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At least three times the Lord Jesus taught his disciples and the crowds using the fig tree as his illustration or parable.
The parable of the barren fig tree, found only in the Gospel of Luke, is a call to repentance and fruitfulness. The incident of the withered fig tree recorded in Mark’s gospel is used to challenge the disciples to faith. Finally the Lord uses the parable of the budding fig tree to call his disciples to watchfulness and readiness for their Lord’s return.
We look first at the parable of the barren fig tree, the verses leading up to the parable and the parable itself, Luke Chapter 12:54 – 13:9, English Standard Version
He also said to the crowd, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘a shower is coming.’ And so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make every effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the office put you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.
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.”
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. 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.’”
*The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree © Parva Press
The difficult verses leading up to the parable
From verse 54 of chapter 12, Luke records the Lord’s teaching directed to the great crowds who flocked to him. Each of the brief sections is an aspect of his great call to repentance before Almighty God, our ultimate Judge.
Jesus began with the weather – always at the forefront of our minds! His hearers were well able to see that if the wind was blowing from the West, over the Mediterranean, it would bring rain, but if it was blowing from the South, over the deserts, the weather would hot and dry. Yet they could not see the historic times in which they were living. Blind, deaf and dumb people were being healed. Spiritually imprisoned people were being released and poor people were having good news proclaimed to them. Yet they could not, or would not, see that here, standing before them, was the fulfilment of the promise of God given by the prophets; the long promised Son of David, the anointed One of God, their long sought Messiah. Neither could they see that his presence among them marked the approach of the Day of the Lord; the judgement of Almighty God. Judgement that would begin with the rebellious house of Israel as Rome crushed Jerusalem and dispersed the Jews among the nations and, that will finally fall on the whole unbelieving world.
The second scene is that of a debtor having to go to court. His case is hopeless; he will lose the case and then be thrown into jail until the debt is fully paid. His plight is desperate. His only hope is to settle with the man to whom he owes so much before it gets to court. Here is our Lord’s brief yet vivid picture of his hearers’, and of our, standing before Almighty God. Hence the wisdom of pleading for mercy now before it is too late.
There was no television, radio or newspaper in our Lord’s day, so every fresh event caused a buzz by word of mouth. ‘Have you heard . . .’ and, of course, an opinion added. Referring to two horrible pieces of current news involving sudden deaths, Jesus gave a repeated warning that, unless his hearers repented, a similar, terrible fate awaited them, ‘you will likewise perish’. Each disaster is, not just a fresh piece of news to talk about, but a ‘wake-up call’, a warning of the urgent need to repent.
Although some commentators separate the parable of the fig tree from the teaching that Luke has recorded just before it, it seems that the parable of the barren fig tree fills out this call for repentance. As G. Campbell Morgan says, it is a parable ‘showing that the judgements of God are rooted in righteousness, the rights of the proprietor’ and ‘that the judgements of God are exercised always in infinite patience.’
The owner of the vineyard was acting with absolute justice in sweeping away the fruitless tree he had planted. And so, I am afraid that the parable is not the pretty story we might have liked, but a solemn warning to nations, to churches as well as to individuals, like you and me, that unless we repent and prove fruitful before him we will ‘likewise perish.’
The details of the parable itself
The fig tree of Jesus’ parable was a choice tree actively planted in the owner’s vineyard. It was not a wayside, ‘self set’ tree growing from a pip casually dropped along some public way.
The owner naturally expected fruit and gave the tree three years beyond normal fruit-bearing age in which to prove itself. However, there was still no evidence of fruit. For some reason it seem that it was not going to prove a fruitful tree, and so the most appropriate thing to do was to get rid of it. It was only using-up space, water and nutrients and preventing the planting of other more useful things.
