The Barren Fig Tree!
Francis Bourdillon, 1864
He also spoke this parable: "A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then he said unto the dresser of his vineyard, 'Behold, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and found none. Cut it down! Why does it cumber ground?'
And he answering said unto him, 'Master, let it alone this year also, until I shall dig about it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well; and if not, then after that you shall cut it down.'"
This is a solemn parable — but not a difficult one.
The owner of the vineyard means God Almighty.
The unfruitful fig tree means any person who is a Christian in name only.
The dresser of the vineyard means the Lord Jesus Christ.
The parable represents the fig tree as planted in the vineyard — not growing wild by the wayside, but set in an enclosed place like our gardens and orchards, and taken care of.
The person here meant therefore is not a heathen man — but one who has had religious teaching and has learned about God and His ways. Our Lord spoke the parable to Jews — and doubtless it first pointed to them. Now it applies to those who bear the Name of Christ — but are not real Christians. The vineyard represents the visible Church of Christ — the general body of those who call themselves Christians. Every baptized person belongs to this body. He is like a tree planted in a vineyard.
The parable shows us that God takes notice of the Church, for we find the owner of the vineyard coming to see it year after year. And not only of the Church at large, but of every member of it; for the man came continually to look at this one tree.
Yes, we live under the constant observation of God. He takes notice of each one of us. His eye is on us continually. He marks our spiritual condition, the state of our hearts, and the course of our lives. He observes all and knows all.
What does He look for in us? Just what this man sought to find on his fig tree — fruit. Only the fruit that God looks for is spiritual fruit, the fruits of holiness, the fruit of the Spirit. Would leaves satisfy the owner of the fig tree? Would he be content with great branches and a strong growth? No! He set the tree there that it might bear fruit — and nothing but fruit would satisfy him.
Just so, God looks for more than the mere name of Christian. He looks for more than mere knowledge and profession and talk. These are but like leaves. He seeks fruit — and nothing but fruit will be accepted with Him. He discerns what is real, from what is merely pretended. As easily as the man in the parable could tell fruit from leaves — so easily does God distinguish between the real and the nominal Christian.
Yet the man had patience with this tree. True, it ought to have borne fruit the first year he came to look. Yet he was not hasty with it. It would stand for another year. Another year's sun would shine on it; another year's dews and rains would moisten it — perhaps it might bear fruit then. And even when he was disappointed again, he still had patience; he would wait another year; he would try the tree yet once more.
And what unprofitable nominal Christian can say that God has not had patience — long patience, with him? Has he not lived on in the enjoyment of the means of grace? Have not time and opportunities been given to him? Year after year, for many more years than two or three — he has been borne with in his unfruitfulness; an unprofitable servant, a Christian in name only, not loving or serving God, and yet allowed to remain.
But the fig tree took up valuable space! The longer it stayed there and the larger it grew — the more did it cumber the ground, occupying the room to no purpose, and hindering the growth of other trees. So when the owner came for the third time and still found no fruit, his patience was exhausted — he would have such a tree in his vineyard no longer. "Cut it down!" said he, "why does it cumber the ground?"
The unfruitful Christian is like the unfruitful tree. Far from doing any good — he even does harm. His example is evil. Even if he is not a gross outward sinner — yet such religion as his tends to bring all religion into discredit. When people see that a man may be called a Christian — that he may know so much, and talk so loud — and yet show nothing of the spirit of the gospel in his life — they are led to think that religion itself must be a mere pretense; and that there is, after all, no truth, no power, no reality in it.
Thus the nominal Christian is a cumberer of the ground. He is useless, and worse than useless, in the Church of Christ.
We do not hear the voice of the Almighty commanding that such a one shall be taken away; but that is what the parable represents to us. "Cut it down!" Ah, what awful words, when applied so! "Cut it down!" Let him be taken away; let him stay no longer; let him die! We do not hear the voice — but do we not often see the cutting down, the taking away?
But the fig tree was not cut down. The dresser of the vineyard begged for another year. "Master," he said — "Let it alone this year also, until I shall dig about it, and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well; and if not, then after that you shall cut it down." If it might stay another year — he would take double pains with it; he would dig the ground around it; he would fertilize it well; he would do all that could be done. Perhaps it might bear fruit after all. If so, it would be well — a tree would be gained. But if not, then he would ask for no more delay — then let it be cut down. It was the fig tree's last chance!
The Lord Jesus Christ pleads for sinners — for the useless, the formal professor, the impenitent, the unbelieving; for those who do no good, but rather harm; for cumberers of the ground. Once He died for sinners — and now He pleads for them. Not merely for sinners in general, but for this person and for that person, one by one. That he may not be cut down, that more time may be granted — more yet after so many years of patient longsuffering, another year: "this year also." Yes, perhaps sometimes that very space of time — who knows? "Let it alone this year also." He is pleading thus for the unprofitable professor continually.
Then the gracious Savior uses further means with him who is thus spared; for He is Lord of all, He has all means and instruments within His power. Perhaps He orders a man's lot so that he shall hear the gospel message more faithfully and forcibly delivered, than previously. Perhaps He leads him away from worldly acquaintances and gives him new friends of a better sort, who love God and seek to obey Him. Perhaps He tries him with affliction, disappoints his worldly plans, lays him on a sick-bed, or sends death into his family. Meanwhile conscience speaks within; thoughts arise in the heart; the Spirit strives there. Thus the Lord Jesus deals with the soul for whom He has pleaded.
"If it bears fruit, well!" If he who was so long unprofitable, begins now to serve God, if the conscience is awakened and the heart changed, if he be brought to know himself a sinner and to believe in Jesus as his Savior, if thus he becomes "a new creature in Christ Jesus" and begins thenceforth to live to God — then it is well indeed! Angels rejoice; glory is brought to God; another useful member is added to the Church on earth — and a soul is saved!
But if not. Ah, how sad an "if" is this! We do not know the end of the fig tree. The parable leaves off at this point: "If not — then after that you shall cut it down." We are not told whether it bore fruit and was allowed to stand — or was unfruitful still and was cut down at the end of the year. This seems to make the parable apply with peculiar force to those who are even now being dealt with as the fig tree was to be dealt with during that year.
It may be that you have been unfruitful hitherto — and that now God is dealing with you in some new way. Are you in trouble of any kind? Has sorrow visited you? Has your health failed? Has sickness fallen upon you? Are you laid aside?
May not the reason be that the Lord Jesus has pleaded for you that you might have more time, and that now He is dealing with you as the dresser of the vineyard was to deal with the fig tree? If so, how gracious is He in this very affliction! It is for your soul's good. It is to humble you, to soften you, to teach you your need, and to lead you to your Savior. It is to take you from a sinful, worldly, careless, unprofitable life — and to bring you into the happy and holy life of a servant of God. It is through mercy and love, that this very time is yours. It is because Jesus pleaded for you, "Let it alone this year also!"
Yet how solemn a time is it! Perhaps this is the last season of opportunity for turning to God — the time that has been added on, the one year more. Nay, not a year perhaps, in your case. The fig tree had a year — but you may have much less. But at least today is yours. God has given it to you. Today you may seek Him; today you may pray, and He will hear; today the door is open.
Ah, do not let so precious a season slip away! Let not one day slip away! All may yet be well — if you will turn to God with all your heart and seek mercy through the blood of Jesus and begin to live to God.
Let there be no "if" in your case; no "not." Let the great question be settled at once. Do not delay. Seek your Savior now. "Behold, now is the accepted time — behold, now is the day of salvation!"