Lesson of the Fig Tree
November 21, 2000
Parables of Jesus, BL 425
Dr. George Lyons
Luke 21:29-33 (NRSV)
9 Then he told them a parable: Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
The Parable of the Fig Tree occurs in the context of Jesus final eschatological discourse, overlooking Jerusalem. This discussion follows Jesus prophecies about the destruction of the temple and is initiated by the disciples asking, When therefore will these things be? And what will be the sign when these things are about to take place? (Luke 21:7, NASB). This parable is also found in Mark 13:38 and in Matthew 24:32. The wording of the parable in all three gospel-writers accounts is very similar, and follows the same outline. Luke follows the Markan sequence, and there is no evidence of influence from any other source (Nolland 1008). Matthew and Marks versions are nearly identical, while minor additions and omissions in Lukes retelling of the parable show a possibly different interpretation. As to the extent of importance one should place upon such differences, few scholars agree.
The chapter leading up to this passage deals with the signs of the end of the age in a sort of scaled progression. Many of the prophecies early in the chapter dealt mostly with the impending destruction of Jerusalem (temple stones torn down, Luke 21:6). Beyond that, Jesus spoke of crisis within nations of the world (21:10). Finally, the tumult reaches the cosmic level (21:25). Then the Parable of the Fig Tree comes to illustrate these things. Nolland's observation concerning the composite nature of this prophetic chapter (Nolland 1008) adds to the question of whether or not this parable about the budding fig tree had any eschatological significance originally.
Most of the variations in Lukes gospel seem rather minor. The author occasionally leaves out a word or replaces another. In Jeremias chapter on embellishment, he notes that even very slight additions can cause a shift in emphasis (Jeremias 29). Some of Luke's minor changes cause some to suspect that his very point may be different than that of Matthew or Mark. However, the tendency to read into slight variations and make inferences of theological significance can be overdrawn and harmful. Blomberg, in speaking of redaction criticism, says that making generalizations from a minor change in wording is too common within such circles of scholarship and is singularly suspect (Blomberg 126). It will be important to look at the possible significance of small additions and omissions, while keeping the imagination in check.
Luke begins by making a slight addition to the fig tree that is found in the other two gospels, sticking and all the trees onto the end. Nolland finds that this addition of all the other trees may correspond to Lukes development of the theme of Gentile inclusion throughout the discourse (1008). Scott, on the other hand, examines the possible symbolism of the fig tree and questions how Lukes addition changes possible understandings of its importance.
Within the culture of the time there are several possibilities for the meaning a fig tree brings to a story. The fig tree can appropriately symbolize the mystery of death and life, because of its particularly dead appearance in the winter and the appearance of its buds late in the spring (Jeremias 119). In some instances rabbinic thought emphasized the double motion of falling leaves (not a common trait of trees in this region of the world) and the rising sap as a metaphor for coming of a new age the old passes away even as the new takes place (Scott 341). Another midrashic statement connects the harvesting of figs to the growth of the Israelite people. As a harvester first collects only one fig from the tree, then several, then baskets and baskets full, God began his relationship with his people with only one man, Abraham, then several, Isaac and Jacob, and then the nation as they began to multiply and increase (341).
Instead of employing any of these possible symbols, Luke concludes, after looking at the fig tree and all the other trees, that summer is now near. Scott finds it notable that Luke finds nothing significant about the fig tree, as he is willing to extend the parable to all of the trees. He calls Lukes symbolic treatment an exercise in minimalism (342).
Verse 30s inclusion of see for yourselves probably does not change the thrust of the verse in comparison to the other gospel parallels, but simply emphasizes the totally adequate basis for knowing for oneself (Nolland 1009). Anyone can draw the proper conclusion about the coming summer by simply observing the emergence of the leaves (Harrington 328). Next, in verse 31, Luke adds the kingdom of God to the general form of the parable. When you see these things, you will know that the kingdom of God is near. These things might refer to a comprehensive look at the world and all its events and surroundings (1009). It could refer to the distress of the times or the cosmic signs referred to earlier in the chapter. The other two gospels say that when you see these things you will know that he is near, at the very gates, while Luke changes it to the kingdom of God is near. Some scholars take this to mean that the kingdom, as it is present in the teaching of Jesus will come to fulfillment (Blomberg 126). But Blomberg challenges this suggestion, insisting that if Luke had not meant this in an eschatological way, he would not have used kingdom of God at all (126). In fact, Blomberg says that were it not for the common supposition that Luke offers an apology for the delay of the Parousia, no one would find theological significance of any sort in this change (126).