Although judgement was richly deserved, ‘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?’ The vinedresser pleads for the owner to give the fig tree one more opportunity. He does not plead for the fig tree be kept for ever as it is so attractive with its distinctively large leaves, adding charm to the vineyard and useful for shade, but simply for one last chance to bear fruit before the owner cuts it down. ‘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.’ The vinedresser undertakes to give the tree the best possible opportunity to bear fruit. By ‘digging around it’ he may well have intended to prune its roots, for perhaps the tree had grown too lush and comfortable to fruit. It is well known that fig tree roots need to be constrained in some way to encourage fruitfulness. So digging around it would be a ‘wake-up’ call to fruitfulness; a fruitfulness strongly encouraged and enabled by the manure placed over the remaining roots.
Is there any significance in the little detail of who will cut down the tree if it fails yet again? The owner said, ‘Cut it down.’ The vinedresser, pleading for one more year concludes, ‘Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ Scholars debate, but ultimately it is the owner’s decision either way and it would fall to the vinedresser to put the decision into practice. Eastern owners do not personally ‘cut down’ or probably more accurately ‘dig up’ trees!
Like so many of his other parables, Jesus leaves the parable open ended. We do not know whether the owner granted the vinedresser’s request or whether or not the tree responded with fruitfulness. However, it is clear that even if, in mercy, the owner agrees to one more chance, a ‘stay of execution,’ he will not tolerate for ever a fruitless tree ‘using up the ground’ in his vineyard.
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree, continued
The great principles of the parable
Like his first hearers, we love the parables, they are such vivid stories. However, like so many of his stories, this parable carries a lesson that we do not readily receive or even wish to hear. The Lord Jesus had just warned his hearers that unless they repented, turned, believed and proved fruitful before the Lord God, they would perish. Here, in this parable, he shows the creator’s, the owner’s, absolute moral right to see what proves to be fruitful and to remove anything that proves to be unfruitful.
In the parable there is justice, but it is justice tempered with mercy. Our natural human response is to presume on his mercy, but beware, for to do so carries great risk. In mercy he may give us further opportunities to prove fruitful but, ultimately, he will not give us not a ‘free pardon’ for fruitlessness. God is merciful and very patient, but in his world he retains the ultimate right to remove anything that proves useless before him. The terrifying truth is that it is possible to escape all the dangers of life and die comfortably in great old age – and yet perish. Why? Because we ‘live and move and have our being’ in God’s ‘vineyard’, and yet it is too easy to fail to bring honour to his name; to prove to be ‘fruitless’ before him.
In order to prove fruitful, the repentance Jesus is calling for is no mere nominal repentance or a repeated form of words, ‘I repent of my sins’, but something much deeper. As he demonstrated in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax gatherer and in his encounter with Zacchaeus, he was calling for a cry from the heart, real business with God which would result in a total change of thinking, attitude and behaviour. It would mean a hatred of all the self-centred, godless thinking and behaviour that had gone before – even when that had been cloaked with religious zeal – and a determination from now on to live to please and serve the Living God; to be humbly useful before him. If we begin to honour the Lord God like this, we will also gladly and gratefully honour his Son.
How did the parable apply to Jesus’ hearers?
The parable is primarily addressed to Israel and its leaders. By and large Israel was continuing to make the greatest error we humans can make. They were living in God’s world as if there were no God. Despite the outward appearance of being very religious, inwardly, the leaders were very far from ‘doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with the Lord God’. They were ignoring, or narrowly reinterpreting, his commands and holy ways in order to pursue their own ways and opinions. In failing to truly honour the Lord God, it is no surprise to find that they also refused to recognise and honour his Son, the Messiah.
The failure of God’s ancient people was no new phenomenon. At least to the scribes and Pharisees among Jesus’ hearers, the picture of Israel’s fruitlessness that Jesus was painting would have been a familiar one. God’s ancient people were no roadside fig tree, but the chosen ‘planting of the Lord’ in his favoured vineyard. Time and again he looked for fruit; sending his spokesmen, the prophets, to call the nation to repentance, to turn and to produce the fruits of godliness, righteousness and mercy. But there was little or no response, no fruit.
