The actual story itself is very short, and more of a description of a situation than an a narrative. More interesting—and more troubling—is the (supposedly) true context for the story, and what interpreters read into what's not said.
The Text - Fig trees in the synoptics
Introduction - A bit of Yeats
The Budding Tree - Apocalypse now
Christian Interpretations - Barren figs
A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’
He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Jesus and the Fig Tree (Mark 11:12-25)
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”
Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
Then he told them a parable:
“Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.
So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.
So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates.
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.
So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Excerpted from The Jewish Annotated New Testament.
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the wingèd sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.
Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile,
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.
William Butler Yeats, The Two Trees
In his poem The Two Trees, Yeats juxtaposes two images of a mystical tree: one ecstatic, mystical, and full of cosmic grace and wonder, and one withered and broken, full of worldly cynicism and haunted by the "ravens of unresting thought." Yeats was a student of Christian Kabbalah, the Christianized version of Jewish mysticism, and was likely aware of the layered and multivalent symbolism of trees in Jewish thought. (Check out Loreena McKennitt's exquisite musical setting of the poem.
In Jesus's parables we see a similar juxtaposition, even though it's scattered across the gospels: a budding fig tree, full of the promise of summer, and a barren fig tree that has not borne fruit. Or do we? Additional Jewish context shows that there may be nothing wrong with the fig tree that isn't bearing fruit.
The Budding Fig Tree
Despite Jesus's warnings not to try to figure out the hour of the coming of the kingdom of heaven, the parable and Jesus's explanation promise that it's coming within the lifetime of those around him, and that current events are signs of its coming.
It's paired with other apocalyptic predictions, most alluding to or quoting text from the prophets in the Tanakh, e.g. Matthew 24:29:
“Immediately after the suffering of those days
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
and the powers of heaven will be shaken."
This verse is, in most translations, inset as if it's a quote (and many people seem to assume that it's a direct quote from the Old Testament), yet it seems to evoke common prophetic language rather than directly quote it:
It's a strange juxtaposition to evoke suffering and destruction and compare it to the "tender shoots" of a budding tree signaling the coming of summer. (The idea that the words of these prophets, many of which referred to events they were experiencing in the present tense, were automatically a prediction of the Christian-style end of the world, rather than the latest invasion under which the Jewish people were suffering, is questionable to say the least.)
There is, of course, a robust corpus of exegesis attempting to square this with the fact that the world did not end within the lifetimes of Jesus's contemporaries, but as I noted above, this isn't really a story, it's a single-sentence metaphor, so I'm not going to spend more a lot of time on historical interpretations of it.
Christian Interpretations of
the Barren Fig Tree
The standard Christian interpretation of the barren fig tree parable was that it was a warning to Israel to repent, a warning that was ignored, resulting in the destruction of the Temple and the exile of most of the population of Judea. (See, for example, a 1673 sermon by John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim's Progress, "The Barren Fig Tree," in which he warns his English listeners not to be like Jews, lest they provoke the same fate.)
Anti-Jewish readings are relatively common, though less so in modernity: Christian commentators claim that this was Israel's final warning, and Israel's failure to heed it has caused God to reject God's covenant with the Jewish people in favor of (gentile) Christians.
One might note that the prophets evoked by Matthew 24:29 sometimes use language that suggests the judgment is a "final" one—e.g. Amos's warning that "The hour of doom has come for My people Israel; I will not pardon them again"—and yet all of them follow it with promises that Israel's loving relationship with God will be renewed, that God will forgive. In Jewish thought, God is always open to repentance, and no judgment against the people with whom God is in covenant is actually final.
Blomberg holds to the supercessionist view, though he does make some attempt to nuance it in suggesting the judgment is not against all Jews, only Jewish leaders:
Thus it is natural to take the fig tree growing in the vineyard here, even though also a realistic combination in ancient horticulture, as representing at least some of the Jewish people. Their fruitlessness is then self-explanatory. In light of Jesus’ special condemnation of the corrupt leadership of the Jewish nation elsewhere, the fig tree could easily symbolize the majority of the religious leaders of Israel, though the principle of judgment on those who do not repent obviously applies universally (Lk 13:3, 5).
