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?

Comments: (3)

  • Welcome to the world of metaphors, my friend. Met...
    Welcome to the world of metaphors, my friend. Metaphors are rich because they are containers for our own content. What the metaphor means to me might differ from what it means to you: Neither of us would be wrong. To me, the parable about the fig tree means that one should not engage in fruitless activities. What does it mean for something to bear fruit? That is up to each to define.It could mean that an employee is not bringing a profit to his employer, and thus should be fired. It could mean that a relationship is loveless, and thus should be ended. When reading metaphors, look at things in their literal sense and apply those principles more broadly. Here, a tree is sucking nutrients from the soil. Soil is scarce. Land is scarce. Should a tree that bears no fruit be allowed to take up such space? Could you use the land or soil for something more productive?From there, we might think: "What is the soil of my life? What trees are sucking the nutrient from my soil? Are those trees bearing fruit?"
    Posted on January 15, 2009 at 9:04 pm by Mike
  • You write:“read the words of the parables and my u...
    You write:“read the words of the parables and my understanding is cold. What truth does it embody?”The biggest question is: Who is the historical man from Nazareth is and what did he teach.I was a Christian for six years and was following the Jesus.Le-havdil (to differentiate),Then I found out that the the historical first century Jew Ribi Yehoshua from Natzrath (Nazareth) didn’t create a new religion. All world-recognized authorities (Charlesworth, Wilson, Parkes to name some) in this area leave no doubt that Ribi Yehoshua was a Pharisee. We know from Dead Sea Scrolls 4Q MMT that the core of the practise of the Pharisees was Torah including Halakhah. This implies that much of the content of “Matthew” are words that Ribi Yehoshua cannot have uttered. The decision was easy – I chose to start practising Torah non-selectively just like the Pharisaic Ribi Yehoshua and his followers Netzarim.For in-depth information about the historical Pharisee Jew and Ribi unequaled anywhere, take the on-line course from the first follower of historical Ribi Yehoshua to be accepted in the same Pharisee (Orthodox) Jewish community as historical Ribi Yehoshua since 135 C.E., and foremost authority on historical Ribi Yehoshua and his original Netzarim Jewish followers, Paqid Yirmeyahu ( --a former Baptist preacher who has translated the NT from all of the earliest extant source mss. up through the 4th century C.E.Historical Ribi Yehoshua was a Pharisee Jew about whom gentiles and Christians, because of their ignorance of Judaism (1st-century and today), have innumerable misconceptions. Don't be led by the blind.Ribi Yehoshua taught in "synagogues"; which were a strictly Pharisee institution.Some part of quote: Paqid YirmeyahuFinding the historical Jew, who was a Pharisee Ribi and following him brings you into Torah, which gives you a rich and meaningful life here on earth and great rewards in life after death (“heaven”)!From Anders BranderudGeir Toshav, Netzarim (
    Posted on January 16, 2009 at 9:32 am by Anders Branderud
  • The vinyard owner neglects or forgets to consider ...
    The vinyard owner neglects or forgets to consider the knowledge, skill and tender tidings of the gardener. The gardener knows the fig tree requires three years of tender care BEFORE it can bear fruit in its fourth year. The gardener understands the owner is unaware of these things and that is why he tends to the garden FOR the owner. GOD tends to his children knowing we do not understand all things as HE does. We neglect or forget that it is GOD who is the keeper of our purpose for living.
    Posted on January 16, 2009 at 4:21 pm by Anonymous

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