For example, in the years before Israel was swept into exile, Isaiah had called for repentance and warned of the judgement of God falling on fruitless Israel in very similar terms. Singing it as a love song, Isaiah speaks of Israel, as a beloved vineyard planted with choice vines on a very fertile hillside, walled and looked after – yet producing only wild, useless grapes. Like the house of Israel, it was a vineyard fit only for destruction; its walls broken down and its vines trampled.
However, despite all God’s warnings and the presence now of their Messiah, God amongst them, the nation had not changed; it remained fruitless. In the light of Jesus’ teaching, given immediately before it, surely this parable of the fruitless fig tree must be seen as a warning that, unless the people and their leaders repented, like Isaiah’s vineyard they were destined to be trampled down in judgement – as indeed they were, first by the Romans in AD 70, then by the Gentile nations for nearly 2000 years.
Israel justly deserved to be totally cut off, and yet here in this parable is mercy; ‘one more year’, one more chance, a merciful stay of just judgement – yet do notice only a ‘year of grace’ not a free pardon. The people of Israel have been given further opportunity to produce the fruits of repentance and faith, first, during our Lord’s ministry, and then, secondly, under the Holy Spirit empowered ministry of Peter and the apostles from Pentecost onwards. In that time many did, indeed, repent and believe. Even now, as they are re-gathering in Israel, the Lord is giving further opportunity though the witness of the Christian church where that is offered, not in arrogance, but in love and true humility.
Israel’s roots have certainly been severely trimmed over the centuries and perhaps, to aid our Gentile humility, Christian ministry to Israel should be regarded as no more than the application of godly or gospel ‘manure!’
How does the parable apply to ourselves?
As the minutes of the ‘year of grace’ tick by and the day of God’s final judgement draws closer, if the axe of God hangs over God’s chosen people, what of those of us who are mere Gentile ‘grafts’? In the West, and in particular throughout the English speaking world, whole nations have been so favoured with gospel preaching that, over the centuries, godly thinking and godly ways have permeated the whole of our society. This has been reflected in godly laws and stable government, in mutual trust and in law-abiding citizens, in art, law, education, medicine and science and in the care of the more vulnerable in society.
However, like the fig tree in the vineyard, have we so flourished that we no longer have a desire to bear godly fruit? Postmodern, humanist and secular thinking strongly press us to ‘live in God’s world as if there were no God’. Having flourished under the good hand of God, we now prefer to pursue our own way, ignoring the One whose favour has been on us, turning and cutting the Lord God completely out of our public life and thinking. But can we, who have been so favoured with the gospel, expect to escape with fruitlessness? With an unwillingness to humble ourselves and turn from our ungodly ways and pray, can we expect to escape the just judgement of Almighty God? From this parable, we have no grounds to think so.
If the Lord is looking for fruit nationally, what of the church and of ourselves as individuals?
How often has the Lord looked for fruit in our churches? Magnificently full of ceremonial foliage and social activity but in our day so desperately short of spiritual fruitfulness before God. Uplifting music and a source of great comfort, but the people of our land are very rarely warned of the judgement to come and called to repentance and faith in the Son of God. The ‘whole council of God’ is rarely taught and so even regular church-attending people are not taught how to be fruitful, and are left quite unprepared for our Lord and Master’s sudden return in glory and in judgement. As churches, are we offering ‘a comfortable religious experience’? Or are we fruitfully ‘about our Father’s business’; as a whole body of people, spreading his gospel message, promoting his kingdom and each playing our part as salt and light in a decaying society?
It is too close for comfort, but, as Matthew Henry asks, ‘How many times three years has the Lord looked on our lives for fruit and found none?’ Will our Lord be patient forever? Like the tree in the vineyard it is easy to enjoy Christian privileges and do nothing for the honour of God. Christian churches are not called to be like railway trains with a driver, guard and a great many passengers but like a local football team where every person plays a part to the full. We are not all called to preach before thousands! But, like the lady with her precious jar of ointment, we are all called to ‘do what we can’ and to ‘do it for the Lord.’
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree, continued
The challenge of our Lord’s picture of the vinedresser and his request
Notice first that the vinedresser was able and willing to make such a bold request.
