Fidelity and the fig tree

“And he told them this parable:
“There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard,
and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none,
he said to the gardener,
‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree
but have found none.
So cut it down.
Why should it exhaust the soil?’
He said to him in reply,
‘Sir, leave it for this year also,
and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it;
it may bear fruit in the future.
If not you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13: 7-9)

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells this story to those who hold the false view that those who suffer, suffer as the result of their own sin. Ar least some in his audience seem to have taken the view that a tower fell on certain people because they had sinned. Jesus, however, speaks of God as far more merciful than his audience supposes, and uses the parable of the fig tree to explain it.

Fruit trees typically take years to bear fruit and do not bear it in their first year. (In fact, I have a fig tree given to me by my mother that grows in our backyard, and so far…no fruit!) But a good gardener is patient, and does not expect fruit to develop in the first few years. Such an expectation would be unreasonable. In this case, the owner seems to have waited a little longer than usual, and is considering whether to cut down the tree altogether. Perhaps if it is cut down and its roots ripped out of the soil, something better can be planted in its place. Why bother putting one’s efforts and energy into what does not bear fruit? The gardener, though,  proposes leaving the tree for another year, so that it might yet produce fruit. He suggests fertilizing and cultivating the tree so that it may bear fruit. The gardener takes the approach of exercising both patience and hard work.

The passage reminds me of a section of Catherine of Siena’s Dialogues, in which she says that in response to the sins of another person, we ought not speak harshly to them of their own shortcomings. Of course, our temptation is to do exactly this, for how else will they know to reform and to act differently in the future? Catherine, however, suggests that instead, one cultivate the seeds of virtue in another. Instead of pointing out another’s flaws, we can be attentive to the good already present in them, and work to nurture and to allow those seeds to flourish. Watering and tending to the soil around the “good seeds” in others encourages their virtues to flourish, whereas pointing out another’s problems generally leaves others merely on the defensive.

Jesus’s message also speaks of the importance of fidelity in relationships. Our long term friendships, marriages, and other relationships go through many ups and downs over the years. Our larger culture says that love is only love if it is natural and comes easily, but in fact the truest forms of love take effort. Marriage and friendship alike require that both people are committed to the good of the relationship through times of fruitfulness and times of drought, from times of easy laughter and companionability, to times when we get on each others’ nerves or outright hurt one another and need to make repairs. A good gardener will not carelessly tear out one plant to replace it with another, and neither should we treat our friends or family members in this way. Love, like gardening is hard work: one needs to till the soil, plants seeds, water the growing plants, and pull weeds . Love requires effort, effort to work through bumps and challenges in relationships.

When we do, we find that these are the relationships that bud, flower,and fruit, because we have invested our efforts into them. God is ever faithful to his relationships with us, and that fidelity in love serves as a model for our faithfulness to one another, too.


2 thoughts on “Fidelity and the fig tree

  1. Thank you. I am bringing the host to some folks today and reading the gospel is part of that. While I do not of course “homilize” (?) your post will, I hope, help me approach them with greater empathy. It does seem that the popular “prosperity gospel” movement encourages the belief that if you are not healthy and rich you are ipso facto a sinner. This gospel and your post are nice counterpoints, I think.


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