The Parable of the Fig Tree

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Toronto, November 25, 2007

http://www.revcooper.ca/sermons/0036.html

‘If it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.’ (Luke 13:9)

Whenever scripture speaks of a tree, it is really telling us something about a man, or something about a man’s mind or spirit. Everything about a tree stands for something human. For example, the branches stand for the things that we know about the world of nature that we have learned through our own senses, our own experience. The leaves signify rational truths, for these spring forth from the branches, just as rational thought springs forth from our thinking about the things we learn from the world of nature. The flowers of the tree signify the earliest spiritual truths that are formed from rational thought, and the fruits that follow the blossoms signify the kindness and thoughtfulness towards others that comes from a life according to the truths of the Word. (See AR 936)

There are many different kinds of trees mentioned in the Word, and they are ranked according to their relative value. Often the Olive tree is highest, because it produces olive oil, which was used to anoint kings and priests and which represents love to the Lord, the highest love of all. The fig is also highly regarded because it produces a valuable food. The grape vine is also regarded as a tree, and is highly regarded because of the wine it produces, which stands for Divine Truth. (See AR 936)

In other places in the Word, as in our first lesson, the trees are ranked according to their stature and appearance, as well as to the usefulness of their fruit. There were four levels, the Olive, the Fig, the Vine, and the Bramble. In this series, it is not just the fruit or the leaves that determines the ranking, but the usefulness of the wood and its appearance as well. (See Judges 9:8-15)

Fig trees receive prominent attention in the New Testament. The disciple Nathanael was first seen by the Lord sitting under a fig tree. The Lord prophesied about the judgement He had come to make on the Jewish Church when He told His disciples that just as the budding leaves on the fig tree foretold of summer, so also did the events they were witnessing each day foretell events to come. And it was the fig tree that received the brunt of the Lord’s anger when He cursed it for not having fruit, and the next day it was withered away.

The reason the fig tree received such attention from the Lord in the New Testament is because not only does it stand for a man, but it also stands for the whole of the Lord’s church on earth. Sometimes the tree represents the Jewish church, sometimes the Christian Church He was about to establish in the world. We can tell the difference from the context of the story, whether the tree produced good fruit, and what happened to it.

The fig tree in particular, stands for natural good, the good that we do naturally, without instruction, and so it also particularly represents the Jewish Church as it was when the Lord was on earth. This was appropriate because the people of the Jewish church were mostly interested in natural things such as their rituals and laws, while they were not much interested in the spiritual things within their rituals and laws. Therefore the fig, which signifies natural good represents the Jewish church in particular. This tells us why the Lord, when finding no figs on the fig tree, cursed it so that it withered away.

The Jewish Church, which was established by the Lord Himself, should have been doing many good things in the world, but it was not. It was not producing good fruit, and so it was “cursed,” that is, brought to a conclusion, “consummated” and replaced by the Christian Church. The Heavenly Doctrines explain:

One who does not know that all things of the Word contain a spiritual sense, may believe that the Lord did this to the fig tree from indignation because He was hungry; but “fig tree” means here not a fig tree, but the church in relation to natural good, in particular, the Jewish Church (AE 386:29).

The scripture passage tells us that the Lord came to a fig tree and found “nothing but leaves” (Mt. 2:19). The Heavenly Doctrines tell us that the leaves signify the truths of the sense of the letter of the Word, the stories of scripture. Indeed, the Jewish church did have the Old Testament scripture and held it in high regard – but they did not live according to its teachings.

It is a hard saying, but if we are to look at the evidence presented in the New Testament, and at the examples of how the Pharisees and Sadducees thought and acted towards others we can see that as a nation they had come into evil, even though individual Jews were still able to shun what was evil and live a good life. These Jews who loved truth are the ones who loved what the Lord was teaching, who followed Him, and who believed in Him. But the fact that there were good men at that time does not change the fact that as a church, they were in dense falsities and in evil loves. What good was done was done in spite of the teachings of the church, and did not spring forth from it.