What a willing and helpful man he was! He not only made the helpful suggestion but offered to do the necessary work. There is no hint of sullen slavishness or the doing of the bare minimum of work here! Surely these things point to a very happy, close and productive relationship between the owner of the vineyard and his man on the site. He recognises that the owner’s decision is final and that he is merely a servant and yet the relationship between them is such that he can make this request and make his own offer to play an active part in the year-long experiment.
Then it is well worth noticing what he asked for and what he did not ask for.
He only asked for ‘a stay of judgement’ one more year for the tree to prove whether it could ever be fruitful, worthy of its place in the vineyard. He did not ask for the tree to be spared indefinitely, even though it was fruitless.
Finally do notice that, if the owner granted what he was asking for, he was willing, and offered, to do everything he could to enable the tree to be fruitful.
He was willing to clear the ground and in some way challenge the tree to fruitfulness. He was also willing to put manure over the roots to give the tree every encouragement to bear fruit.
Looking at each of these in turn:
1 The vinedresser’s relationship with the owner of the vineyard
If the fruitless fig tree is a picture of unrepentant Israel, who is on record in Scripture pleading for the nation to be spared?
Abraham, the ‘friend of God’ is the first person we read of begging the Lord to spare a people. He acknowledged that he was but dust, but never-the-less took upon himself to plead with the Lord for the notoriously wicked city of Sodom. He begged the Lord to spare the city if just some, successively fewer and fewer, righteous people could be found within its walls.
We read of Moses, with whom God spoke face to face, pleading with the Lord to spare the people of Israel. They had been miraculously rescued from oppression in Egypt, but now, because of their blatant, God-provoking idolatry in creating and worshipping a golden calf as ‘the gods who brought them out of Egypt,’ justice demanded that they be totally destroyed, wiped-out and obliterated.
Finally, we read of Daniel and later Nehemiah acknowledging both their personal failures and the godlessness of the people of Israel and pleading with the Lord for mercy.
Each of these men walked very closely with the Lord God, like the vinedresser they were able to boldly cry to their Lord to hold back his hand of judgement. They were also more than willing to play their part. Surely this in itself is a spiritual challenge to each one of us.
Could the Lord Jesus be also speaking of himself as he tells this parable? His own walk with Father could not have been closer and his whole aim was to do his Father’s will. Was he reflecting ‘a conversation in heaven’? Isaiah speaks of the suffering servant of the Lord interceding for transgressors. The Lord Jesus did not come to condemn, judge or destroy but to redeem Israel. The Lord’s ministry and, subsequently, that of his chosen apostles would certainly give the house of Israel one more chance to turn, to repent and be fruitful.
In his final words to his disciples Jesus reminded them that ‘. . . repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’ Do notice, Jerusalem first, as it would only be some forty years before the judgement of God, their ‘owner,’ began to fall on the nation of Israel. It will fall, finally, on all of us in the last day. In the meantime, these are ‘days of grace,’ days of opportunity to turn, believe and be fruitful. For the encouragement of us all, we read that the Lord Jesus, on the night before his crucifixion, prayed for the disciples and for those who would believe through their word. Now risen and ascended he is ‘able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.’
2 What the vinedresser asked for and what he did not ask for
In his day, Matthew Henry urged ministers and church leaders to pray earnestly for the people entrusted to their care. Not that they might never be ‘cut down’, but that, like this fruitless fig tree, they might be given more time and every opportunity to repent. How many of us, as John Calvin points out, have cause to thank the Lord God for his patience with us! When justice was well deserved, he gave us time and opportunity – under one form of godly influence or another, books, preaching, or close friendship – to turn, to believe and to begin to bear spiritual fruit.
What an encouragement this is to cry to the Lord for members of our own family who have yet to repent and believe. Not to plead that the Lord God would accept them, unbelieving and spiritually fruitless as they are before him, but that he would make himself known to them; that they might bend the knee and cry for mercy in the name of the Son of God, and so become his ransomed, healed, forgiven people, living fruitfully to the praise of his glory.
