The Parable of the Tomato Plant
A lesson in hope, perseverance, and redemption
I welcomed the end of May and the start of the growing season with a great deal of excitement. Garden stores and seedlings were on my mind. After much deliberation I purchased my plants and spent a happy evening transplanting them into their permanent homes. Now, to wait.
My herbs did not disappoint. My French thyme flourished, my sage blossomed, and my basil put forth deliciously fragrant leaves.
But my tomatoes? They just grew a little bit taller with each passing week. The tag promised fruit in 60 days, but May passed to June, then July, and my plants remained barren.
As July progressed, I looked at my plants with mounting concern, and guilt. Often forgetting or feeling too busy to water, I had left my plants to wilt and droop. Was I to reap the reward of neglect? I thought of the pot in which the plants were growing. Was it too small? Were my tomatoes being stunted by overcrowding? Concern mounted, guilt increased, and I waited in suspense. I had hoped for fruit, but began to fear that my hopes would come to nothing.
In mid-July I was in my kitchen when my landlord pointed out some large, red, gorgeous tomatoes lying on the counter. When I asked where they had come from, she pointed to some plants growing in a large pot in her backyard. They were full of tomatoes.
As I gazed at the flourishing stalks, all hope for my plants died inside of me, and I silently pronounced the death sentence on my tomatoes. I refused to water them, determined to let them completely wither. I planned to throw them out. Sheer laziness kept me from executing my plan immediately.
Then one day, as I passed by the now completely wilted plants, something caught my eye, and I turned to look. There, dangling from one drooped and wilted stem, was one green tomato. I stared, gripped with shock, horror, and amazement. My stomach churned as I looked at the dry dead leaves and felt the pain of my terrible, irretrievable mistake.
Praying for a Miracle
That night, lying in my darkened room, I thought about my plants, and my heart ached with grief. Why had I given up? Here at last was the tomato I had longed for, but because of my impatience, neglect, and decision to give up, the plants were almost dead. The hoped-for fruit, having finally appeared, was now destined to die as well.
But as I lay thinking, I decided to pray. I prayed that God would work a miracle and save my plants. The next day I watered them, and watered them regularly thereafter. A few days later I trimmed away the dead leaves. The plants now looked distinctly bare, but I soon noticed signs of life: tiny new leaves began to cover the base of the plants.
Two weeks later my solitary tomato was joined by another, then another, then another, until six gorgeous tomatoes hung from the revived stems and leaves. I looked upon the advent of each new tomato with gratitude and excitement, because each presented a precious reminder of the beauty of redemption, of hope, and of second chances. My plants, once seemingly irretrievably lost, were thriving. God had answered my prayers.
Way Beyond Horticulture
From the moment I looked at that solitary green tomato, I understood that this experience went way beyond horticulture. Those plants symbolized the danger, the tragedy, of giving up on people, circumstances, and faith, just because, in our eyes, the prospects for success look manifestly unpromising.
I think of relationships I treasure and value now, relationships that seemed doubtful and discouraging at their onset. Some of the people closest to my heart are people I once believed I could never befriend. Why? Because at the time, the mountain of challenges in our relationship seemed impassable, and the possibility of a genuine friendship that could overcome these challenges seemed ridiculous.
I reflect on some of my most discouraging circumstances, remembering that through winding paths and unexpected turns God has revealed a plan more wonderful than I could ever have constructed for myself. I think of Joseph, who for years suffered in a foreign country, and for whom the future may have seemed obscure and hopeless. His story stands as a remarkable reminder that those who patiently wait and faithfully endure, even in seeming darkness, will one day see God’s light.
People of faith realize sooner or later how profoundly messed up we all are. We are encircled by our shortcomings, exhausted by the battle against sin and self, and discouraged by the belief that we will never succeed, never be good enough. Sometimes our discouragement is heightened as we look around at others who seem to be flourishing in the faith and positively sagging with fruit, while we remain twiggy and barren.
Many of us have people in our lives who do not know God. Night after night we get on our knees and pray for them, asking God to awaken spiritual life within them. But we are faced with their persistent, almost intractable indifference or even outright rebellion.
In those moments it is tempting to get off our knees, throw up our hands in despair, and commit these clearly hopeless people to their fate. Looking at my plants, I realized the folly, and tragedy, of allowing Satan to convince us to lose heart and give up. Believing that we will never bear the fruit of righteousness, or that others will never “see the light,” we decide to cut ourselves, and others, off from the water of life. But we cannot see the end from the beginning, and trusting to and acting upon our shortsighted vision may involve us, and others, in terrible, potentially irreversible mistakes.
Here’s the thing: God is love, and love is patient, hopeful, enduring (1 Cor. 13:4, 7). Consider Jesus’ parable of the unproductive fig tree: “For three years now,” He said, “I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down!” (Luke 13:7).
The gardener’s response? “Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down” (verse 8).
There will come a day when trees that remain barren, despite the most loving and devoted care, will be cut down. But Jesus’ parable teaches a pause. That vineyard keeper pleaded patience because he clung to hope. He embodies the character of a patient, long-suffering, hope-filled God. God’s perfect vision allows Him to see what we often cannot. But we must trust implicitly in His vision and His leading, waiting on Him and praying unceasingly until our change, and a change in others, comes (see Job 14:14).
By My Spirit
My plants sprouted, grew, and eventually produced fruit. Why? Because I watered them, pruned them, and placed them in full sunlight.
If I planted a lump of coal at just the right depth in a bed of rich, dark soil, watered it faithfully, and exposed it to regular sunlight, would something grow from it? No, because the stone lacks that germinating principle that God has placed inside the basil seed, thyme seed, and tomato seed. These seeds have the potential to grow because God has placed that potential in them. What I do only activates that potential.
Zechariah 4:6 says: “ ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” Our failures come because we often forget the source of our spiritual potential and growth. We forge ahead to do fierce battle against sin and self, forgetting that alone we are profoundly powerless. Without the germinating principle miraculously bestowed by the Spirit of God, all my self-watering efforts in Bible memorization will be as effective as soaking and sunning a lump of coal.
I grow only because God makes it possible. I am saved only by God’s miracle that causes the seed of faith to germinate, blossom, and bear fruit in my life. Yes, we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). We are to water the seed with the Word of God and expose the plant to the Son of righteousness. But we must also remember that it is God who is at work in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (verse 12).
My tomatoes are long gone, but the lesson remains: In God we may find hope, redemption, and the determination never to give up.