It has long been assumed, by teachers and preachers of varied theological and philosophical persuasions, that biblical mentions of vineyards, vines, and fig trees invariably represent the nation of Israel. That this assumption has at least some factual basis is evidenced in the violent reactions of the hierarchical leadership to Jesus’ use of those figures in parables – Mt.21:45, Mk.12:12, Lk.20:19.
However, an extensive search for historical precedent for that connection has yielded very little documentation. If you can find more, please add them to this collection.
Most of the Septuagint references to any of these words are primarily agricultural. There are at least 11 instances of legal requirements regarding the husbandry of produce: provisions for the poor, protection for a neighbor’s property, stewardship of the soil.
The enjoyment of one’s own “vine and fig tree” symbolizes prosperity and security – describing the Promised Land before they entered it (6x), the restoration of the people after exile (15x), the “bribe” offered by the Assyrians (6x), and a non-specific state of “blessedness” (6x).
The destruction of that idyllic state is prominent in the judgment meted out for the nation’s unfaithfulness (38x).
The growth or budding of vines or trees simply indicates the coming of spring at least 8x, and 3x in the New Testament.
In fact, there are only five Old Testament passages where specific, overt reference is made to the Israelite nation in relation to vines and trees. Isaiah 5:1-7 recounts the Lord’s lament over the failure of his carefully planted and tended vineyard to produce the hoped-for harvest. His only recourse is to tear it up and start over. Jeremiah 2:20-21 describes similar displeasure, and 12:10 (actually, vv.7-14) lays a considerable portion of the blame upon the individuals entrusted with its care. And Hosea 9:10 and 10:1 describe God’s efforts to create a productive vineyard out of plants carefully transplanted from the wild, meticulously nurtured, but rendered unproductive by the people’s failure to renounce their idolatry and selfishness.
The theme is nowhere near as prominent in the New Testament as I expected, either. Mention of vines and figs in the epistles occur only in James’ comment (3:12) regarding a plant bearing only its own kind of fruit, and Paul’s reminder that one who plants expects to eat the harvest (I Cor.9:7). Neither has any national or ethnic tone.
Jesus did pick up these ideas quite vividly in four parables, only one of which appears in all three synoptic gospels: Mt.21:33-41, Mk.12:1-9, Lk.20:9-16. This is the one which most nearly parallels Isaiah’s and Jeremiah’s complaints, and which drew fire from the hierarchy-types, who “recognized that he was talking about them” – the tenant farmers who conspired to defraud the owner of the vineyard, and subsequently abused and killed his messengers/servants/son. Jesus’ sentence of eviction closely parallels the earlier prophets’ warnings of destruction. Only this time, there is no possibility of return mentioned (Mt.21:41-44, Mk.12:9, Lk.20:16), but a simple, peremptory statement that the vineyard will be given to others who will produce its fruit.
The unfruitful fig tree in Lk.13:6-8, on the other hand, although it has been barren for three years (the approximate length of Jesus’ earthly ministry), is given “one more year” – v.8 – (perhaps the care and fertilization efforts of his people after Pentecost?) before finally being cut down.
The barren figs along the road (an event, not a parable) recounted in Mt.21:19-21 and Mk.11:13-21, however, have no such reprieve. That scene always bothered me, as I did not think Jesus would be petulant, as it seems to the casual observer. But when we lived in California, and had two lovely fig trees in our yard, it made sense. We learned that tiny figs appear on the branches in the spring before any leaf buds are evident. A tree fully leafed-out, with no fruit (even unripe) visible, would rightly be seen as worthless. It would never bear.
Likewise, exposure to the needs of an agricultural community, as well as a subsistence economy, provides insight into the parable of the vineyard workers in Mt.20:1-8. A denarius was a standard wage – enough for one day. The earliest-hired laborers appear to have considered it reasonable. Those not hired in the morning probably spent the day worrying whether they would feed their families that night. And perhaps the owner, too, was under pressure. Grapes must be harvested when they are ready, lest they be spoiled by getting over-ripe, or damaged by weather. The master’s repeated trips to the employment center may have been in desperation to complete the harvest at the proper time. This would have made the last group the most necessary of all! His generosity may have been spurred by his need.
And finally, the affair of the two sons (Mt.21:28-32) replays a frequent theme of Jesus’ entire ministry – that behavior is a much more significant and reliable indicator of faithfulness than pious talk!
It remains to consider the sharp shift of focus in Jesus’ final conversation with his disciples recorded in Jn.15:1-8. That focus is no longer on the failed figure of a vineyard, or on any political or religious institution, but on the “real thing”! He announces, “I AM (see W.S.#17) the genuine [real, true] vine” (v.1). This is the ultimate “demonstration farm”, and the Father is the farmer (georgos, the expert on all the crops, not merely ampelourgos, the vinedresser.)
Cultivating and maintaining vines requires a high level of skill. My husband learned from his own father to recognize which were fruiting buds, and which would produce only leaves or new branches. A healthy vine needs a balance of all three, but the pruning must be done before anything starts to grow or to become obvious to the untrained eye. The direction of growth is selected in the pruning process. Anything diseased or damaged must be eliminated, along with excessive vegetative growth, or branches that compete for a place in the sun. Although a healthy twig can be planted to clone a supplementary vine, only those remaining attached to the vine will bear fruit.
The fruit is borne on the branches, but the life that produces it comes through the parent vine.
And please notice, that although branches need – and receive – individual attention from the vinedresser, all of the words are plural. It is only together that we/they “bear fruit and become disciples (v.8)”. Please refer also to W.S.#64, “Bearing fruit”, and #65, “Pruning” .
So in a very real sense, the concept of the disciple group as branches of the Vine, which has been identified as the Lord himself, is an apt supplement to the descriptions of that same group as members of the Body of Christ (#84, and chapter 7 of Citizens of the Kingdom).
Both are vivid examples of the lengths to which the Lord of Glory has been willing to go, in order that his people may enjoy the privilege of being an integral part of his Kingdom – and indeed, of his own Life!
May we be found fruitful – and faithful – in that privileged position!