Introduction: I remember in the days following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, how many Christians were speculating about whether or not this was the judgment of God on our country. There were even a number who dared to speak with certainty on the matter, such as when a couple of men thought to be prominent Christian leaders asserted that the attacks were indeed the judgment of God on our country because of the liberals in the ACLU, because of the growing number of gays and lesbians, and because of the many abortionists and people having abortions in our country.
Of course, such things are still being asserted by many, and what bothers me about such surmisings – at least in part – is the smugness of so many who seem to think that such liberals, gays, or abortionists are are all somehow worse sinners than they are themselves. They are thus quick to assume that these more wicked people surely deserve God’s judgment in a way that they themselves do not.
But I do not believe that such thinking is pleasing to the Lord. As a matter of fact – as we will see in this passage – when Jesus was presented with or considered similar types of calamities, He took a very different point of view and corrected this very tendency in those around Him. In fact, this is the very kind of situation that led to His sharing the parable before us today. We will see this as we look at 1) the context of the parable, and 2) the communication of the parable.
I. The Context of the Parable
The context of the parable is found in verses 1-5.
NKJ Luke 13:1 There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
Here Jesus is informed about an event that must have happened while He was not around. We don’t know the details of what took place, except that Pilate apparently killed some Galileans when they were offering their sacrifices in the temple, such that their own blood was mingled with their sacrifices. Perhaps these people were thought by him to be rebels, and he was waiting until they came to Jerusalem to get a chance to be rid of them.
We cannot know precisely what the situation actually entailed. And we don’t really need to know the details in order to get the point Jesus wants to make. You see, Jesus knew that those who were telling Him about this matter were assuming that these Galileans had been judged by God for being particularly bad sinners. This was a common assumption among the Jews in those days, and it was an assumption that was shared even by Jesus’ disciples, as is evidenced, for example, in the incident concerning a man who was born blind:
NKJ John 9:1-3 Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth. 2 And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.”
Notice the assumption that such a tragic thing as a man being born blind must have been due to some terrible sin having been committed by someone. And, of course, this was taken by many to mean that they themselves must not be such bad sinners as this guy because they weren’t born blind like he was. But, again, it is this very type of attitude that Jesus wants to confront in this passage, as we see in the following verses.
NKJ Luke 13:2-3 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? 3 I tell you, no; but unless you repent [Present Active Subjunctive > μετανοέω] you will all likewise perish [ἀπόλλυμι].”
Here Jesus responds in two ways.
First, He makes it clear that we cannot assume that some people must be worse sinners than others just because some terrible tragedy has befallen them. In this way Jesus challenges our tendency to compare ourselves to others we think must be worse than us in order to feel superior.
Second, Jesus challenges us to think about our own sin and our own need for repentance, lest we perish ourselves. In this way He challenges the tendency to think we are somehow better than others just because we may have had an easier time in life.
When Jesus says that they will “all likewise perish,” He doesn’t specify whether He is thinking of some judgment that God is going to bring on the people of Israel – such as occurred in A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed – or whether He is thinking of the ultimate judgment. Perhaps He has both ideas in mind, but I think that there is definitely an application to the final judgment. After all, isn’t it the final judgment what we must all face if we do not repent?
I think it best to assume that Jesus is thinking of perishing here as opposed to having everlasting life, which is the same way this word is used in other passages as well. For example:
NKJ John 3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish [ἀπόλλυμι] but have everlasting life.
NKJ John 10:27-28 My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. 28 And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish [ἀπόλλυμι] ; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.
This must also be the way Jesus intends us to take the same language in what He says next.
NKJ Luke 13:4-5 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? 5 I tell you, no; but unless you repent [Present Active Subjunctive > μετανοέω] you will all likewise perish [ἀπόλλυμι].
Here Jesus uses another example in order to make the same point. But in this case He illustrates the principle by using an accident that would have come upon those who perished quite suddenly. This again makes the same point as the previous example, albeit a bit more forcefully. As the New Geneva Study Bible notes put it:
The Galileans [and we would say also those in Siloam upon whom the tower fell] had had no time to repent at the time of their deaths, and Jesus’ unrepentant hearers might also face deaths that would give them no time to prepare. (p. 1631)
None of us knows when we might die, so we must always be ready. This is one reason why Jesus wants His disciples – and us – to have humble hearts before the Lord and recognize that we ourselves deserve God’s judgment as much as anyone else we may assume must have it coming to them! As a matter of fact, as we have seen, Jesus adds an additional example of tragedy and repeats the same point again: “Do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men … I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
I think Jesus is confronting the same kind of self-righteous attitude that He later challenged in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector, which provides a terrific illustration for us:
NKJ Luke 18:10-14 Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” 13 And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
This is this same lesson that Jesus is offering in this passage, and this is what provides the context for the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree. And so, having seen the context of the parable, let’s turn our attention now to the parable itself.
II. The Communication of the Parable
The communication of the parable is found in verses 6-9.
NKJ Luke 13:6 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.”