Does the nearness of the kingdom have in mind proximity in space, time, or reason? How should such a statement be interpreted? Nolland offers a view (which he credits to Smijewski) that nearness does not have any relation to chronology, but generalizes to wider dimensions of unfolding history the view that in the ministry of Jesus the kingdom of God was in the process of breaking in (1009). Nolland ultimately rejects this view because of what he sees as the completely chronological nature of the chapter in which this passage is placed. He concludes that Luke is speaking of the eschatological consummation of the kingdom of God (Nolland 1009) -- that is, the temporal end of the present age and the dawning of the final age of fulfillment.
Harrington espouses nearly the opposite view and finds no significant temporal references from which to judge nearness. He does not detect in the passage any sort of time-table in which to place this occurrence (Harrington 330). Whether or not the nearness of the kingdom deals with a chronological sequence of events, Luke affirms that its appearance will be visible, even as the sprouting of leaves on a tree is apparent to anyone who takes notice.
All three synoptic gospels agree in including Jesus statement about the importance of this generation. But, once again, scholars are not in agreement about the meaning of such a phrase. Nolland believes it to refer to Jesus Palestinian contemporaries. He says, The fundamental driving force for the sentiment expressed in this verse is the conviction that [they] were to find themselves at a climax point in the purposes of God in judgment, just as they had been experiencing a climax point of Gods saving purposes in the ministry of Jesus (Nolland 1010). Harrington believes that, in stating this generation will not pass away, Luke does not necessarily mean an actual generation of people, but that the predominant use for this generation in Luke is as evil and resistant to the prophet (329). This statement is less directly temporal than it might at first appear.
The concluding verse of this section provides a statement that assigns authority to Jesus teaching. While even the planets and stars in the cosmos may be shaken and pass away, Jesus words will remain. These words have abiding significance (Nolland 1010).
Jesus teaching in this section is in answer to the disciples questions and concerns about knowing of the things that are to come. Jesus means to dispel the disciples uncertainties: you see for yourselves and know (21:30, RSV). Despite the preceding context of destruction and fear, this passage has good news for the believer. Jeremias sums up the parable saying, It is the day of salvation because the Savior is already here. The light is kindled (Jeremias 120).
Nolland sees the meaning of the passage as the unfolding disasters bringing evidence of the coming redemption. However, he believes that Jesus saw this as taking place in his generation. Nolland says, It is often quite unclear what distinction they were able to make between the working out of Gods purposes in their own generation and the ultimate working out of Gods purposes (Nolland 1011). In putting together chronologically what fits within Gods scheme of working in principle (not time), the emphasis is on the insecurity of the world and all of what seems to be real. The only thing upon which a person can depend is the words of Jesus; all else is insecure.
Scott, however, finds that the story of the fig tree collapses time, rather than defining it (Scott 342). The parables description does not delve into a detailed process, but jumps directly from budding to harvest. Scott insists, All that is left is not the harvest to come, but the now (342). In its very ordinariness, the tree shows that the life we have now is the kingdom.
It seems that Jesus does not call the disciples to hold onto his words as the only shred of constancy while living in fear of all else around them. It seems that his lasting teaching should be the foundation upon which they live their lives. The parable of the fig tree takes what could be complex and worrisome and offers assurance. Harrington affirms that the final word of this prophecy is a good word, indeed good news. Those who endure, who bear witness, who remain alert in prayer, have nothing to fear from the coming of the Son of Man (Harrington 330-331). Just as Jesus does not urge the disciples to stand over the fig tree, analyzing its growth and development with a magnifying glass every moment of the day, Christians should not attempt to discover the secrets of the end of the age (so also Luke in Acts 1:6-7). The importance is Christ and his coming will be obvious to those who afford him precedence in life. You will know, if you know me, Jesus seems to say.
This teaching does not call believers to worry about missing an enigmatic future event. Instead, it assures that those who are following Jesus and watching for his return will not have to guess at its approach. The kingdom of God should not be waited for in some dark hiding place until a cataclysmic event calls for radical action. Instead, Christians are to be observant, but to live out the life of a true follower of Christ -- experiencing the kingdom as it is already revealed to us in Christ -- here and now.
This passage could be used in a sermon on security (from a Wesleyan perspective, of course). Observing the tree is easily correlated to living a life in Christ that by its very nature and attitude watches for the return of the Lord. The experience of the kingdom of God should not be limited to eschatology, but as being now and coming to fulfillment in the indefinable future. If a person is living as a Christian, he or she should not worry about missing Christs coming.