The Stories Jesus Told: The Barren Fig Tree, Luke 13:1–9
January 16, 2018
by Peter Amsterdam
The Stories Jesus Told: The Barren Fig Tree, Luke 13:1–9
The parable of the barren fig tree is found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter thirteen. According to Luke, Jesus had been speaking to a large crowd. He was asked about an incident in which some people from the north of Israel were killed by Pontius Pilate, and in His response He spoke of a tower that had collapsed and killed eighteen people. These incidences led into His telling the parable of the barren fig tree, so before focusing on the parable, it’s helpful to read what preceded it.
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”1
When people told Jesus about a terrible thing that had happened, His response addressed a common belief at that time, which was that when tragedies occurred, the people involved were receiving “measure for measure,” and these things happened to them because of their sins. He asked rhetorically if the murdered Galileans were worse sinners than others, and then answered His own question with a resounding no. He brought up the same question using a different example, and once again said that no, those unfortunate people who died were not greater sinners than others.
Jesus made the point that these tragedies show how fragile life is, and that it can end unexpectedly; thus He stressed the importance of repenting, of receiving the forgiveness which only God can give.
He went on to tell the parable:
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”2
Fig trees, which are mentioned 41 times within Scripture, grow to between four and six meters high (13–19 feet). In Israel, their fruit ripens in August and September. There are a number of times when Scripture refers to “sitting under one’s vines” or “under a fig tree” to symbolize peace and prosperity.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.3
In that day, declares the Lord of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree.4
Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon.5
In some instances in Scripture, the fig tree represents Israel.
Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel. Like the first fruit on the fig tree in its first season, I saw your fathers.6
A nation has come up against my land, powerful and beyond number; its teeth are lions’ teeth, and it has the fangs of a lioness. It has laid waste my vine and splintered my fig tree; it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down; their branches are made white.7
In this parable, the owner of the vineyard in which a fig tree was growing came to get some fruit from the tree. When he found none, he spoke with the man who tended the vineyard, telling him to cut it down because for three years in a row the tree hasn’t borne fruit. The owner wasn’t impatient; he had been waiting for years for the tree to bear fruit, but after all that time, it was barren. In Leviticus, the Lord had commanded that no one should eat the fruit of a newly planted tree for four years.
When you come into the land and plant any kind of tree for food, then you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden to you; it must not be eaten. And in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy, an offering of praise to the LORD. But in the fifth year you may eat of its fruit, to increase its yield for you: I am the Lord your God.8
While the parable tells us that the man waited three years for the fruit, it could be that those listening saw it as longer, since the owner wouldn’t have expected to eat any of the fruit for the first four years. The listeners may have considered that the tree had been in the ground for seven years, the first four during which he wasn’t allowed to eat the fruit, and then three more. In any case, this man had patiently waited a substantial amount of time, but now he was rightly fed up, as it had been so long and the tree took up space in the vineyard, robbing the ground and other plants of nutrients. The owner’s judgment was that the vineyard would be better off without the tree. However, the man who cared for the vineyard suggested giving it one more season, during which he would give it extra attention, and if that didn’t work, then at the owner’s command it would be cut down. Similar to some other parables, we’re not told of the outcome—we don’t know if the owner allowed this extra year or not.
Those who write about the parables of Jesus generally interpret this parable in one of two ways. The first is that the parable is speaking about the nation of Israel or Israel’s leadership. The parable follows on the heels of a reference to Pilate—the Roman prefect—killing a number of Galileans, which reminds those listening that Israel was under subjection to Rome. Because of the sins of Israel, or their religious leaders, it is thought that Jesus told this parable to warn the people or the religious leaders that they needed to repent, as God was ready to judge them. This message was similar to the message of John the Baptist, who warned:
Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.9
The message of both Jesus and John was that God’s judgment on Israel was imminent and repentance was needed. Within this interpretation, the parable can be understood in light of Jewish writings in which the attributes of God are personified and the attribute of justice debates with the attribute of mercy. If God dealt with Israel (or its religious leaders) by strict justice, Israel would perish. But if shown mercy, there was a chance they would repent. In this parable, the attributes of judgment and mercy are given the voices of the owner and the vinedresser.
According to this interpretation, Jesus was making the point that the people of Israel and/or the religious leadership needed to repent before it was too late. God, in His mercy, was giving them some time to do so, but at the end of that time, judgment would come, and it did. Within a few decades, Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the Romans.
Others interpret this parable as stressing the urgency of repentance before it is too late. Pilate killed some individuals, who were no better or worse than others. The tower of Siloam fell upon and randomly killed eighteen people who were on or near it. Contrary to the common belief at the time that such things happened to people because of their sins, Jesus made the point that these people’s deaths weren’t due to sin. Instead, according to this interpretation, He was pointing out that life is fragile and unpredictable, and therefore it is important for everyone to repent and not to wait.
Through this parable, Jesus made the point that each person will give an accounting of their life to God—and that no one knows when that time will come. Whatever time we each have left is a gift of God, because of His patience and mercy. God is not being indulgent in giving us time, rather He is being patient in not responding to the sins that are being committed against Him. He allows time for people to respond to His love, to come to Him, to repent. As the apostle Paul wrote:
Do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?10
His love and mercy are meant to bring all people to Him, but at some point—often unexpectedly—the gift of time comes to an end for each person, and then we are called to give account for our lives.
Rather than choosing one interpretation over the other, I believe they both fit. Jesus certainly felt strongly about what was going to come upon Jerusalem, as seen in His lament:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!11
As He expressed in this parable, the tree wasn’t bearing fruit and deserved to be dug up by the roots, but because of God’s mercy and love, more time may be given to allow it to become fruitful.
It’s helpful for us as Christians to understand that each day is a gift of God’s mercy; each day is also an opportunity for us to help others find Him. As those who seek to love the Lord, we can also apply this parable to our lives by recognizing that at some unknown point in time we will breathe our last, and that each day we live is a blessing from the Lord. We live by His grace, and therefore we should seek to live according to His Word to the best of our abilities. We will, of course, fall short, and when we do, we should ask His forgiveness for and repent of our sins—praying as He taught us to: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.12
The Barren Fig Tree, Luke 13:1–9
1 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?
3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?
5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none.
7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’
8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure.
9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved
1 Luke 13:1–5.
2 Luke 13:6–9.
3 Micah 4:3–4.
4 Zechariah 3:10.
5 1 Kings 4:25.
6 Hosea 9:10.
7 Joel 1:6–7.
8 Leviticus 19:23–25.
9 Luke 3:9.
10 Romans 2:4 NAS.
11 Luke 13:34.
12 Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4; Mark 11:25.