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.’
Then he told this parable: ‘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 round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
The parable of the fig tree is reassuring to those of us who have been unfruitful that we have been given a second chance, perhaps the manure for us is the blood of Christ which Jesus poured out upon us sinners. Now that we have been fertilized, we had better become fruitful or else we will be cut down (and probably thrown into the fire) like an unproductive fig tree.
The parable ties in with two analogies that appear later in Chapter 13 of Luke (although these were not part of the reading in most churches today),
18 He said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? 19 It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’
20 And again he said, ‘To what should I compare the kingdom of God? 21 It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
The two analogies are also about productivity and growth although they are less personal and refer to a loftier subject, the Kingdom of God. The seed or yeast grow on their own and, at the time of the Gospel, the mechanism by which they grew would have been a complete mystery to Jesus' audience. The message: We cannot say exactly how God's kingdom grows, but it grows nonetheless.
I have heard these stories used both to encourage people to try to grow the Church and to reassure people that the Kingdom of God will grow in spite of our efforts. Which is right? Are we to sit in our pews and let God do His thing, or are we to go forth and multiply?
I believe that when we go forth and multiply, and by that I mean sharing the Good News, God is doing His thing, but when we sit in our pews and fail to produce fruit, we are being unresponsive to God's sacrifice and we deserve the consequences.
This does not necessarily mean that the static, un-growing Church is automatically condemned to the hewer's ax, for there may be small bits of spiritual growth here and there that are productive, but I think that these stories teach us that we need to take a good hard look at what we have done with what God has given us and to blossom with whatever fruit we have been blessed to produce. And lastly, to give God thanks and credit for He is the one who is the owner, the gardener, the sower, the fertilizer, and of course, the reaper.