Column: Gospel both a warning and a message of hope

by Father Mike Stubbs

With all the snow and cold weather  that we have been experiencing lately, any sign of spring, even the mere mention of vegetation, can bring hope to our hearts.

That is what we hear in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 13:1-9, a story that focuses on vegetation. While teaching the people around him, Jesus brings them a parable about a fig tree that has not borne fruit for the last three years. The
owner threatens to have it cut down, but relents when the gardener persuades him to give it one more chance.

The parable presents us then, both with a warning of judgment, as well as with a message of hope. We still have a chance.

When we hear this parable, we can detect in it an echo of another parable from the Old Testament, Is 5:1-7. Once again, the owner — this time not of a fig tree, but rather of a vineyard — is disappointed in the poor crop. He
also has decided to tear it down. Once again, the story presents the warning of judgment.

The major difference between the story in Luke and the story in Isaiah lies in the choice of vegetation — the fig tree as opposed to the vineyard. Otherwise, the two resemble each other closely. There is one other significant difference in the treatment of the stories. After telling his story, Isaiah adds a sentence that interprets the story as an allegory: “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his cherished plant.”

We might wonder whether the parable in Luke is similarly intended as
an allegory. We can easily identify the owner of the fig tree as God, just like the owner of the vineyard in Isaiah. We might interpret the gardener who intercedes on behalf of the fig tree as Jesus, who intercedes with God on our behalf.

Then who does the fig tree stand for? The whole people of Israel, like the vineyard in Isaiah? Or, does Jesus intend his audience to relate to the parable in a more personal fashion, as sinners in need of repentance, in line with the earlier part of his teaching? Does the fig tree stand for the individual who has been given another chance for repentance?

In any event, it is not clear the story in Luke fits the sharply defined interpretation of an allegory. Jesus may have desired several meanings, to add to its richness.

We might also note that what the Gospel of Luke presents as a parable, occurs as an event in the life of Jesus in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew (Mk 11:12-14; Mt 21:18-22). Jesus encounters an unproductive fig tree, which he curses and causes to wither up. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus takes the place of the owner of the tree. He also does not give the tree a second chance.

It is entirely possible that Jesus came across an uncooperative fig tree and based a parable upon that incident, the parable which we hear in Luke’s Gospel. Perhaps the parables of Jesus are not pure fiction, but stories based on the events of everyday life that tell a deeper truth.

In any case, the parable in Sunday’s Gospel presents us with both a warning of judgment and a message of hope. Hope springs eternal, even in the midst of winter.

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