These Parables: The Barren Fig Tree

Citation of disasters to challenge the doctrine of God’s omnipotence and mercy is commonplace: Why did God permit such and such if He is what He is said to be? Jesus is asked about a massacre of Galileans by Pontius Pilate.

Now Pilate was not such a remote aristocrat that he refused to slaughter, and slaughter he did. By the time the news spread it may have been exaggerated. He may or may not have actually committed the unspeakable blasphemy of violating the Temple precincts to mingle the blood of his victims with the blood of the sacrificial animals. His instructions from Rome were to keep the lid on that simmering pot, and riotousness was not in keeping with the Roman sangfroid, although it was not alien to Roman anger.

Whatever the details, there had been a massacre. The Jews were not all Jobs, and the general tone in the question they ask Jesus is more superior than pathetic: not “Why did God let it happen?” but “What did the Galileans do to deserve it?” Those asking may even have been terribly thrilled to think that they were privileged.

The Lord of mercy and truth answers with the parable of the barren fig tree (Luke 8:6-9), which recalls Isaiah’s image of the vineyard that produced only grapes and Jeremiah’s seed of promise that grew into a degenerate plant. The teller of this parable is the Messiah of those prophets, so the moral guilt He addresses goes beyond personality to the whole nation. Jesus shows His audience that they are babes in the wood when it comes to the mystery of evil and justification, of righteousness and indolence. One is reminded of the 89-year-old archbishop, a veteran of World War II, who said of a statement issued by his fellow bishops about war with Iraq that they did not know what they were talking about. It was an instance of a successor of the apostles speaking like the apostles.

Jesus mentions another tragedy: the collapse of the tower of Siloam on 18 people. What did the victims do to deserve that? After September 11, 2001, most people did not pose the question, if not out of theological modesty, certainly out of decency. Jesus, as the Truth, sees the big picture: All suffering is the calamity of a fallen world, and that world will collapse entirely if it does not accept its Savior. As the perfect parabolist, he puts it more subtly: In a fallen world there will be loss, as innocent branches are pruned in the life of the tree, but the tree must bear the fruit for which it was made, or it will cease to be a tree.

The House of Israel is the tree whose fruit is to be salvation through the Messiah. The whole world is an orchard, but the peculiar tree of Israel is prophetic. From our closer side of the parable, as Christians, the judgment is of the Church entrusted to us. As the Jews had their prophets, so the Christians have had 2,000 years of saints. What have we done with our inheritance of their treasury of merit?

We cannot merely answer with the playboy who was asked what he did for a living: “I inherit.” Much looks barren in the Church today. Jesus who lamented, “Jerusalem! Jerusalem!” may well lament today, “Los Angeles! Los Angeles!” and “Boston! Boston!” and all the cities of our perplexed planet. When Pope John Paul II went to southern California, he was informed that the Catholics there were the best educated and most prosperous the world has known, and he was not overwhelmed. That well-educated and prosperous smugness now haunts the Church, as it did the tower builders of Siloam.

It takes three years to cultivate a fig tree, and for three years Our Lord ministered among us. After the dreadful reckoning, the Intercessor offers one more chance. This is our consolation, but it is also our last chance. Then no excuses. Fashionable modern victimology, which holds no one accountable for his sins of omission or commission, makes no impression on the divine Victim. A couple of generations ago, more prudent commentators took to heart a line in Sir James M. Barrie’s play Dear Brutus, whose characters make excuses for themselves only to be told, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.”

A once vibrant culture is now a “culture of death,” committing demographic suicide by contraception and abortion, and moral suicide by atheism distilled into banality. Evil cannot create. Our culture may find itself cursed like the barren fig tree, unless—and this is the heart of the parable—eyes turn to the Tree of Life and the Savior born on its branches.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...