Parable of the Barren Fig Tree

Luke 13:1-9

A tornado destroys a town. A tsunami sweeps the coast killing tens of thousands. An earthquake turns buildings into rubble trapping hundreds beneath. Families are afflicted with financial troubles. A mother of three receives news she has terminal cancer. Why are people afflicted with adversities? Is it because they are bad? Jews confront Jesus with the question looking for His answer. Jesus turns their focus from the sin of those suffering to the need for them to repent of their sins.

Failure to Repent Does Not Bring Individual Suffering

The Jews questions Jesus about a rather recent incident with Pilate and shedding of Galileans in the Temple. “There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish’” (Luke 13:1-3). From historical accounts Pilate wanted to bring water into Jerusalem via an aqueduct. To finance this project, he was going to use funds from the Temple. Some Jews at the Temple rejected this idea and were going to riot. Pilate had some of his solders armed with cudgels which were short clubs which they disguised under cloaks. When the rioting began, the soldiers threw off their cloaks and attacked. Josephus tells of us two incidents where Jews rioted. At one of these some three thousand were killed and two thousand during another. No doubt their blood was shed in the place where their sacrifices were bled. The sacrifices were to cleanse them of guilt but instead they were murdered.

Jesus brings up another tragic event. “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them. Do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4,5). This tragic event was not mentioned by Josephus. Perhaps, these workers were connected with the aqueduct project paid by the temple money. The Jews may have viewed this as no accident but divine retribution of the worst kind of traitor.

Mankind has often connected suffering with sin in the lives of others. Job’s friend Eliphas asked suffering Job, “whoever perished being innocent?” (Job 4:7). Jesus infers that the amount of one’s guilt cannot be calculated based on the sum of their suffering. Although all suffering is in general a result of sin entering into this world, suffering does not prove a man a sinner. Those who thus perish may be far more virtuous than many that live. The Psalmist often reflected on the fact that the wicked often suffered less than the righteous. There is no Karma. Suffering is not meted out fairly. Suffering and evil happen to sinner and saint alike.

The real issue Jesus points their attention to is the consequence of sin and the sinner’s failure to repent. Whether they are suffering or not, sin will destroy the Jewish nation unless they repent. Jesus uses a parable to encourage them to avail themselves of God’s longsuffering as He gives them ample time to repent.

Failure to Repent after God’s Blessings

This parable is not to be confused with Jesus cursing a fig tree at the end of his ministry in order to make a point to his disciples about the need for genuine fruitfulness (Mt. 21:18-22; Mk. 11:12-25). Luke alone records this parable. Fig trees were common in Palestine. Many homes would have fig trees even if they did not own a vineyard.

“He also spoke this parable: ‘A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, “Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?” ‘But he answered and said to him, “Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down'” (Luke 13:6-9).

God is clearly seen in the vineyard-owner and Christ is the vineyard-keeper Israelites are the threatened tree. God has blessed Israel. He gave the nation the best. God, therefore, expected the fruits of repentance. His expectations are just. “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). With great privileges come great accountability.

Failure to Repent after God’s Patience

The owner of the vineyard is very tolerant. The fig tree in Palestine is fruitful most of the year. They are not really large, but their dense foliage makes them a great shade tree. Since fruit could not be taken from a tree during the first three years (Lev. 19:23) the tree was presumably six years old.

Likewise, God had graciously provided occasions for repentance among the Jews. He sent prophets whom they are apt to ignore, persecute and kill. John the Baptist came preaching repentance for the kingdom was at hand. He even sent His Son.

Failure to Repent after God’s Extended Mercy

After all that has been done by the vinedresser the owner of the vineyard shows mercy and gives the fig three one more chance to be fruitful. This second chance for Israel is the call for repentance through the Gospel. On the cross He prayed for the fruitless nation rejecting Him, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Today, God is delaying His judgment, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

God is longsuffering but is not willing to suffer the fruitless tree an indefinite existence. God is willing to wait a long time for man to repent, but even His longsuffering has limits. God gives them only one more year. The period represented by this last year included the preaching of John the Baptist, the public ministry of Jesus Christ, and the forty years of apostolic teaching which followed the Crucifixion and resurrection.

Failure to Repent Brings Barrenness

Jesus spent His three years of ministry on earth among the Jews so all Israel would be fruitful. Jesus had so much trouble during the “three years” of His earthly ministry. All through these years, He taught by life, parable, miracle and discourse, to make Israel fruitful.

A fruitless tree is a useless tree. It uses up time, space and nutrients and yet gives no fig. “Die when I may,” Lincoln said, “I want it said of me that I plucked a weed and planted a flower wherever I thought a flower would grow”. Today, many Christians are unfruitful and are not redeeming the opportunities provided.

By wasting the space it occupies, the fig tree hinders the fruitfulness that the ground could yield. The idea is to get to work, or get busy, or just get out of the way so the work can be done. The Christian who merely occupies a pew is like the fig tree. He may be there but he does not work or help.

Failure to Repent Brings Divine Judgment

Although sinners may not always suffering in direct proportion to their evil, fruitlessness invites disaster. Soil and space in a vineyard was too valuable to waste on such a tree. Eventually there will be a moment of Judgement to cut it down and forget about it. Jesus said, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mt. 7:19). Even in the laws of nature one must reap as he sows and that which does not reproduce itself will go extinct.

The Jews would have a final warning to repent. If the axe is already laid at the trunk of the tree, it is too late to start bearing fruit. If the Jewish nation kept on seeking an earthly kingdom and rejecting the Kingdom of God, they could only come to one end. Eventually, Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD.

This same warning can be made to all Christians. Jesus warned, “If a man does not abide in me he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown Into the fire and burned” (John 15:6).

You cannot repent too soon, because you do not know how soon it may be too late.

– Daniel R. Vess

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