It was with the sober call to repentance ringing in their ears that the people began to listen to Jesus’ story about the fruitless fig tree.
A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.
Fig trees and vines were part of the landscape. Everyone knew what they were and Jesus’ parable was not the first time spiritual lessons had been drawn from the life of these plants. In the Old Testament God had sometimes used the analogy of vines and fig trees to speak through the prophets about the failure of his people to produce the kind of lives that he was looking for.
No doubt at lest some in the crowd listening to Jesus may have been familiar with this Old Testament theme. They may have been aware of a passage like Isaiah 5 where God pronounces judgment on his people for their failure to produce good fruit. Instead of good grapes, they have produced wild grapes. There is bloodshed instead of justice. Instead of a society that is marked by righteousness, there are cries of distress.
Then there was Jeremiah 8:
… there are no grapes on the vine nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.
It is worth noticing that in Jesus’ parable the problem is not the whole vineyard: it is just the fig tree planted there. On that basis, some people have suggested that Jesus’ warning is directed specifically to the leaders of the community and is not simply a general warning to the whole people.
That may well be. It is true that the conflicts in Jesus’ ministry came most often from the religious leaders and not from the ordinary people who flocked to hear him and be healed by him. It is also true that the Bible places particular responsibility on leaders. However there is a basic principle that bears a general application.
God is the author of our life. He opens his hand and we have what we need. He turns away his face and we struggle. When he takes away our breath, we die and return to the dust (see Psalm 104). It is God who provides for us and blesses us. As the giver of life and provider of all that we have, he is entitled to examine the fruit.
Fig trees are expected to bear fruit ten months of the year, but for three years in a row, nothing has appeared. The tree has been planted and it has had the resources of the soil to feed and nourish it. But it has consumed all that nourishment without producing fruit. Each year, as the owner has come to his vineyard, he has looked in vain for fruit on his fig tree.
We need to consider repentance from the perspective of the resources that have been invested in us and opportunities that have been given to us. The more opportunity we have, the more responsible we are.
In Matthew 11 Jesus warned the people in whose cities he had performed most of his miracles. Despite what had happened on their streets, they had not repented. Jesus said that the fate of these cities in the final judgment would be more severe than the fate of other cities that had not had the same opportunity. Capernaum, where people in the synagogue had been amazed at the authority of his teaching and his power over evil spirits, would fare worse than the notorious Old Testament city of Sodom!
Without entering into debates about how God will deal with people who never heard the name of Jesus, it must be true that those who have lived in Christianised countries with churches on every corner and who have had every opportunity to respond to the Good News, will carry a huge responsibility for their failure to repent.
And what does God look for in the lives of followers of Jesus who have, like the fig tree, been planted and nourished? What about those of us who have been given every opportunity to grow? We can freely attend churches that preach the Bible, participate in special events and conferences that inspire and instruct. We have endless supplies of good literature and insightful seminars. Yet some of our lives look no different from people who know nothing about God.
When God examines our lives for the fruit of generosity, how often does he find greed? When he examines our lives for the fruit of kindness, how often does he find prejudice? How often does he find bitterness instead of forgiveness? Cynicism instead of joy? Are we bearing good fruit or are we, in the terms of the parable, just taking up the ground?
The examples of Capernaum and Sodom are illustrations of the biblical principle that the more we are given, the more will be expected of us. We need to consider repentance from the perspective of the resources that have been invested in us.