The Parable Project: The Barren Fig Tree
Trial lawyers are storytellers. But even more, the lives we live become stories. They become stories as we narrate their content. We seek meaning in these narratives, and philosophers, poets and theologians devise theories and means to sort experience into forms that make narrative sense. This much is obvious.
What is not so obvious is whether we have any real choice in the matter. None of us willed ourselves into being. We find ourselves present in the world. Something like an imperative bids us to make sense of things. Trial lawyers do so on behalf of clients who find themselves at turning points, or crises, in their lives. Yet the lawyer is no different than the client. We all live our turning points day to day.
I'm starting a new project on this web page. I will call it the Parable Project. It is a reflection of re-examination of parables attributed to Jesus.
I am aware of the controversial character of the claims about Jesus. For decades I have scorned the very name as a sign of tepid Sunday school ethics. As an adolescent, I was passionate for a time about the New Testament. The desire to know God was keen. But as a young adult, I turned a hard heart to such claims, and yielded in the end to what Kierkegaard referred to as the "sickness unto death," or despair.
But despair is too easy. Life evokes a response; if not my own life, than surely the life of the client whose life becomes my responsibility. There is no escaping what Yeats taught. "Man can embody truth but he cannot know it."
Well along life's way I am reassessing the historical Jesus with no real intent other than to discover what I can about an extraordinary life. Reliable information about him is hard to come by. But the question of his life's meaning seems everywhere and nowhere, all at once. Certainly the parables attributed to him are a good start. And they are fixed points in our literary heritage.
John Dominic Crossan's, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, is a difficult point of departure for students of parables. A theologian well versed in both modern philosopy and literary criticism, Crossan writes in sometimes dense and impenetrable prose. (Can it be otherwise for a man who admires Heidegger?) Yet from time to time, he reflects the bright light of genius.
He reminds us that not all parables carry morals examples. There is not, in other words, a moral point to every story, even if there is, so to speak, a moral. Pressing for such trivializes, and closes the interpretation of a narrative into tight wraps that keep light from entering. The parable of the barren fig tree as reported by the Gospel of Luke is perhaps such a parable.
Here it is, as reported by Luke's Gospel:
"‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
On its face, this story seems trite, too commonplace even to merit preservation. Yet here it is, passed along and regarded by many as holy scripture for centuries. I read the words of the parables and my understanding is cold. What truth does it embody?