That nothing whatever of natural good would ever be able to exist with this church ever again in the future is represented by the Lord saying to the fig tree, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” (Mt. 2:19). At one time the Jewish church had been able to serve the Lord’s ends on earth, but it was no longer able to do this. It could no longer serve as the particular church in the world which had the Word and by it knew the Lord.

Like a fruit tree which produces only leaves, The Jewish Church was to be discarded as no longer suitable to serve as the Lord’s church on earth. The time was right for this to happen because the Lord had come on earth and was now ready to establish the new church that would take the place of the Jewish church, the church which would serve as the tree of life to the spiritual and natural worlds.

However, we would be missing the point entirely if we were to think that this lesson applied only to the Jewish Church, and that somehow this message does not apply to our own time and to our own church. The Christian Church sprouted up and for a time produced leaves and fruit, but when faced with a battle between those who believed absolutely in the Divinity of Jesus Christ, and those who denied His divinity, the leaders of the Christian Church compromised and created an impossible image of God, the trinity of persons, instead of having the courage to face the challenge to the Lord’s divinity and stay with the genuine faith that church had been founded upon: the faith Jesus Christ was Himself Jehovah God come to earth.

When the doctrine of the trinity was invented by the church leaders, the tree that was the Christian Church lost its leaves, its genuine faith, and we know that no tree can live, let alone produce good fruit, without its leaves. So the tree of the Christian Church also withered and died. Now the responsibility rests with the New Church. The challenge is to establish and maintain the Doctrine of Genuine Faith from the Word, and at the same time, teach its truths, and lead men to the life of heaven by means of those truths.

The difficulty is to establish the proper balance between leaves and fruit. If we put too much emphasis on the leaves, the doctrine, we can fall into faith alone. On the other hand, if too much emphasis is put on the fruit, the activities of the church, we can fall into works alone, and at the same time loose our doctrinal integrity.

We have to face the fact that the New Church is a doctrinal church, and that in order to maintain that doctrine every one of us must take the time to study the Word in a regular, organized fashion – both the priests, and the laymen. It is too easy to get involved in all kinds of activities and believe that by so doing we have fulfilled our obligations to the church and to our neighbour and so therefore no longer need to study the Word. An even more subtle danger is to think that by talking about the business and politics of the church we are actually discussing doctrinal matters. So often we find ourselves talking about budgets, or buildings, or staffing, and we think that we are talking about “the Church,” but we are actually only speaking of our concerns for natural, man-made forms.

What is essential is for us to come together from time to time to discuss the doctrines of the church so that our understanding of the doctrines can be increased – and then we can benefit by discussing the ways of applying them in our lives with each other. If we centre and direct our lives on what we learn from the Word through our own study, then the tree which is the New Church will have both healthy leaves, and will produce useful fruit.

Everything previously said about the Jewish, Christian, and New Churches also applies in much the same way to the man of the church – to each one of us individually. This is particularly expressed by what is called the “Parable of the Fig Tree” in Luke (as read in the second lesson), which tells of a man who had a fig tree in his vineyard that did not produce figs. He ordered his helper to cut it down because it was useless. But the gardener asked for a little more time, a chance to loosen the dirt around the roots, to fertilize the tree, to give it one more year to produce figs, and then, if it still could not produce, he would cut it down.

Let us for a moment imagine ourselves as that tree.

                  1. Who among us is producing figs as he should?
                  2. Who among us stands ready today to be inspected by the owner of the vineyard?
                  3. Who among us has taken the truth revealed to us in the Word and used it to produce many useful, fruitful deeds for our neighbour, our country, and our church?
                  4. Who among us does not feel the need for a just little more time to prepare, to make ready to produce good fruits for the Master of the vineyard?