Luise Schottroff, always sensitive to anti-Jewish readings of the parables, refutes this idea:
For Christian interpreters these Jesus traditions are inextricably tied to their anti-Jewish misuse: the positing of the righteous punishment of God that is sup-posed to have led Israel into catastrophe. Tania Oldenhage has rightly pointed to the implicit justification of the Holocaust when Christians have spoken since 1945 about the threatened catastrophe of Israel. This Christian tradition of interpretation has disregarded both the threat to the Jewish people in the real history of the first century and their long suffering from the consequences of that war.
She also rejects the allegorization of the vineyard owner as a punitive God and the intervening gardener as Jesus:
The parable is not to be allegorically interpreted by asking whether Jesus is now the petitioner, like Moses before, or whether the owner of the vineyard represents God. These questions are inappropriate. The logic of the vineyard owner is determined by considerations of profit. The parable narrative should not be read as a quarry for metaphors, but as a fictional and concentrated reflection of social experiences.
The Fig Tree and the Temple
The anti-Jewish reading is reinforced by the Marcan story of Jesus cursing the fig tree, which sandwiches the incident in which he overturns moneychangers' tables, kicks the dove sellers' chairs out from under them, and won't let anyone carry anything through the Temple. The juxtaposition makes it hard not to associate the fig tree with Jews, Judaism, and/or the Temple.
This incident is often called the "cleansing" of the Temple, as if moneychangers, dove sellers, and people carrying things should not have been in the Temple, which fundamentally misunderstands the function of the Temple, which was for offering sacrifice. If one was not a local farmer who could bring one's own produce or animals as an offering, one had to obtain them. Similarly, if one was a Jew making a pilgrimage from Rome or Alexandria or Elephantine or Babylon or any of the other distant places Jews lived—or a visiting gentile who wanted to make an offering—one would most likely need to exchange one's money for local currency in order to buy an animal.
There seems to be a common perception that people profiting off holy work in the Temple was somehow a sign of corruption. But the priests and Levites (who performed functions from playing sacred music to maintaining the facilities) were from the tribe of Levi which, in exchange for becoming the priestly caste, was not allotted land like the other tribes. In a sort of checks-and-balances situation, they had greater religious authority than their fellow Israelites, but were dependent on them for food, essentially becoming professional clergy. Unless you think pastors (and people who make church altar cloths, publish prayerbooks, etc.) shouldn't get paid, you should understand that running a religious institution doesn't free one from having to participate in the economy.
There was certainly corruption associated with the Temple, but most of it derived from Roman interference. The Romans seem to have been somewhat taken aback by the vehemence of Jewish resistance to Roman rule, and correctly noting the centrality of the Temple in Jewish thought, they reasoned that if they could control the Temple, they could by extension control the Jewish psyche. They put the office of High Priest up for sale and got many of the upper-class priests and Levites on their payroll. I'm not claiming, of course, that no corruption ever existed outside of Roman meddling (various priests are already running afoul of God and/or their people in the Torah itself), but under the Roman occupation, most paths to sketchy money-making passed through Roman jurisdiction at some point or another. Either way, the problem wasn't dove sellers. Perhaps there are nuances that were obvious to Jesus and his followers but invisible to us, or perhaps the story is a later, anti-Jewish addition. Either way, attempts to draw parallels between the Temple administration and modern-day political powers are fraught and end up reinforcing anti-Jewish tropes or tacitly absolving the Romans more often than not.
Dr. Amy-Jill Levine has a Harvard Divinity School lecture on this topic that I highly recommend:
Even More Contemporary Christian Commentary
Human Blood in the Temple
The context of this parable is Jesus receiving the news that a group of Galileans have been murdered in the Temple by Pilate.
The gospels tend to portray Pilate as a thoughtful, reasonable man who would have let Jesus off the hook if it were up to him, but must helplessly concede to a bloodthirsty mob of Jews. Christians even decided to declare him a saint.
Pilate was actually, from what we can piece together according to historical sources, both monstrously brutal and incompetent, and he would most likely have executed Jesus with a second thought as he did to so many of Jesus's kindred. His role was primarily about policing the fractious province of Judea and collecting taxes.
