A vineyard is a very special place, normally reserved for vines only. Yet in his parable Jesus talks about a fig tree which was planted in a vineyard. At that time this was not unusual. Soil was so scarce that trees were planted wherever there was soil. We are dealing then with a tree planted in a very privileged place.
Yet in spite of this the tree was barren. Nevertheless, it was given another chance. The fig tree stands for Israel planted in the Lord’s vineyard. Its barren state symbolized the barren state of Israel before God.
Jesus began his mission with a call to repentance: ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’ Today the same call is addressed to us. The call to repentance is at the heart of the Gospel. Jesus addressed it, not just to sinners, but also to good people. In fact, to all without exception. But you may ask: how can this be – that good people should need to repent?
In the case of so-called good people, for them their failing consists in the good they fail to do. This is the main thrust of the parable about the barren fig tree. The fig tree is found wanting, not because it produced poisonous figs, but because it failed to produce any figs at all. What is a fig tree for if not to produce figs?
We rarely ask ourselves the question: What have I failed to do? The call to repentance is not merely a call to turn away from evil, but a call to ‘produce the fruits’ of good living. That is why it is relevant for everybody.
Jesus’ call to repentance disturbs us, and we don’t like to be disturbed. We want our quiet life, a life which may contain a bit of selfishness. We may not be guilty of great evil, yet we could be very selfish, very demanding, very inconsiderate. But we don’t want to know, much less do anything, about this side of our nature. We are being called from being self-centered, to become other-centered and God-centered.
Conversion is a joyful thing. It is good news. It is a call away from the slavery of selfishness and sin, to a life of freedom and grace. It is a call away from a life of barrenness to a life of fruitfulness. It is a call to enter into the joy of the Kingdom. However, it is not something that is achieved once and for all, but involves a process of growth and development. The Christian life is a continuous process of conversion. Jesus’ parable contains a warning and a threat. Its purpose is to show us what we may be missing out on, or lacking, in order that we might have a deeper, richer, and more authentic life. No one should take anything for granted. No one is so secure that he can’t fall. No one is so fallen that he can’t be redeemed.