the preceding discussion concerned the people, this
one unmistakably concerns the leaders (= fig tree)
who are stealing life from the people (= the vineyard;
see Isa 5:7).
Later in this Gospel (Luke 20:19) the
leadership (scribes and chief priests) clearly understands
that vineyard parables are directed to them and told
about them. Thus this present parable unmistakably
states that current leadership within the nation
is fruitless and should be rooted out.
The details of this parable reflect its Mediterranean cultural context perfectly.
The vineyard owner obviously lives in the city and rents his vineyard to a tenant
farmer who does the digging, the planting, etc. He “had the tree planted.”
The Palestinian fig tree bears fruit ten months of the year, and so one can reasonably
expect to find fruit at almost any time. The time sequence regarding fig trees
is this: first, the tree would have three years to grow after planting. The fruit
of the next three years is considered forbidden (see Lev 19:23). The fruit of
the seventh year is considered clean and ought to be offered to the Lord (Lev
The owner in this parable has come seeking fruit for three years, hence it is
nine years since planting, and the situation begins to look hopeless. He rightly
urges that it be rooted out, but the gardener urges “mercy,” give the
tree yet another chance.
Keep in mind that the parable is not about trees but about the nation’s leadership.
The gardener’s proposed remedy for the tree’s problems reflects Jesus’ mastery
of “insult humor.”
Throughout the Gospels Jesus, the authentic Mediterranean
native, resorts to insults on a regular basis, and they are always gems. The
gardener might have proposed new soil for the tree, or increased watering.
he proposed spreading manure on it. Jesus’ original peasant audience undoubtedly
roared with laughter. This is just what those #)%!@* leaders
Moreover, in Aramaic there is a wordplay between “dig it out” and “let
it alone” (also the word for forgiveness), which makes the parable and its
point very easy to remember. Judgment (dig it out)? No, mercy and forgiveness
(let it alone)!
The tree cannot lift itself by its roots. They (the leaders)
need the intervention of an outsider, the gardener, God himself!
Dedicated reformers are often so focused on the evils to be exterminated that
they neglect the need for personal reform as well. This is as true of all as
it is of leaders.
This is the point Luke’s Jesus makes in today’s masterful cluster
of readings. The passage is beautifully appropriate to Lent. It needs no further
John J. Pilch
J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and
facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published
fourteen books by Pilch exploring the
“cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to
find out more.
Copyright © 1997 by The Order of St.
Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, MN.
All rights reserved.
Used by permission from The
Liturgical Press, Collegeville,
The complete text of the
above article can be found in:
The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle C
John J. Pilch. The Liturgical Press. 1996. pp. 55-57.
Martin Erspamer, O.S.B.
from Religious Clip Art for the
(A, B, and C).
Used by permission of Liturgy Training
Publications. This art may be reproduced
only by parishes who purchase the
collection in book or CD-ROM form. For
more information go to: http://www.ltp.org/