Vol. 3, No. 5
The backdrop to this parable concerns the perennial and common misconception that bad things happen to people as retributions from God. Some in the audience of Christ on this occasion told of Galilean Jews who were slaughtered in the Temple, while they were in the act of offering sacrifices. Evidently, Roman soldiers who were chargeable to Pilate killed those worshippers.
"There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices" (Luke 13:1).
Our Lord denied that those Galilaeans or those, for instance, upon whom the tower of Siloam fell, were more deserving to die for their sins than anyone present in the crowd. Jesus used this moment as an opportunity to teach about repentance. All mankind has a common need to repent of sins (Acts 17:30-31).
"And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish" (Luke 13:2-5).
An aunt of mine became pregnant with her last child, somewhat unexpectedly, when she was 40 years old. Unfortunately, the baby was born with some medical difficulties. My aunt proceeded to pronounce this as retribution upon her by God for such things as being unnecessarily offensive toward other people, including her family. The friends of Job could not imagine the calamities that befell their friend as anything besides just retribution by God for some heinous, secret sin, of which they were sure Job was guilty. The inhabitants of Melita supposed that the apostle Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake as Supreme retribution for some evil Paul must have done.
"And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand. And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live" (Acts 28:3-4).
Even the disciples of Jesus subscribed to this theory of God-authored retribution.
"And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:1-2).
My aunt was mistaken. Job's friends also incorrectly attributed some unknown evil to Job. Further, the natives of Melita were wrong about Paul, too. Our Lord's disciples misspoke about the relationship between sin and dire physical circumstances. The misguided notion that God summarily metes physical punishments to individuals is not restricted to belief by ancient peoples. Our neighbors often believe the same untruth.
This parable is an illustration and expansion of Jesus' teaching on repentance. It was a common belief in Bible times that sickness and disease and violent death were the direct results of some wicked deed he had done. With this confused conception of sin, a group of people approached Jesus and told him about a disaster that had recently taken place.1
Jesus followed his teaching about repentance with the parable of the Barren Fig Tree. This parable, also, appears only in Luke's Gospel record.
This parable must not be confused with the parabolic miracle of the fig tree which Jesus cursed (Matthew 21:18-22; Mark 11:12-25). The only common bond between the two parables is the fact that there were no figs on either tree. Jesus, as we know, made constant illustrative use of the fig tree (Matthew 24:32-33; Mark 13:28-29; Luke 21:29-30).2
Since the fig tree is prominent in this parable, besides used in other instructive illustrations, acquaintance with the fig tree is useful at this juncture. Neil Lightfoot's description of the fig tree in Palestine is as follows.
The fig tree in ancient Palestine was the most important of all trees. In a warm climate, like Palestine, it was fruitful during much of the year. Its so-called "immature figs" began to appear in April; then followed the two main crops, the early one in June and the later one in August. The fig tree was valued for other reasons. Although it was not a large tree, ranging on average from ten to fifteen feet high, its foliage was remarkably dense, well-suited for a cool shade from the summer heat. The fig tree was recognized as a symbol of peace and prosperity. In the time of Solomon it is said that "Judah and Israel dwelt in safety, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, every man under his vine, and under his fig tree." Thus the fig tree was an invaluable tree and was cultivated all over the land of Palestine.3
"He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down" (Luke 13:6-9).
The allusion to fruitfulness, the anticipated result of farming, is used frequently in the Bible. Likewise, the destruction of crops that are fruitless is a common theme throughout Scripture. "And now also the ax is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire" (Matt. 3:10).
"Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them" (Matt. 7:15-20).
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned" (John 15:1-6).
The parable of the Barren Fig Tree refers to the Jews -- as individuals and as a nation. This is precisely the way in which fruitfulness Vs. fruitlessness is depicted of Israel in the Old Testament.
"Now will I sing to my wellbeloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My wellbeloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill: And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes. And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard. What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes? And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: And I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry" (Isaiah 5:1-7).
