One of my thrills as a gardener this past year (I use the term ‘gardener’ loosely) has been to watch a fig tree grow and produce fruit for the very first time. My fig tree produced its first crop of figs in late August. There were four figs in all. I wasn’t sure what a ripe fig should look like, and so sampled the first one too early. Which explains why it was pink inside and not as sweet-tasting as I had anticipated.
I subsequently learned that a ripe fig is soft and squishy–gooey almost–and brown, like the one in the photo.
Watching my fig tree flourish and produce fruit these past months has brought to mind a number of biblical passages in which a fig tree features prominently. I’m told that there are some 50 references to figs and fig trees in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and New Testament. (I don’t intend to comment on all 50!) In two earlier blogs, I describe how our primeval parents Adam and Eve used fig leaves in an attempt to cover their nakedness (9 June 2017 blog); and how Jesus, in what was a prophetic sign-act, pronounced judgment on a fruitless fig tree (28 June 2017 blog).
Jesus also told a parable about a fig tree (Luke 13:6-9).
A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?” “Sir,” the man replied, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down” (NIV).
The characters in this parable are usually identified thus: the owner of the fig tree is God, the caretaker is Jesus, and the fig tree is Israel. Jesus’ ministry, begun in approximately AD 28-29, lasted for three years. In that time there has been little response from his own people, the Jews. Jesus, not willing to see the fig tree destroyed, intercedes on its behalf. He calls for a reprieve for the fig tree, another chance, one more year. During that time, he himself will do all he can for the tree. If, at the end of one year there is no fruit, then the owner of the tree can uproot it.
Jesus intervenes to save the fig tree, recalling Moses’ earlier intercession on behalf of his people. The Israelites had Aaron build a golden calf to worship when Moses was overly late in descending from the mountain. God was ready to annihilate the “stiff-necked” people, but Moses implored God to “turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people” (Ex 32:12). Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened (v. 14).
In the parable, the caretaker asks for a delay, not a total reprieve, on behalf of the tree, knowing that the owner is within his rights to remove a fruitless tree taking up valuable space in his vineyard. The parable of the fruitless fig tree raises a somber note: While God may delay judgment for a time, a day of reckoning will inevitably come.
My first crop of figs–the so-called ‘early’ figs–ripened in late August. A second crop of figs is growing now–the so-called ‘late’ figs–even as the tree’s leaves change from green to yellow. I’m not sure what will happen to the developing figs as the weather grows colder. In Israel in Jesus’ time, the first crop was eaten fresh, and the later figs were dried for the winter. Are there any biblical passages that refer to these ‘late’ figs? Yes there are–I feel another blog coming on!