In many places in the New Testament, the Lord tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like a vineyard. The Lord is the owner of that vineyard, and the harvest is that time when each of us makes our journey from this world into the next, that is, the death of the natural body. We are all trees in the Lord’s vineyard, and the warning should be as clear to us as the promise. The warning is that those trees in His vineyard that, having been given every opportunity and aid, have not produced any good fruit, will be cut down and cast into the fire. The promise is that those who do use what has been given them by the Lord, those who heed His warning, when the harvest-time comes, they will find themselves in the heavenly vineyard, producing flavourful and nourishing fruit to eternity.

The Psalmist wrote,

Blessed is the man

Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,

Nor stands in the path of sinner,

Nor sits in the seat of the scornful;

But his delight is in the law of the Lord,

And in His law he meditates day and night.

He shall be like a tree

Planted by the rivers of water,

That brings forth its fruit in its season,

Whose leaf also shall not wither;

And whatever he does shall prosper.

(Psalm 1:1-3)

AMEN.

First Lesson: JDG 9:7-21

Now when they told Jotham, he went and stood on top of Mount Gerizim, and lifted his voice and cried out. And he said to them: “Listen to me, you men of Shechem, That God may listen to you! {8} “The trees once went forth to anoint a king over them. And they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us!’ {9} But the olive tree said to them, ‘Should I cease giving my oil, With which they honor God and men, And go to sway over trees?’ {10} “Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us!’ {11} But the fig tree said to them, ‘Should I cease my sweetness and my good fruit, And go to sway over trees?’ {12} “Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and reign over us!’ {13} But the vine said to them, ‘Should I cease my new wine, Which cheers both God and men, And go to sway over trees?’ {14} “Then all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us!’ {15} And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in truth you anoint me as king over you, Then come and take shelter in my shade; But if not, let fire come out of the bramble And devour the cedars of Lebanon!’ {16} “Now therefore, if you have acted in truth and sincerity in making Abimelech king, and if you have dealt well with Jerubbaal and his house, and have done to him as he deserves; {17} “for my father fought for you, risked his life, and delivered you out of the hand of Midian; {18} “but you have risen up against my father’s house this day, and killed his seventy sons on one stone, and made Abimelech, the son of his female servant, king over the men of Shechem, because he is your brother; {19} “if then you have acted in truth and sincerity with Jerubbaal and with his house this day, then rejoice in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you. {20} “But if not, let fire come from Abimelech and devour the men of Shechem and Beth Millo; and let fire come from the men of Shechem and from Beth Millo and devour Abimelech!” {21} And Jotham ran away and fled; and he went to Beer and dwelt there, for fear of Abimelech his brother. Amen.

Second Lesson: MAR 11:12-24, LUK 13:6-9

Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry. {13} And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it. When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. {14} In response Jesus said to it, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.” And His disciples heard it. {15} So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. {16} And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. {17} Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’” {18} And the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching. {19} When evening had come, He went out of the city. {20} Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. {21} And Peter, remembering, said to Him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away.” {22} So Jesus answered and said to them, “Have faith in God. {23} “For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. {24} “Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.

(Luke 13:6-9) He also spoke this parable: “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. {7} “Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’ {8} “But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. {9} ‘And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.’”

Third Lesson: Arcana Coelestia 9337

In the Word throughout man is likened to a tree, and his truths of faith are signified by the leaves (n. 885), and his goods of love by the fruits (n. 3146, 7690).

From this it is plain not only that “to be fruitful” denotes an increase of good; but also that good is man’s chief thing, even as the fruit is the chief thing of a tree. The leaves are indeed put forth first, but for the sake of the fruit as the end. That which is the end is not only the last, but it is also the first thing, because it is the one and only thing regarded in the means, thus it is everything. The case is similar with the good of love relatively to the truths of faith. Such was the signification of “a fig-tree,” of which we read in the following passages:-

Every tree is known by its fruit. Of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; but the evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil. Why call ye Me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say? (Luke vi. 44-46.)

From all this it is evident that the fruit of faith, as it is called, is the primary thing of faith; and that faith without fruit, that is, without the good of life, is only a leaf; and thus that when a man (here meant by “the tree”) abounds in leaves without fruit, he is the fig-tree which withers away and is cut down.