‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
The thing about fig trees is: they don’t do what we in the temperate zones of world climate expect. During Spring the sensible farmer moves beehives around apple and pear orchards for the good of both fruit and bees – and that’s it. When Summer is near in the Middle East, fig trees need attention to their fruit, specialist attention, so that the main crop will be good.
The overwintering, Spring taqsh or breba crop is okay if you are hungry (Mk 11:12-14, 19-25) but you don’t expect the main Summer crop to be large and juicy unless the work of ensuring male flower-bearing branches are introduced into the female trees is done. These methods had been reliable for many centuries and continue to be used.*
Generally regarded as a collection of unrelated sayings rather than a complete parable and explanation, it may be that these verses were extended, post Easter, to convey an eschatological sense. Given that the lifespan of a fig tree can be hundreds of years, “until figs cease to bear fruit” might become, quite sensibly, “Until heaven and earth”. Reading an eschatological perspective into the original sayings brings all kinds of confusion or, as one person asked, “you mean they grow figs in the Holy Land?”.
These four verses make sense to fig growers, as Jesus’ comment is a call to action: because the Summer is near you know there is work to do. It’s also a call to reflect on what is taking place, even if you don’t have a fig tree or feel the need to tend your fig tree, you’ll see others at work; you can’t ignore it and pretend nothing happens. “Don’t get over-excited when you see the new Summer leaves: the specialist is coming. This crop of figs isn’t ready for harvest until the work has been done, mark my words.” Perhaps the original is a comment about tending and teaching new Christians – the five marks of mission.
Creator God, as we tell the good news of the Kingdom, teach us to be prepared to do the work required at the right time, so that, tending need in loving service, we might seek to transform unjust structures of society treasuring all creation in order that earth is sustained and renewed.
* Comments on fig trees: Ficus carica is gynodioecious and usually needs a male fig (caprifig) nearby to pollinate (there are now some parthenocarpic varieties). It was normal to take branches from a male and tie them to female trees. This is hard and difficult work as the sap is a severe skin irritant. Taqsh – the small overwintering figs gradually drop off as the new leaves appear. Ficus sycomorus – is parthenocarpic in the middle East being a tropical specie which was exported or taken from (probably) Egypt as cuttings without the pollinator wasp specific to it. By “gashing” the young fruit it can be induced to act as if pollinated. This is hard and dangerous work.