Josephus claims Pilate plundered the Temple treasury to build an aqueduct (while there are no historical sources about the Tower of Siloam Jesus mentions as falling upon and killing 18 people, most commentators and historians assume it was part of the aqueduct system Pilate built, adding a cruel bit of irony to the news report), which the Jewish populace would have seen as an insult. They protested, and Pilate had his soldiers beat them with clubs and trample them with their horses, killing a significant number. Josephus also records Pilate as moving imperial standards bearing Caesar's image into Jerusalem, or possibly the Temple itself (which Jews would have seen as an idolatrous desecration). In protest, a crowd of Jews surrounded Pilate's house. He agreed to meet with them in an arena, but when they arrived, he had his soldiers draw their swords to attack. However, for some reason he relented and didn't proceed with the massacre. (Philo records a similar incident involving shields instead of standards.) Pilate also massacred a large group of unarmed Samaritans who were digging for sacred vessels at Mount Gerizim.
Eventually, Pilate's brutality was too much even for other Romans, and Tiberius recalled him to Rome. Whatever the outcome of his trial, he did not return to governing Judea.
While the Galilee is portrayed in the gospels as peaceful and even bucolic—Jesus and his followers spend a considerable amount of time bumming around undisturbed—this was most likely an attempt by the gospel writers to absolve the Romans. Historically, the Galilee was a hotbed of rebellion. During Jesus's childhood, a rebel leader named Judas of Galilee demanded his fellow Jews refuse to participate in the Roman census, and his followers burned the homes of those who did not comply. There are stories of Robin Hood-like bandits who stole from wealthy Roman collaborators to aid the poor, and the first major battles of the war that would result in the destruction of the Temple occurred when Vespasian invaded the region. The Galilee had a reputation for rebelliousness almost from the get-go. It had been Phoenician territory and, at the time of Jesus, had only been Jewish for about 150 years. The term "Galilean" had the connotation of being insurrectionist.
So the news that Pilate had murdered 18 Galileans would have been fraught with political and historical echoes. (I'm not sure when the number 18 became significant in Jewish thought—in gematria, it equates to chai, life, which is why Jews often donate money in multiples of 18. Gematria dates back to the tannaitic period (10-220 CE, roughly) so if the number was already significant at the time, that would add another layer.)
Schottroff hammers home this point:
At the same time the place and time of the murder were a deliberate religious provocation to the whole Jewish people... The outrage over these provocations is expressed in the assertion that Pilate had mingled the blood of the murder victims with that of their sacrificial animals. Jesus himself adds to this news of a fresh experience of oppression the recollection of an accident that probably had taken place some considerable time in the past: Eighteen people had been killed by the falling of a tower at the pool of Siloam. There are no sources regarding the accident outside this text, but it is entirely possible that the tower was connected with the aqueduct that Pilate had built.
So what of Jesus's reaction? Schottroff notes that it's not as simple as many commentators make it out to be:
There are discrepancies in the evaluation of Jesus' perspective on these two instances of violence. Frequently in the history of interpretation, emphasis has been placed on Jesus' apolitical point of view. It is said that he did not react to the news of Pilate's bloody deed with a condemnation of Rome, as those present would have expected. In addition, he paralleled it with an accident, in fact, a natural event.
But is it just an accident? After all, if the Tower of Siloam is part of Pilate's aqueduct, the aqueduct he plundered the Temple treasury to build, it is in some sense illegitimate, the fruit of a poisonous tree. It should come down, but it comes down in an accident (or a divine judgment?), not an act of cleansing rebellion.
Jesus's response, that the 18 Galilean dead are no more guilty than those killed when the tower (which may have been part of Pilate's hated aqueduct) fell on them, is more cryptic than it probably appears if one doesn't know the historical context. On one hand, it might sound like Jesus is saying that the 18 are no more sinful than everyone else—that is, that everyone is sinful—and this is certainly the way most Christians seem to read it.
But it's worth remembering that in Judaism, we are collectively accountable for each other's sins. So is Jesus just saying that everyone's equally sinful? Or is he pointing out that the Galileans who presumably took action against Pilate or otherwise came to his attention and got murdered for their troubles are part of a rebellious community against which Pilate and the Romans will likely take broad punitive action unless repentance convinces God to intervene? The idea that God punishes Israel by allowing other nations to conquer the people is a common one in the prophets.
Schottroff seems clear on the way the Jewish understanding of repentance as collective, rather than individual, differs from the Christian one:
The Torah, which Jesus has received and which he hands on, refuses to look away from such a situation but instead seeks to bring the whole people to act, for the "repentance" Jesus intends takes place not in the hearts of individuals but in community and in public.
