I have a fig tree in my backyard though you probably wouldn’t know it. Years ago, my mother sent me the roots to plant so that I could someday have figs. I was super excited to plant it, in no small part because it was Biblical. The trouble is, my backyard doesn’t get much sun once the trees in the neighbors’ yards come into full leaf. And so this tree has stuck around near the fence, never producing fruit but never dying off either. This year, I think, I will be sure to dig it up and plant it in a new pot.
This experience helps me to understand Jesus’ words about the fig tree. Jesus is speaking about repentance. Another word for this is conversion, or turning around, being reoriented to God once again. Jesus tells us: turn around! Change your life if it is out of line with Gospel values! There is urgency to his voice.
But there is also patience and even tenderness. Jesus says the tree that won’t bear fruit is not to be cut down. Instead, if the fig tree is not bearing fruit, a good gardener will tend the plant, nurture it, feed it. Maybe move it to a sunnier spot, as I ought to do with my fig tree so that it can bear fruit.
How often are we tempted to end relationships, quit projects, give up on prayer, or resign ourselves to the inevitability of injustice rather than prune and tend to the “tree”? God says: yes, I want repentance and conversion but also, no, I will not “cut you down” but instead I will exercise patience. And I ask you to exercise the same patience, love, and tender nurture for one another.
What would it mean if we did not cut down the tree of relationship with our political opponents, difficult colleagues, or people who come to relationships at cross purposes with us?
What if we have the tree time to bear fruit, and invested ourselves in loving one another, even despite the places where it seems no fruit is coming, trusting that the good fruit will come later?
What if we remained faithful to marriages, friendships, communities despite and even because of our differences?
What if we let the fig trees not only grow but even nurtured them and fed them so that someday, things might look different? After all, this is how God loves us and responds to us, each and every day.