Allegory in Jesus’ teachings: Parable of the unfruitful fig tree

Fig tree has so much significance and there are repeated mentions of it in the Bible, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is first mentioned in the Book of Genesis (3. 7).

Allegory in Jesus’ teachings: Parable of the unfruitful fig tree

By K. L. Joseph
In his teachings through allegories Jesus wanted the people to make an introspection to renew their inner spirit, and give up inclination towards worldly attachments and pleasures that lead to sinful thoughts and deeds. Jesus imparted his spiritual teachings to the people, not from an elaborate open stage usually set for a preacher or from a cozy conference room in a posh building. The man from Nazareth preferred to teach the people from ordinary natural settings like a sea shore, or from any secluded open space. His parables to teach the people of the spiritual truth revolved round ordinary things like the weeds, the mustard seed, the grain of wheat, the yeast, the pearl, the salt, the shepherd and sheep, the light, the net, the grape vine, the fig tree and the fruits. Its purpose was to make people understand great truths through allegories based on familiar everyday things.

Matthew’s Gospel chapter 13 contains several parables, of which the “Parable of the Sower; “Parable of the Weeds”; “Parable of the Yeast” and the Parable of the “Unforgiving Servant” relate to profound teachings of Jesus. Luke can be regarded as the Apostle of Apostles as his Gospel contains much spiritually inspiring material viz. the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10. 25-37); the parable of the lost son (Luke 15. 11-32), the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke16. 1-13) and the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12. 13-31), the parable of the widow and the judge (Luke 18. 1-8) and the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18. 9-14). These parables do not appear in the gospels of other apostles.

The ‘Unfruitful Fig Tree’ (Luke 13.6-9): We will take this allegory for our reflection here. For many, nothing much to ponder over can be found in this parable save a barren fig tree growing in the vineyard of its owner using up the soil and its uselessness to him when he does not find it produce any fig.

Before coming to this particular parable for reflection, one ought to know the characteristics of the fig tree. Fig tree has so much significance and there are repeated mentions of it in the Bible, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is first mentioned in the Book of Genesis (3. 7). The Garden of Eden had all kinds of trees including the fig-trees. When Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit of the forbidden tree, they came to instant knowledge for the first time about their being naked. At that point of realization of what is good and what is bad, they sewed the fig leaves together and used it as dress to cover their nakedness. The Oxford Dictionary gives the meaning of the fig leaf as a device to conceal something undesirable. It has also the meaning as ‘dress’. Though the Book of Genesis does not name the forbidden fruit as ‘Fig’, however, the leaves which were sewed together to cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve, belonged to fig-tree. For, fig leaves are very large, broad and flat, averaging about 12-25 centimetres in length and 18 centimetres in width   It, therefore, gives some scope to believe fig as that forbidden fruit. Besides in the Book of Genesis, fig also figures in 2 Kings 20-7; Song of Songs 2. 13; 1 Samuel 25.18, 30.12 and Judith10.5 and so on.

The Fig Tree has a metaphor for Israel. The figtrees are scattered widely over the mountain ranges of Israel, occupying the central stage in the life and culture of the people. It appears in the descriptions, praising the land of Israel’s fertility (Deut. 8. 7- 8). In fact, it acts as a symbolism in the Bible. Fig-tree is considered as a symbol of bounty, abundance, peace, prosperity and security. In the Book of the Prophet Hosea, it is said by the Lord (Chap.9.10) as follows: “When I first saw your ancestors, it was seeing like the first ripe figs of the season…” Thus, it symbolizes a nation spiritually and physically healthy. In the Book of the prophet Micah, most notable passage speaks of the Lord’s Universal Reign of Peace (Chapter 4.4): “Everyone will live in peace among his own vineyards and Fig-trees and no one will make him afraid. The Lord Almighty has promised this.” Fig- tree here is a sign of peace and tranquility.

God in his messages to Jeremiah showed him two baskets of figs (Jeremiah 24). The first basket contained good figs, those ripen early; the other one contained bad figs, too bad to eat. God said to Jeremiah: “The good figs in the first basket represent those people who were taken away to Babylonia as captives by the King Nebuchadnezzar when they remained loyal and refused to turn away from the true God. The bad figs represent the rest of the people of Jerusalem who stayed in the land or moved to Egypt.”

Mark in Chapter 13. 28-31 of his Gospel refer to fig-tree as a symbol of the coming of the Son of Man. His Gospel says: “Let the fig-tree teach you a lesson. When its branches become green and tender and it starts putting out leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when the sun will grow dark, the moon will no longer shine, the stars will fall from heaven and the powers of space will be driven from their courses, then remember that the Son of Man will appear in the clouds with great power and glory.”

In Luke 13.6-9 we read this about the unfruitful fig tree: “There was once a man who had a fig-tree growing in his vineyard. He went looking for figs on it but found none. So, he said to his gardener, look, for three years I have been coming here looking for figs on this fig-tree, and I have not found any. Cut it down! Why should it go on using up the soil?’ But the gardener answered, ‘Leave it alone, sir, just one more year; I will dig round it and put in some manure. Then if the tree bears figs next year, so much the better; if not, then you can have it cut down.’”

The ‘unfruitful Fig-tree ’represents the people of Israel who failed to know their true God even after they were rescued from the Egyptian slavery and brought to safety and liberty. They abandoned the true God and began to worship idol. It also represents the Jews (among whom Jesus was born and lived), who rejected Jesus and did not accept him as the King. The Gardener in the parable is Jesus. The ownership of the vineyard having this barren fig-tree vested in his Heavenly Father herein referred to as ‘the Man”. For three years, the Man kept coming to find figs on his tree but each time when he came, he found none.

The three years denote the period of Jesus’ Ministry of preaching, teaching and healing. God was expecting that those Israelites living in sins and dark land of death will repent and turn to Him during the three-year period of the continuous preaching and teaching of His Son Jesus about the Kingdom of Heaven. But they failed to live as per the teachings and bear the desired fruit and ended up like the barren fig tree in the parable. So, the barren fig tree stands for the impious people of Israel including the Jews viz. they did not understand the purpose of their existence, repent and return from sins despite countless chances given to them by God to make necessary amends.

The order to cut down the barren fig tree in the parable was given by the owner of the vineyard. The gardener (Jesus) then pleaded to the owner to spare the fig tree from the axe for one more year, hoping against hope that it would bloom by this grace period and bear the desired fruit - they will repent and return to God. The manure the gardener intended to put in round the fig tree is again allegory for God’s words, his mercy and patience to allow further chances to the unrepenting people to repent and turn to Him. This parable simultaneously discloses God’s unlimited concern and love that does not condemn but gives chance to people to return and save them from destruction.

Like a fig tree that blooms inside the fruit, so should bloom one’s thoughts and devotion towards God inside his or her heart. The allegory of the fig tree tells that one should not live and end up like a barren fig tree, thus defeating the very purpose of one’s existence.  

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