Or is the sin in having allowed (and perhaps even enjoyed) something built by idolators with riches that were supposed to be dedicated to God? The evocation of residents of Jerusalem is also telling here—how many there enjoy luxuries bought with Roman bribes or stipends, wealth the pagan Romans are plundering from a land that is supposed to be dedicated to holiness? How many Temple functionaries on the Roman payroll see the wealth the Romans stole from the Temple flow back into their hands?
Perhaps if Galileans had torn down the aqueduct, they wouldn't have been killed in its collapse.
While this interpretation is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch, I don't think the conclusion that this response is apolitical is as obvious as many commentators make it out to be.
Interesting, Schottroff starts heading in this direction, but stops before she gets all the way there (she's more interested in heading off—at least on an individual rather than collective basis—what my rabbi calls "toxic theology": the idea that if something bad happens to you, it's because God is punishing you for some sin):
Jesus criticizes a possible personalizing of the events as the fault of those affected by them (vv. 2, 4). He regards the murder and the accident as consequences of the guilt of the whole people to whom he belongs (vv. 3, 5). He does not quote the Torah explicitly here, but in the content of what he says he places himself within the Torah tradition. God punishes the whole people Israel, the people of God, which has made itself guilty: "Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways.... Thus the land became defiled; and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants" (Lev 18:24-25). Above all, "idol worship," that is, the practice of other cults, sexual sins in the sense of Leviticus 18, and shedding blood are regarded as this kind of pollution of the people as a whole.
Flowers Amid Destruction
Schottroff does a good job of refuting the gospels' portrait of a rather bucolic situation, spoiled only by corrupt and rigid Jewish religious leaders, as the environment of Judea and the Galilee, evoking the oppressive dread under which Jews at the time lived:
"You will all perish in like manner." This statement in the first century, before the Jewish-Roman War, was an expression of the fear that the war with Rome was coming. Jesus feared it (see only Mark 13:2 parr.), and other Jewish teachers also saw the signs of the coming destruction of the Temple even forty years before the war.' Josephus repeatedly testifies to this fear. Since the Gospels achieved their present form after this war, as is frequently supposed, Jesus' words about a threatened war are said to be vaticinium ex eventu, a back-dated prophecy of the war. Certainly the experience of the war entered into the tradition after 70 C.E. Nevertheless, we should take seriously the fact that a whole generation before the war the Jewish people felt itself threatened by the brutal military attacks of Roman troops. This threat was expressed clearly enough by Rome's own representatives."
Further suffering, and perhaps even destruction, at the hands of the Roman war machine seemed likely (after all, the Temple had already been destroyed and the people exiled before, so that possibility was not unimaginable).
How then, could Jesus evoke the hopeful, gentle image of a budding spring tree in the face of this relentless tide of dread?
There is a mashal, a rabbinic parable, in Lamentations Rabbah, a collection of midrash on the book of Lamentations, in which the rabbis wonder why Psalm 79 is called a psalm/song of Asaph, rather than a lamentation of Asaph, given that it documents destruction. The parable that explains the discrepancy may offer an answer:
It is written: "A psalm of Asaph. O God, heathens have entered Your domain (Psalm 79:1)":
This verse should not have said "psalm", but rather a "lament" of Asaph, a "mourning song" of Asaph, an "elegy" of Asaph, so why does it say "a psalm of Asaph"?
Rather it is a parable about a king who made a huppah [wedding canopy] for his son and its foundation and its wall and its decoration, and his son went out and did evil debauchery, and so the king went up to the huppah and tore up the curtains and smashed the supports and his tutor (paidogogos) went and made a flute of the support and was playing music. They said to him: "The king overturned his son's huppah and you are sitting playing music?" and he said to them:
"I am playing music because he overturned his son's huppah and did not "pour out his anger" on his son."
(Rabbinic meshalim tend to be less cryptic than Jesus's parables.)
Here, then, is a Jewish response to both destructions of the Temple: Let us rejoice because God poured out God's anger on wood and stone, and did not destroy us. Am yisrael chai, as survivors of the Shoah cried as the camps were liberated (and their descendants still sing today), the people of Israel live.
