Jesus told this parable: “There was a fig tree growing in a vineyard. The owner came out looking for fruit on it, but didn’t find any. The owner said to the vine dresser, ‘Look here! For three years now I’ve come out in search of fruit on this fig tree and have found none. Cut it down. Why should it clutter up the ground?’
“In reply, the vine dresser said, ‘Please leave it one more year while I hoe around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine; if not, then let it be cut down.’”
Personally speaking here is a parable which I love to hate. It’s not the parable per se that I hate. It’s the traditional interpretation of the parable I hate. Anti-Semitism, conscious or unconscious, has equated Israel with the fig tree. The church in some quarters has used this mapping with other passages to bolster deviant and pathetic claims of the Sacred’s anger and detest toward all things Jewish.
This ugly interpretation uses the following allegorical mapping: Fig Tree = Israel; Owner = God; Gardner = the prophets or Jesus; Cut Down = God’s judgment. This mapping speaks to no one except dull anti-Semites and obnoxious neo-nazis. Once we remove this inadequate allegorical mapping and encounter the parable in itself we are left with content that speaks to the heart of a peculiar queer dynamic – what do we do with our homophobic and anti-queer friends?
The crisis of the parable is the fruitless tree. By agricultural standards and religious practice of the day any fruit appearing on the tree during its first three years is not for human consumption. When the owner says he’s been expecting fruit for three years and there’s been none the implication is that the fig tree has been barren for six years. That is to say that this is not a spur of the moment decision to cut the tree down, and that the relationship between the owner and the tree has not lived up to its expectations.
As queer folks we have learned to monitor our relationships as to who is supportive and who is not. My thirtieth high school reunion was a few years back. In preparation a large number of us reconnected on Facebook. Since then I have “unfriended” some folks as their anti-gay attitudes proved negative and life-denying for me. In this case I acted as the owner and sought to terminate the relationships.
From this vantage point the parable speaks to me from the view of the gardener (vine dresser in the translation above). The gardener tells me to be patient, to tend to hurtful relationships, that my own actions and attitudes can bolster the relationship. The gardener tells me that if I’ve invested years in the friendship then one more year will not hurt me any further. It may see the relationship succeed. And there is the wisdom that says, don’t go forever in a barren friendship. If it doesn’t produce fruit at some point, move on to better trees.
As people of diverse sexual expressions we have often been placed in the role of the tree. Friendships and familial relations terminated not by us but by others. There is no denying that this is a painful dynamic in the lives of many people. The rejection can feel like an axe laying us low. Since the only person I have control over is myself, I cannot prevent rejection by others. I can though, look to my roots and determine where I want to sink them.
From this vantage the owner speaks to us, telling us to find beautiful gardens with rich soil to plant ourselves in. Let us not waste our time seeking to plant ourselves in the wrong place. Some gardens, while initially lovely, don’t have appropriate soil. Other gardens, while more plane, allow for deep abiding roots.
There are time when we as queer or allies find ourselves mediating between the “queer community” and the “straight community.” Even as a religious leader in a denomination that has been formally open and affirming of LGBTQIA people since 1985 I still find myself interfacing with congregations and individuals who are dissenters from this official posture. Seeking to mediate beyond the stereotypes, the voice of the tree speaks to me about place, space, and figuring out how to make it work. The tree invites me to play the gardener, tilling ground and applying fertilizer.
This parable speaks to me about commitment to relationships when the relationship is in trouble. With rich voices it raises wisdom and insights about continuing or terminating, about roles and expectations, about commitment and responsibility. As one commentator noted this is a parable where “mercy is in conversation with judgment.”
May this same conversation be alive in us as we live in relations to friends, families, and lovers.