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This article starts with a parable and a question.
First, the parable, taken from the thirteenth chapter of Luke:
And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Behold, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Let it alone, sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” (Luke 13:6-9 RSV)
Now, the question: Why? What good will a fourth year bring after the previous three?
Perhaps I should back up a bit.
The use of numbers in Holy Scripture, especially Christ’s parables, are never accidental. 7 signifies a covenant, and 8 the new covenant after the coming of Christ. 12, meanwhile, connotes universality, and 40 is intimately tied to periods of preparation. But what about 4?
Sure, there are the four evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—or, should you be of a more apocalyptic mind, the four feral beasts in Revelation. But a fourth year for an unruly fig tree?
So that we’re all on the same page, let’s make sure the rest of the parable makes sense. The vineyard owner is God the Father and the vinedresser, God the Son. Meanwhile, the fig tree is us: you, me, and the rest of fallen humanity.
A traditional symbol of those marred by original sin and shame, fig trees—or, better, leaves—appear first in the third chapter of Genesis after the Fall and continue on through the New Testament. In fact, when Christ calls Zacchaeus out of his greed and ostracism, he is perched in a sycamore (or fig) tree.
Thus, the first half of this parable details the fractured relationship between God, the patient vineyard owner, and us, the barren fig tree, too mired in our own sinfulness to bear the fruit He desires.
The Son then speaks: “Let it alone, sir, this year also.” He wants a fourth year, one last opportunity for us to bear the fruit our Father desires. The question remains though: What makes this year different than the last three?
I think the answer to this question rests in, of all places, the penultimate chapter of Scott Hahn’s seminal work on covenant theology, A Father Who Keeps His Promises.
Deciphering the four clues that led him to at last understand what Christ meant when he said “It is finished” from the cross, Hahn unveils a central “four” in Jewish life; namely, the quadripartite nature of the Passover liturgy. Each of these four parts conclude with the drinking of a cup of wine, and together, these four cups are the keys to understanding the four “years” of the fig tree.
The first, kiddush, is preceded by a liturgical reading from the first chapters of Genesis, reminding us of our original covenant with God signified by creation itself. Of course, we know that by our original sin we broke this covenant, estranging ourselves from God and drawing, we might say, the first “year” to a close without any fruit to show for it.
The drinking of the second cup is intimately tied to a retelling of the Passover story and the Israelites flight out of Egypt. A second chance at things did not break the obstinacy and disobedience of the Israelites however, frustrating the Lord— “How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions?” (Exodus 16:28)—and resulting in the construction of the Golden Calf. Thus, the second year ended and the fig tree still bore no fruit.
Now, the third part of the Passover liturgy begins with a meal “consisting of lamb and unleavened bread,” and the drinking of the “cup of blessing.” Where else do we find lamb, unleavened bread, and a blessed cup of wine but at the Last Supper, where Jesus gives us the key to interpreting the third year: “This is my body which is given for you…And likewise the chalice after supper, saying, ‘This chalice which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:19-20)
The Incarnation, made perfectly present in the Eucharistic offering of Holy Thursday, is Himself the third year. Exiled and hard of heart though we were, God sent his only beloved Son so that we might at last bear fruit. But again, the final section of John’s Gospel before the Passover meal encapsulates our response to Immanuel, God-with-us: “When Jesus had said this, he departed and hid himself from them. Though he had done so many signs before them, yet they did not believe in him.” (John 12:36b-37)
And so, we arrive at the conversation between the vineyard owner and the vinedresser. “’Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?’ ‘Let it alone, sir.’” One more year. One last effort, made by the Son himself, to at last bring life to our broken, barren human race.
Back in the upper room with his disciples, Jesus himself interrupts the Passover meal after drinking only three of the four cups, ascending Calvary’s mount where he tastes the sour wine, simultaneously completing the Passover of the Old Covenant and transfiguring it into that of the New, entering into the glory of heavenly kingdom where he will at last drink of the fruit of the vine. (Matthew 26:29)
This fourth year which the Son, in the person of the vinedresser, requests of the Father is thus not a year at all, but an afternoon! Through the inauguration of his Paschal mystery, Christ has restored us to life, preserving us from the axe of justice.
Yet, like the fig tree, we must respond to the work of the vinedresser if we hope to bear fruit. The images of dug-up earth and manure are there for a reason too.
By uprooting all the dead soil which cuts us off from the waters of life, we enter into the sanctifying suffering of the Lord and there receive a generous helping of well, crap (stercota in the Latin)! This might smell rather unpleasant, but if we desire to bear any fruit whatsoever, it is the only way.
Furthermore, upturned earth and a foul stench should remind us of an opened grave, giving us an idea of what lies in store for us should we take the cruciform prescription of the vinedresser.
St. Paul writes to the Philippians as a witness to this same vision:
Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse [stercota], in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-10)
As we approach Good Friday in trembling and trepidation, let us rejoice in the fourth year our Lord has prepared for us and embrace the sufferings that it holds. We do so in the hope that we might receive the life of the Paschal vinedresser and bear the fruit he has promised his patient Father. Bring on the stercota!
I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:5-11)