David Stern, in Rhetoric and Midrash: The Case of the Mashal, sees in this parable not only hope and gratitude, but defiance:
One likely explanation for it is an apologetic one, a reply to the accusation frequently made against the Jews in the third and fourth centuries, and well-documented in Christian polemical literature of the period, that the destruction of the Temple and the calamitous fate of the Jews in its aftermath conclusively proved that God had rejected His people. In Adversos Judaeos, Chap. 13, for example, Tertullian claims that because the Jews "had committed these crimes, and had failed to understand that Christ 'was to be found' in 'the time of their visitation,' their land has been made 'desert, and their cities utterly burnt with fire, while strangers devour their region in their site: the daughter of Zion is derelict,' and so on... It was precisely the task of the midrash to confirm the veracity of Scripture by salvaging from the wreckage a verse like Lam 4:11 that describes the very source for hope in the aftermath of the Destruction. And in this way, the Rabbis also salvaged meaning—that is to say, an abiding truth—from the catastrophe they had suffered.
In the face of the destruction of the Temple, am yisrael chai. And in the face of gentile taunts that God's love for God's people has turned to hate, am yisrael chai.
Perhaps this is why, against the implacable hunger of the Roman war machine, against the apocalyptic images of the sun being blotted out and the stars falling from the sky, Jesus could set the image of a tender, budding fig tree: the people of Israel had survived destruction before. Repentance might not avert the coming violence, but it could help them survive it.
But how? Before we look into that, we need to look more closely at the tree (and at Torah, which is "a tree of life to those who hold her close, and all her supporters are happy.")
Protection of Underage Trees
All of the references to fig trees in the gospels are a bit strange. Jesus cursing a fig tree for not bearing fruit out of season seems unfair—it's not fruit-bearing season, so the tree can hardly be blamed. Does it have agency, to decide not to perform a miracle? If the idea was to make a point about the Temple, it was punishing an innocent to do so, especially since fruit trees actually have rights in Jewish law, making it doubly shocking.
For example, the laws of war in Deuteronomy prohibit cutting down fruit trees (20:19):
כִּֽי־תָצ֣וּר אֶל־עִיר֩ יָמִ֨ים רַבִּ֜ים לְֽהִלָּחֵ֧ם עָלֶ֣יהָ לְתָפְשָׂ֗הּ לֹֽא־תַשְׁחִ֤ית אֶת־עֵצָהּ֙ לִנְדֹּ֤חַ עָלָיו֙ גַּרְזֶ֔ן כִּ֚י מִמֶּ֣נּוּ תֹאכֵ֔ל וְאֹת֖וֹ לֹ֣א תִכְרֹ֑ת כִּ֤י הָֽאָדָם֙ עֵ֣ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה לָבֹ֥א מִפָּנֶ֖יךָ בַּמָּצֽוֹר׃
When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?
(I quite love the almost Yiddish-inflected indignation of that question, the sarcasm: "What are the trees going to do, retreat into the city?")
While trees may not be human, they occupy a special place in Jewish law, with rights not accorded to other plants. They even get their own new year, Tu B'Shvat, the new year of the trees, during which Jewish mystics used to go out into the forest and hug them. (Yes, we invented tree-hugging; the predominance of Jewish hippies shouldn't surprise anyone.) Some people theorize that this is all leftover reverence for an ancient Jewish tree goddess, Asherah, who was God's consort before the religion became monotheistic.
In any case, there's a Jewish legal principle concerning trees that's especially relevant to this parable: orlah, which prohibits eating the fruit of a tree that's less than three years old. While most of the details of what makes a fruit orlah were worked out in later rabbinic writings, the principle itself originates in Leviticus 19:23-25:
וְכִי־תָבֹ֣אוּ אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ וּנְטַעְתֶּם֙ כָּל־עֵ֣ץ מַאֲכָ֔ל וַעֲרַלְתֶּ֥ם עָרְלָת֖וֹ אֶת־פִּרְי֑וֹ שָׁלֹ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֗ים יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶ֛ם עֲרֵלִ֖ים לֹ֥א יֵאָכֵֽל׃
When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten.
וּבַשָּׁנָה֙ הָרְבִיעִ֔ת יִהְיֶ֖ה כָּל־פִּרְי֑וֹ קֹ֥דֶשׁ הִלּוּלִ֖ים לַיהוָֽה׃
In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the LORD
וּבַשָּׁנָ֣ה הַחֲמִישִׁ֗ת תֹּֽאכְלוּ֙ אֶת־פִּרְי֔וֹ לְהוֹסִ֥יף לָכֶ֖ם תְּבוּאָת֑וֹ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit—that its yield to you may be increased: I the LORD am your God.
