When I was growing up, there was a large Italian community in my hometown of Hartford, Connecticut. One could easily identify the Italian neighborhoods because many of the houses in these areas had fig trees planted in the front yard. The first immigrants to the area planted these trees so that they and their families could have a taste of home. The only problem is that Connecticut does not have a particularly Mediterranean climate. While the mild temperatures in southern Italy are the ideal growing conditions for figs, the harsh New England winters can kill the temperamental trees. Not wanting to forgo their taste of home, however, the immigrants would insulate their precious fig trees. Every year as autumn gave way to winter, one could drive around town and watch as older couples tenderly wrapped their trees with blankets, tarpaulins, and plastic wrap. For this community, the taste of home was important enough to warrant inconvenience. For this community, preserving their fig trees was worth an extraordinary amount of effort.
Yesterday, we heard a passage from Luke’s gospel that deals with figs. In chapter 13, Jesus tells a parable about an unfruitful fig tree. The owner of the fig tree wants to cut it down, since it doesn’t bear fruit, but the gardener intercedes on its behalf, asking the landowner to wait one more year, to give the gardener some time to give the tree some attention.
The fig tree is a common Scriptural image. In the prophetic tradition, the fig tree is representative of Israel. Jeremiah, for instance, uses the image of the fig tree to lament the infidelity of Israel to God: “When I wanted to gather them, says the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree” (Jeremiah 8:13). This is probably the tradition that the gospel of Mark appropriates when Jesus curses the fig tree on his way into Jerusalem:
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it…
In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered” (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21).
Mark was written at a time when it was clear that the Temple system was not going to exist for much longer. Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree is meant to foretell the destruction of the Temple and the reconstitution of Israel. Matthew’s gospel adapts this story (21:18-19) so that Jesus can make a similar prediction.
It’s strange, then, that Luke puts Jesus in a position of forbearance. In Mark and Matthew, the fig tree is not producing fruit, so Jesus curses it. In Luke, the fig tree is not producing fruit, so Jesus intercedes on its behalf, suggesting that we might give it more attention, that we might fertilize it, that we might wrap it in blankets and tarpaulins. Only after we have done everything we can possibly do to save the tree and make it fruitful can we cut it down. In Luke’s gospel, preserving the fig tree is worth an extraordinary amount of effort. This is an amazing message, particularly because it comes in the context of Jesus teaching about repentance. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is saying that there is always a chance for renewal, that there is always an opportunity for us to bear fruit.
Ultimately, this is the message of Lent. As we engage in Lenten disciplines of fasting and prayer, we must remember that these are like the fertilizer and the blankets for the fig tree; they are not ends in themselves, they are meant to help us bear fruit for God. As we focus on our spiritual life and our relationship with God during this season, we may very well discover some things that draw us away from God. The message that Jesus proclaims in Luke’s gospel is that it is never too late for us to turn away from these things, that it is never too late repent and turn to the Lord, that God will expend an extraordinary amount of effort so that we might be renewed in Jesus Christ.