 2-possibly 6 years). Like most growing things, you can't hurry them along too much.
The owner in the story and watched his fig tree for three years and had still not found a single fig. Aggravated to have a stubborn tree occupying space and using up water but not producing anything useful (except maybe shade on a hot day), he was all ready to have the thing chopped down and replaced with something more profitable. His gardener, though, knew the value of patience; he begged the owner for one more year, one in which he, the gardener, would tend the tree and fertilize it. Hopefully that would get the tree to produce figs. Maybe a little extra care would make the difference.
Patience is a wonderful thing, but sometimes what is needed is patience plus something else. There are a lot of things that could be added, like love or maybe extra elbow grease or both. Sometimes we have to be reminded that "To every thing there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven," as Ecclesiastes reminds us. And sometimes it takes something else -- like fertilizer.
Every gardener knows that fertilizer in some form is necessary to a plant, a garden, a lawn, or a crop. It may not be the most fragrant of substances, but fertilizer can help bring out the most fragrant of flowers or the most luxurious of lawns. Figs require a little bit of care and fertilizer, like almost everything else in this world, including people.
I wonder -- what in our lives serves as fertilizer for our growth? We are like fig trees and rose bushes and grain crops; we require a place to grow and also nourishment for our roots to provide us with the elements for life. We often say we are nourished by our spiritual lives and our reception of the Eucharist. We are nourished by our families and loved ones, by the beauty of nature, even reading, study, volunteering and just sharing time with others. There's even nourishment in times of solitude, away from the noise and bustle of daily life.
But there are times when we feel like life has put us in a less than optimal situation. Suddenly we're figuratively squelching through a manure pile. It stinks, it draws flies, and it's icky. But wait -- what if that exposure to fertilizer provides impetus for growth and/or change? What if we, like the fig tree, needed some cultivation and feeding? Perhaps the thought of being given a dose of fertilizer isn't the most pleasant of thoughts, but it could have its value.
Like most of Jesus' stories, we don't know how it ended -- whether the fig tree bore fruit the next year or was cut down. It is left to us to figure out what happened and then apply it to our own lives. I know that when I'm handed a load of fertilizer in my life, it's up to me to spread it and water it in well so that I can grow and flourish, like I hope the fig tree did.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 24, 2015.