Orlah and Impatient Landowners
Let's take another look at the parable:
A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
A man has a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and after three years he comes looking for fruit and doesn't find any, and gets upset and wants to cut the tree down. When I first read this parable, that mention of three years plus one more jumped out at me, because the landowner's expectation seems to violate the prohibition against eating or profiting off of fruit that's orlah. Not only is he not allowed to bother the poor tree for the first three years anyway, all the fruit it produces in its fourth year is reserved as an offering. (Incidentally, fig trees usually take between 3-5 years to start producing edible fruit.)
All things in their time (as Jesus's followers look around at the "signs of the time"), and what the gardener pleads for here is actually that having waited for the required three years for the tree to reach maturity, the landowner also wait the fourth, the year in which the fruit is reserved for God, before judging whether the tree is any good. Give it this time to focus on the sacred before demanding that it be judged by human standards.
As Schottroff observes:
From the point of view of the owner of the vineyard it is an issue of profit, his profit, because he is certainly not one of those who have to make use of every bit of earth in order to avoid starvation.
Knowledge of the rules around orlah should immunize the hearer against allegorizing the landowner as God—is God unaware of God's own laws regarding the treatment of trees?
The Torah does not allow a completely free market, in which people may do anything their customers will accept. It allows—and even encourages—profit, but sets limits on how it may be achieved. One's workers and one's land must be allowed to rest on Shabbat. Every seven years, the land must be allowed a year of rest. The corners of one's fields must be left unharvested so the poor may glean there. One's authority over slaves is not absolute. One must use fair weights and measures.
The gardener does not shame the landowner by pointing out that he appears to have forgotten this in his quest for immediate profit, but instead saves face for him by acting as if the landowner's patience is a boon, instead of required by law.
Only be patient, he says to the listeners, if not to the landlord, and follow the law.
The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth
In the face of coming destruction, why should the people exercise patience? Why should they follow Torah when a mighty empire with the greatest army the world had yet seen will visit suffering on them either way? Why, in fact, should they resist Romanization when that way lies profit and, perhaps, safety? When Rome insists on bleeding the land and the people dry, why not engage in Roman-collaborator grift? If one cannot defeat a powerful oppressor, why not align oneself with it?
What does "repentance" (in the view of all the prophets, a return to Torah values) look like here, and what purpose does it serve?
Schottroff describes it well:
What takes place in repentance, in metanoia (Greek), teshubah (Hebrew)? The poor share their bread, they heal the sick among the people, they do everything that Jesus and other Torah teachers have taught them. They transform themselves from threatened victims into acting subjects. They work for righteousness and law as intended by Torah.
They live not as Romans, impatient to profit and to demonstrate the power they have over others, but as Jews, responsible for each other. The kingdom of heaven exists amidst destruction and oppression; a fig tree buds tenderly, promising the coming of summer, even under a blackened sky.
Rather than reading the impatient landowner as God, deciding to cut down the tree of Israel because it has not—when it does not have the means to do so, being too small and weak—borne fruit, perhaps we should read the tree as what it far more often symbolizes—Torah—and the impatient landowner as the people of Israel.
Don't cut down this tree, says this reading, this tree of life to which you are to hold fast, merely because you do not see that you are profiting from it right now. Don't abandon your loyalty simply because the whole world has not already been changed by your example, because the benefits of living this way don't fit into their profit scheme; resist the urge to become as they are and see strength only in your ability to destroy things over which you hold power.
Will you be saved from suffering if you live this way? No, but you will be saved from destruction. You will remain who you are, and you will know kindness and love, you will share meals with your kin and the profit of any among you will be the profit of all of you. The people of Israel will not go the way of the Perizzites and the Amorites and the Jebusites: conquered by other people, assimilated, and forgotten. You will remain the people of Israel, and you will endure.
Do not cut down the tree of life for a little extra coin to spend in a Roman marketplace; create the kingdom of heaven among yourselves even if all around is wrack and ruin, for anything that can be built or bought can be destroyed, but the people of Israel live.
In addition to the sources mentioned and links in the text above and the other articles on this site, you may find the following resources helpful in understanding this parable and the other concepts I've been talking about.
Rabbi YY Jacobson, Three Layers of Human Identity
Hazon: The Jewish Lab for Sustainability, Tu B'shvat
Frontline, "Galilee", PBS