Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Tree Grows in Palestine: Figs Among Grapes in Luke 13

My previous post, intended as a brief demonstration of a phenomenological approach to reading the parables, left too much unsaid, and did not exhaust the possibilities of the parabolic elements. We can begin, again, but this time, go a bit further into the richness of phenomenality.

A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’ [Luke 13:6-9, NRSV]

13:6  ἔλεγεν δὲ ταύτην τὴν παραβολήν συκῆν εἶχέν τις πεφυτευμένην ἐν τῷ ἀμπελῶνι αὐτοῦ καὶ ἦλθεν ζητῶν καρπὸν ἐν αὐτῇ καὶ οὐχ εὗρεν

13:7  εἶπεν δὲ πρὸς τὸν ἀμπελουργόν ἰδοὺ τρία ἔτη ἀφ’ οὗ ἔρχομαι ζητῶν καρπὸν ἐν τῇ συκῇ ταύτῃ καὶ οὐχ εὑρίσκω ἔκκοψον οὖν αὐτήν ἱνατί καὶ τὴν γῆν καταργεῖ

13:8  δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς λέγει αὐτῷ κύριε ἄφες αὐτὴν καὶ τοῦτο τὸ ἔτος ἕως ὅτου σκάψω περὶ αὐτὴν καὶ βάλω

13:9  κἂν μὲν ποιήσῃ καρπὸν εἰς τὸ μέλλον εἰ δὲ μή γε ἐκκόψεις αὐτήν

The archeological evidence suggests that in Palestine at the time of Jesus both fig trees and grape vines grew, sometimes together, on terraced slopes. This parable speaks of a single fig tree planted in a man's vineyard. The man comes to the vineyard to gather figs, which he expects to discover on his tree. We learn that he has sought his discovery of the figs on this tree for 3 years, but to no avail. He orders the vineyard-worker to cut down the tree because it wastes the earth, parasitically taking without yielding the man's 'due.' The vineyard-worker asks the man to pardon the tree, to defer its destruction for another year, through which he will till and fertilize the earth. If the tree bears fruit, good; if not, the worker extends an invitation to the man to cut it down at that time.

The previous analysis noted that the man and the gardener/vineyard-worker each embodies a certain state of the self. The immediate context of this parable is the discussion of those who perish seemingly in willy-nilly occurrences, and Jesus's teaching that the deaths do not result from sin, but from horrific aleatory forces. The context runs in confluence with the natural attitude toward human suffering and sin (Luke 13:1-6 and cf. John 9). The man, citing a waste of the soil, accuses the fig tree (this fig tree [ συκῇ ταύτῃ  ]) of denying fruitfulness, and wishes to execute a version of justice, presumably a justice of the earth/soil. Such justice digs its roots in the expectation of reciprocity within a clear economy of exchange. An investment of money, time or figs, expects a predictable, grammatical return. This is the structure of expectation in the natural attitude.

 The natural attitude here also pretends to a certain ecology, taking an interest in the well-being of the earth (soil). The man is heavily invested in the productivity of the land as well: part of his investment must prepare the land to give up its yield every season; but he will cut his losses as he sees fit. The natural attitude here even allows for the protection of time: that the soil is complicit with the man's time, three years of it, three years of unproductive, waste of soil and time. Time and soil must yield in the natural attitude, and the parasitic fig tree, for its betrayal of time and soil, must become 'nothing:' "Cut it down," as the lives under 'Pilate' and the 'tower of Siloam' were cut down. The natural attitude has its own way of restoring balance to nature, and limiting exposure to a poor return.

The vineyard-worker certainly sympathizes with the man's natural attitude, but the man, who presumably did not deposit and sow (cf. Luke 19:12-27 for a topsy-turvy play of the attitudes), knows nothing of a particular way of the soil. The gardener, on the other hand, has his hand in the soil, and experiences the earth and time, and the fig tree's being in time, in a phenomenological attitude. He understands the past, but looks with another kind of expectation of the future with a certain 'hope.' The economy of giving and yielding in the natural attitude collapses, and the fig tree appears as it is in itself, as Argos appears to Odysseus, who collapses time and space that his dog might appear as he is in himself (The Odyssey, Bk. 17; emphasis mine):

As they were speaking, a dog that had been lying asleep raised his head and pricked up his ears. This was Argos, whom Odysseus had bred before setting out for Troy, but he had never had any enjoyment from him. In the old days he used to be taken out by the young men when they went hunting wild goats, or deer, or hares, but now that his master was gone he was lying neglected on the heaps of mule and cow dung that lay in front of the stable doors till the men should come and draw it away to manure the great close; and he was full of fleas. As soon as he saw Odysseus standing there, he dropped his ears and wagged his tail, but he could not get close up to his master. When Odysseus saw the dog on the other side of the yard, dashed a tear from his eyes without Eumaeus seeing it, and said:
'Eumaeus, what a noble hound that is over yonder on the manure heap: his build is splendid; is he as fine a fellow as he looks, or is he only one of those dogs that come begging about a table, and are kept merely for show?'

Open to the givenness of the young tree, as Odysseus opens upon the essence of his beloved dog, the gardener chooses to nourish the soil (Odysseus nourishes memory, the past made present)---he sees not the depletion of the earth by parasitism, but a transformation the land, that, when nourished (cared for, perhaps even loved?), might feed the tree, so that the tree will flourish, and bear fruit in the next year. The 'gardener' redeems the soil, the fig tree and time, transfiguring them. The man, his patience taxed beyond the economy of his vineyard, closes himself off to the future, which he suffers through the anticipation of figs. He closes himself off to the redemption and transfiguration possible in what is far more visible in the gardener's attitude, whose view of the future anticipates, without anxiety, the bearing of fruit. Anxiety forecloses on hope and a change of heart: metanoia; anxiety forecloses upon a future different than the present.

The possibility of change is 'cut down' in the natural attitude displayed in the parable. Hope, future, faith root in the tilled earth of possibility. Threatened by its very otherness, as figs among grapes, possibility lurks within what is discoverable, visible to some, invisible to others. The man and the gardener are at once particular states of their very selves, or even a particular self in particular moments. The parable offers two ways of being in the world, neither is privileged, though if one were a fig tree, the gardener has the 'better part.' Like Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42), the man and the gardener are the same self in different attitudes whose oscillations bear sweet fruit.

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