Like the parable under review in this chapter, Isaiah 5:1-7 promised impending destruction for failure of the Jews to be fruitful. They were unfruitful despite special provisions to promote their fruitfulness. The same scenario unfolds in the parable of the Barren Fig Tree. Directly, both passages applied to the Jews as individuals and as a people. "But to Israel he saith, All day long I have stretched forth my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people" (Rom. 10:21). Indirectly, the parable applies to Spiritual Israel or the church that Jesus built (Matt. 16:18). In any case, the barren fig tree represents fruitless children of God.
In the parable of the Barren Fig Tree, the man or owner represents God. The vine dresser is Jesus Christ. The barren fig tree is the Jewish nation. The vineyard in which the tree of the parable was planted represents special divine privilege.
As the fig tree was planted in a vineyard, the Jewish nation was nurtured like a favored child with the blessings of divine revelation and guidance. Throughout the years of the Old Testament the Lord of Hosts, like the owner of the vineyard, had come in hope of finding some evidence of fruit on the tree.4
The peculiar privilege of the fig tree illustrated the Jewish nation (Isaiah 5:1-7); and the vineyard, the enclosure of privilege, symbolized the nation secluded from all others, and especially honored by God with the light of supernatural revelation through the Prophets, and all the influences of supernatural grace.5
The three years in the parable during which the owner sought figs and found none are equivalent to the long-suffering or patience of God. However, the patience of God toward rebellious Israel was not infinite. Since the return of Judah from Babylonian captivity, God demonstrated great patience with the Jews. Consequently, the children of God were afforded ample opportunity to repent as individuals and as a nation. Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and the apostles preceded the exhaustion of divine patience for the Jews. The apostle Paul earnestly desired the national repentance of his people (Rom. 10:1-3).
The land owner in the parable ordered the fruitless tree cut down. The charge to cut down the tree is figurative for the then imminent destruction of the Jewish nation for its persistent rebellion. The destruction of Jerusalem was the manifestation of the final exhaustion of divine patience toward old Israel.
Yet even Divine patience can be exhausted. God waits long, but the Scriptures solemnly warn that there is a limit to His waiting.6
Cut it down! Such was the end of divine cultivation, divine expectation and divine disappointment. Such a sentence was a righteous one, for Israel, in spite of all her privileges, was a fruitless tree; and a fruitless tree was useless. It cumbered the ground, occupying room where another tree might have grown fruit abundant. Is there not in this parable a solemn warning for the Church, as well as for each professed member of it?7
"The cumbering of the ground implies more than it occupied a place which might be more profitably filled; the barren tree injured the land around."8 "The soil was too valuable to wast on a fruitless tree, so it must perish, and its room be given to another tree."9 The implication is that, likewise, God's children can contribute to the delinquency of their fellows.
The fig tree was not only useless, but it was also harmful. . . . The unfaithful and unfruitful church member does harm. a. He takes zeal from the faithful members. b. He keeps others from obeying the truth (1 Cor. 5:6).10
Fruitlessness can cause a congregation to die (Rev. 3:1-6). Unfruitfulness can be attributable to "works of the flesh" (Gal. 5:19-21) or merely from inactivity (Matt. 25:31-46; Jam. 4:17).
"Time for repentance (for all men) is limited . . ."11 The lamentable removal of the Jews as the special beneficiaries of God's blessings created a void. This void was filled with the widespread conversion of non-Jews to Christianity, beginning in the first century.
The divine fiat, cut it down, was carried out in the decree for "the destruction of Jerusalem, and the removal of the Jews from their vineyard privileges, preparatory to, and in order to, the calling of the Gentiles." The stroke of justice was arrested for a season . . .12
Romans 11:17-24 portrays the Jews as natural branches from an olive tree, which being unproductive are pruned. The Gentiles, represented as branches from a wild olive tree, were grafted into the goodly olive tree. That passage depicts the possibility of restoration of the Jews or natural branches to the favor of God. The Gentiles are cautioned that selected natural branches can be grafted back on the tree with greater ease than the grafting of wild branches (Gentiles).
