I had a nice fresh fig the other day—fresh, not dried, which is always a treat for me. It reminded me a bit of a passage from the Gospel of Luke, wherein Jesus gives a parable about a barren fig tree. In the parable, a landowner tells his gardener to chop down a fig tree because it has yet to bear fruit. The gardener replies that he thinks that the owner should wait one more year, and allow him to water and fertilize the tree. If the tree still does not bear fruit next year, the gardener says, he will cut it down.
One interpretation of this parable could cast God as the tree’s owner, Jesus as the gardener, and his people as the tree. In this reading, God expresses disappointment in his children, but when he asks Jesus to “cut [them] down,” Jesus replies by asking for more time to nurture them. However, Jesus concedes that God could still cut down the tree should it fail again next year. Taken alongside verses 1-5, the “fruit” of the fig tree becomes repentance; so, if a person, or group of people, fails to bear the fruit of repentance despite the love of Christ, they shall be “cut down.”
As such, a straightforward reading of this passage underscores the importance of penitence, as well as Jesus’ special relationship to humankind, acting as an advocate for us in the eyes of God. In of itself, that’s a nice bit of biblical wisdom. However, there’s one detail from this parable that I believe radically changes the texture of this lesson.
Fig trees can take up to five years before they begin to bear fruit. Only an exceptional fig tree, one grown in the most favorable conditions, bears fruit after only three years. So, the owner was disappointed in a reliable old tree that failed for the first time after bearing fruit for many seasons. He was disappointed in a tree that had just barely reached the age where it might, hopefully, bear fruit.
Like any good parent, God expects a lot from us—and I’m sure many of my fellow students at Harvard understand from personal experience what having a parent with high expectations is like. But we’re only human; even though God created us in his form, we remain, by definition, imperfect. Just like the fig tree, we can’t live up to his expectations on our own. But that’s why Christ, the gardener, gave his life: He died on the cross to save us, to give us another change, to nurture us into better serving God. Like a gardener, Jesus maintains a relationship of service and care towards us—and in return, we owe him the fruits of this labor of love.
Lent gives us the opportunity to foster that relationship. These forty days are like the parable’s one year—we have time to bring forth the fruit we have yet to bear. For some, that means fasting; for others, it means prayer, meditation, or acts of service. But no matter how we spend our forty days, we can’t do it without Christ, our gardener, who gave his life to be able to intercede before God on our behalf.
Paul Georgoulis ‘22 is a senior at Harvard living in Leverett House and studying Music and History & Literature.