Here we have the setting of the parable, which highlights three things: 1) a fig tree, 2) a vineyard, and 3) the expectation of fruit. All three of these elements would have been easily recognizable from Old Testament passages about Israel. For example:
1) The use of a fig tree as a metaphor for Israel:
NKJ Micah 7:1 Woe is me! [says Micah] For I am like those who gather summer fruits, like those who glean vintage grapes; there is no cluster to eat of the first-ripe fruit [בִּכּוּרָה, “first ripe fig, early fig (regarded as a delicacy)” (BDB # 1229, BibleWorks)] which my soul desires. [Note: The ESV, NASB, NIV and NET Bible all do a better job of translating this word than does the KJV and NKJV, which gives the impression that Micah is still thinking of grapes here.]
2) The use of a vineyard as a metaphor for Israel:
NKJ Isaiah 5:1-7 Now let me sing to my Well-beloved a song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard: My Well-beloved has a vineyard On a very fruitful hill. 2 He dug it up and cleared out its stones, and planted it with the choicest vine. He built a tower in its midst, and also made a winepress in it; so He expected it to bring forth good grapes, but it brought forth wild grapes. 3 “And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge, please, between Me and My vineyard. 4 What more could have been done to My vineyard that I have not done in it? Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes? 5 And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned; and break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. 6 I will lay it waste; It shall not be pruned or dug, But there shall come up briers and thorns. I will also command the clouds That they rain no rain on it.” 7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are His pleasant plant. He looked for justice, but behold, oppression; for righteousness, but behold, a cry for help.
3) The expectation of fruit is also present in the use of both of these metaphors in their Old Testament contexts, just as there is the expectation of fruit in Jesus’ combined usage of these metaphors.
And, by the way, lest we should think that combining these metaphors – as Micah had done, by referring to a fig tree that is planted in a vineyard – is a strange thing, we need to understand that it was relatively common to plant fig trees alongside grapes in ancient times. In fact, grape vines were often allowed to grow on fig trees to support the vines, and one ancient author even refers to the black fig tree as the “sister of the vine” (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent, p.260).
So, there is nothing unusual about fig trees growing in vineyards. Indeed, the fact that this was commonplace may be one reason that both fig trees and vineyards were used as metaphors for Israel. At any rate, I seriously doubt that Jesus’ audience would have missed the meaning of the metaphors here. He was clearly using the example of a fig tree planted in a vineyard – a fig tree that should have produced fruit but failed to do so – as a metaphorical reference to the Jews of His day, just as the Old Testament prophets had done in the past.
NKJ Luke 13:7 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 [ἐκκόπτω]; why does it use up the ground?” [Note: As the NET Bible notes point out, “such fig trees would deplete the soil, robbing it of nutrients needed by other trees and plants” (BibleWorks).]
Is it possible that Jesus had in mind here the length of His preaching ministry up to this point? Or perhaps the combined ministries of Himself and John the Baptist? We cannot be certain. But what is clear is that three years was plenty of time for a fig tree to produce figs when it should have been producing them. And this is the point being made about Israel. Israel had already had plenty of time to produce the proper fruit and yet for the most part has not done so. And this is why judgment is coming soon, depicted as the cutting down of the fig tree. In fact, this is the same fate the John the Baptist had been warning them about:
NKJ Luke 3:7-9 Then he said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 9 And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down [ἐκκόπτω] and thrown into the fire.”
But, as we shall see, Jesus has interceded for them that they would be given just a little more time.
NKJ Luke 13:8-9 But he answered and said to him, “Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. 9 And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down [ἐκκόπτω].”
I think this must be a reference to the ministry of Jesus, in which God is patiently giving Israel yet one more chance to repent. He is giving them a grace period, but not for long! Sadly, most of the Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah, even after He rose from the dead and gave the Holy Spirit to the Church. They failed to avail themselves of the kindness God had shown them in being so patient. They didn’t understand what His patience meant, even though Jesus made it so clear.
As Paul would later ask the Roman Christians in his profound letter to them, “Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4).
Conclusion: I would like to end where I began today, with a reminder of the way we all too easily see others as worse sinners than we are and thus as more deserving of God’s judgment. This is what leads believers to be too quick to assume that some tragedy must be the judgment of God when it happens to others. But Jesus will have none of this prideful attitude, and neither would His disciples who followed His teaching. For example, the Apostle Peter later wrote, “For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Pet. 4:17 ).
Peter is simply echoing Jesus’ persistent position, and I am repeating it today. And so the Holy Spirit is reminding us that, when we begin to judge others, smugly thinking they must be worse sinners than we are, we need to be very careful. He is essentially saying to us, “Take a good look at yourselves first!” He is reminding us that we all live in a grace period, in which He patiently gives us time to repent and to trust in Christ. If you have not already done so, I hope you trust Jesus to save you from your sins, for you do not know when you may meet your end.
For those who already know Christ as Lord and Savior, I hope you will remember that Jesus expects us to produce fruit in keeping with repentance just as He expected this of Israel. And this fruit is not something we can produce in our own strength. It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23a). It consists of walking in holiness and doing the good works for which God has created us anew in Christ. As the Apostle Paul says:
NKJ Ephesians 2:8-10 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.