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What is a Parable?

Jesus teaches through parables, which are short didactic narratives. At first glance, parables seem simple, but most are deceptively complex, layered with allegory, metaphors, analogies, and sometimes allusions to the Old Testament. Jesus may explain his parables from time to time, but most of the time, He does not. In The Parable of the Sower, he explains why:

4 While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: 5 “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. 6 Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”

When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

9 His disciples asked him what this parable meant. 10 He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others, I speak in parables, so that, ‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.’

11 “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. 12 Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing, they fall away. 14 The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches, and pleasures, and they do not mature. 15 But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.”

—Luke 8:4-15

Many of Jesus’s parables are repeated in the other Gospel books, including the sower above, but the following are unique to The Book of Luke:

  • The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37)

  • The Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-13)

  • The Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21)

  • The Barren Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-9)

  • The Invited Guests (Luke 14:7-14)

  • The Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10)

  • The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)

  • The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)

  • The Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8)

  • The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14)

Most people are familiar with parables like The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son. The Barren Fig Tree is one that is told less frequently. I’m no theologian. I’m a late to the party Christian who didn’t believe or read the Bible for the first time until my late twenties. I’m a former English teacher, so I often interpret parables and other writings from an English teacher's perspective. If my interpretations are incorrect, I invite critiques and feedback.

The Barren Fig Tree

6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

8 “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

This is my interpretation of the parable: The fig tree is something in our life that is not being properly utilized. I imagine this to be talent, individualized talent in an area that could serve God or others. Perhaps it is not bearing fruit because it is underutilized. Many areas of talent require regular and ideally consistent practice to maintain, i.e. fertilizer. Being more specific in this example, let’s say someone (for this hypothetical example, let’s call him Luke) is interested in playing an instrument. He bought a piano and began to practice. With time, he did not improve as quickly as he hoped and soon, began to skip consistent practice. He realized that the piano takes up a lot of room in his space and began to question whether it was worth the living room real estate. His musical friend, let’s call him Matthew, suggests giving the piano more time, more “fertilizer” (devoted and consistent practice), and then evaluate after a year whether the talent bears fruit (proficient musical ability).

Things I can say for certain: The Barren Fig Tree is not about a literal fig tree. Fertilizer is not literal fertilizer. These are metaphors for something else. I believe the specifics would vary by individual. It makes me wonder what areas of my life are barren, or what should I fertilize versus what should I prune?

Digging deeper, Jesus references fig trees in the other Gospels, most notably when he cursed the fig tree in Matthew 21:18-19:

18 Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. 19 Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.

This is not a parable. This is an account of Jesus cursing a fig tree when he was hungry and found no figs. This probably was his inspiration for his parable in Luke. Probably after cursing the tree, He gave it some thought and revised the lesson as a stern warning: use it or lose it. Bear fruit or you will cease to be able to. Digging even deeper, there are theologians who interpret the fig tree as a symbol for the people of Israel.

I think Jesus taught in parables so His listeners can muddle through their interpretations. I think even if an interpretation is completely wrong, by thinking it through and going beyond the literal, you’re mentally engaging with the text in a deeper manner and learning more than if Jesus were to just give the answers in a concise and literal manner. Put another way, I think Jesus wants us to do our English homework when reading the Bible.


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