3 The willingness of the vinedresser to do all he could
Matthew Henry asks, uncomfortably, ‘If we pray for others and yet do nothing we could do to help them to faith and fruitfulness before the Lord, are we not mocking the Lord God?’ The challenge the vinedresser puts before us is to pray for those around us – and help them, speak with them and share with them ‘the manure of loving kindness and a word in season’. Those delightfully quaint words have within it the seeds of both genuine friendship and godly faithfulness.
How can we encourage those for whom we pray and help them in some way to find for themselves the wonder and liberty and joy of being a forgiven and fruitful child of God? It may be an invitation to hear a speaker; it could be a book or video or just mixing with truly Christian people or, most likely, a mixture of all these things. If it bears fruit, both Lord and gardener will be delighted; all heaven and the Christian servant, alike, will rejoice. If not, the Lord God’s justice and final judgement still stands.
For our strong encouragement to follow the vinedresser’s example in pleading with the Lord and doing all we can, we read in Peter’s second letter that the Lord God is patient toward us; it is not the will of God that anyone should perish but that all may come to repentance.
Lord, in your mercy, give your ancient people Israel ’one more year’ that they might turn and be exceedingly fruitful before you, as is your great purpose for them.
In your mercy, give your sleeping, over-comfortable Christian church ’one more year’ that we might turn and be fruitful before you, as is your purpose for us.
Father, thank you that your terrible final judgement is tempered with mercy; you have given us ‘days of grace’ in which we have every opportunity to repent; turn and become fruitful, believing, willing servants of yours. Thank you for the Scriptures that that ‘trim our roots’ and plainly display how far short we have fallen, call us to repentance and direct us to your provision of forgiveness in the cross of your Son, the Lord Jesus. Thank you that they then go on to teach us how, empowered by your Holy Spirit, we can, in love toward you and our neighbours, live fruitful lives before you.
Questions for personal reflection or discussion
1a. From Jesus’ words in the verses leading up to the parable and the parable itself, if we live in God’s world as if there were no God and so prove fruitless before him, what prospect lies before us?
1b. If we live in ‘God’s vineyard’ but in practice ignore him and so fail to be fruitful before him, from the parable, why can we, justly, expect to be ‘dug-up’, ‘cut-down’ . . . to perish?
- As he did to Israel, does God still look for national repentance and the fruits of godliness, righteousness and justice? Have there been times of national fruitfulness in our own society? What of our own time?
- In what ways would modern society have us ‘cut God completely out of our thinking’?
- Do we have cause to thank the Lord God for his patience toward us?
- Do we have any heart to intercede for our nation and our leaders, and, for example, for Russia, Israel and America and their leaders in these momentous days?
- Have we a story to tell and cause to thank the Lord God for those who interceded for us?
- What, if anything, encouraged us to true repentance and the beginnings of fruitfulness?
- In a hostile world, how can we encourage one another to pray and offer ‘the manure of loving kindness and a word in season’ to those around us?
Pharisee and the tax gatherer, Luke 18:10ff
Zacchaeus, Luke 19:1-10
‘The planting of the Lord,’ Isaiah 61:3
‘Live and move and have our being,’ Acts 17:28
‘Doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly,’ Micah 6:8
A beloved vineyard, yet wild, useless grapes, Isaiah 5:1-7
‘Turn from your ungodly ways and pray’ 2 Chronicles 7:14
‘Do what we can,’ Mark14:8
Abraham, Genesis 18:22-33; Friend of God, James 2:23
Moses, Exodus 32:7-13; Face to face, Exodus 33:11
Nehemiah, Nehemiah 1:5-11
Daniel, Daniel 9:20
‘Interceding for transgressors,’ Isaiah 53:12
‘To redeem Israel,’ Galatians 4:4&5 See also John 3:17, John 12:47 and Luke 9:55 footnote.
‘Repentance and forgiveness of sins,’ Luke 24:47
‘Always lives to make intercession,’ Hebrews 7:25
Believe through their word, John 17:20
‘Not the will of God . . .’ 2 Peter 3:9