The gardener's plea to allow the tree another opportunity to produce fruit is figurative for allowing the Jewish nation more time to repent. The vinedresser does not plead for a complete reprieve for the barren fig tree.
He did not plead for the indefinite existence of a fruitless tree. He only asked for one more year in which to adopt the most stringent measures for stimulating the barren tree into fruitfulness. If under further treatment it bears fruit, then the vine dresser knew that the owner would gladly permit the tree to retain its privileged position; but if it persisted in its barrenness, then he would abandon it to its deserved fate. All that was asked for was a respite or postponement.13
He only asks for an extension, which after if the tree is still barren it should be destroyed.
God does not want anyone to perish, but to repent. Nevertheless, at a predetermined time in the mind of God, divine wrath will engulf the impenitent at the end of time.
"The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up" (2 Pet. 3:9-10).
"Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?" (Ezek. 33:11).
"The judgment of God is not hasty, but it is certain (Eccl. 8:11-13; 2 Pet. 3:9)."14
"Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil. Though a sinner do evil an hundred times, and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before him: But it shall not be well with the wicked, neither shall he prolong his days, which are as a shadow; because he feareth not before God" (Ecc. 8:11-13).
God expects his children to be productive or fruitful. Another way of phrasing the same concept is that God requires obedience of his creation -- inclusive of his children. The unmitigated wrath of the Godhead will confront all disobedient souls in the last day.
"And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power" (2 Thess. 1:7-9).
The only way in which souls can avoid the righteous indignation and the vengeance of God is to repent of wickedness while there is yet time. The parable of the Barren Fig Tree illustrates the hopelessness of mistaking the long-suffering of God for divine disregard for our sins. Those who despise the patience of God are preparing themselves for eternal dishonor in a devil's hell. God is patient to a point, after which God will judge the world -- ready or not!
Almighty God, by reason of creation and his eternal omnipotence, exercises the divine right to intervene in the lives and eternity of mankind. Mere mortals are powerless to challenge the province of God to require compliance with heavenly mandates -- or face sorrowful, eternal consequences. Though one may pretend to deny the existence of God now, or though acknowledging the being of God to defy his sovereignty, every soul shall confirm the divine nature of God at the commencement of forever.
"For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God" (Rom. 14:10-11).
Mankind is obliged to concede the supremacy of God -- or suffer unimaginable, unending and unhappy consequences.
Every man should recognize and honor the truth that God is the owner of the universe. . . . Every man should recognize that God has the right to expect fruit -- the right kind of fruit -- from each man. . . . Every man should recognize and honor the truth that God had (has) and exercised the right of interceding in human situation. . . . Every man should both recognize and honor the truth that God has the right to stipulate conditions with men (who desire to be saved) must comply. . . . Every man should recognize and honor the truth that God has the right of disposition.15
Because the vineyard and the tree planted in it belonged to the owner, and he had the moral and absolute right of expectation of fruit, he likewise had the punitive right of, as the owner, destroying anything barren and useless on his soil.16
Dear Reader, have you repented of your sins? "I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish" (Luke 13:3).
1 Neil R. Lightfoot, The Parables of Jesus, Vol. 1, Abilene, ACU Press, 75.
2 Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible, Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishing House, 270.
3 Lightfoot, 75-76.
4 Ibid., 76.
5 Lockyer, 271.
6 Lightfoot, 79.
7 Lockyer, 273.
8 R.C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord, Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 123.
9 Lockyer, 271.
10 W. Gaddys Roy, Sermon Outlines on the Parables of Jesus, Anniston, AL, W. Gaddys Roy, 48.
11 Wayne Jackson, The Parables in Profile, Stockton , CA, Wayne Jackson, 75.
12 Lockyer, 272.
14 Roy, 48.
15 Thomas Warren, "The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree," The Parables of Our Savior, Garfield Heights church of Christ, 181-187.
16 Lockyer, 272.