‘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?‘ (Lk: 13:7)
It must be allowed that fig trees may not bear fruit until the age of four, so the tree in our story must be about seven years old. Figs need not be grown in an orchard; they are self-fruitful. They do require much sun and the right amount of fertilizer – too much feeding however can cause the fruit to fall immature and then result in a long recovery period. This is not the case of the fig tree in our parable. It has been underfed.
In this parable, the gardener responds to the owner of the tree: ‘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.’” (Lk: 13:8-9). In spiritual terms, fertilizer is symbolic of nutrition (i.e. grace) while the soil in which the tree is planted on earth is the ecosystem of grace, that is, the Church, which itself needs regular tilling.
In this parable the fig tree is the human soul. Souls in the state of grace produce good fruit. It is the soul that is not in the state of grace, but which lives in grave sin, which is fruitless. The fig tree in our story is the soul that stubbornly refuses the grace and mercy offered by God. The story is meant to show us that God the Father is very patient by offering active grace and interior sanctity. Yet in the end, the soul that proves itself willfully fruitless will be cut down, fully cut off from grace and uprooted from the mystical Church, the Body of Christ, which malicious souls “exhaust”.
On this 3rd Sunday in Lent we place on our bulletin cover a work by religious genre painter James Tissot, entitled The Vine Dresser and the Fig Tree. This “event” is presented (as with many of Tissot’s works) with scenery requiring a landscape rather than a portrait viewing. Hence, we are unable to include on our bulletin cover the full image of the owner of the tree; we show only his foot in the lower right hand corner of our bulletin image to acknowledge his presence.
Here we see the fig tree sporting very few leaves so that its capacity to receive light has been compromised. It is not prosperous (Ps 1:3). Its defoliation has come about through its failure to take in the proper nutrition (grace). In the parable, the tree is given more time to allow for “soil improvement” so that it may be saved (i.e. be fruit-bearing in the future). The vine dresser is Jesus Christ; but so are his vicars, the stewards of the Church which stand in for Him on earth. If they fail to feed the fig trees by properly fostering the soil – the Church – then they too will be held to account to the owner (God) for their time and produce. In our illustration then, it is not only the fig tree, but also the stewards, who, especially at present, are in a place of spiritual probation.
–Steve Guillotte, Director of Pastoral Services