7. The Barren Fig Tree

Meditating on the Parables of Luke: 7. The Barren Fig Tree

Luke 13:6-9   Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’   “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

Preliminary:  This particular parable is short and to the point and taken on its own raises questions. It should not be confused with the time when Jesus cursed a fig tree for its lack of fruit but the meaning and purpose of that incident and this parable are the same.

The Content of the Parable:

  • a man has a fig tree in his vineyard but it is not bearing fruit.
  • he comments to the caretaker of the vineyard that for three years he has been looking for fruit but there has been none.
  • his initial reaction is to cut it down but his caretaker offers an alternative
  • he says he will dig around it and put manure into the ground; give it one more year and then if it doesn’t bear fruit, cut it down.

Context: There is nothing that follows the parable that at first sight sheds light on it because Luke takes us straight on to healing, but we will come back to that. Back in chapter 12, we’ve already seen the parable of the rich fool who focused on his present wealth, but this was followed by teaching by Jesus on not worrying about life. As if to redirect thinking Jesus then told the parable of the servants waiting for their master to return and then the parable about the steward who unwisely misused his position because of the delay in his master returning. It was all about the times and Jesus later declares, How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?” (Lk 12:56) Now when we come into chapter 13 some people started talking about the Galileans who had been killed by Pilate, but Jesus replied that they were no worse than anyone else and called on them to repent.  In fact he then reminds them of the people who had been killed when the tower in Siloam had fallen on them and again says they were no more guilty than anyone else and lays down the principle, if you don’t repent you too will perish.

Application? So it has all been about wisely understanding the times and getting right with God. It is into this framework of thinking that Jesus now brings this parable. Our temptation is to suggest that the fig tree applies to Israel (as it often does) but Jesus gives no indication that this is what he is implying. In very general terms he has portrayed a picture that says, the owner was right to expect fruit from his tree and failing that to cut it down. Nevertheless he is willing to give it just one more chance and then, if it still doesn’t bear fruit, it can be cut down.

Again time is a factor here. Understand the times, he said in chapter 12. Respond while you have the time he implies in his earlier teaching. Recognize that your time is limited and God will not remain patient for ever, is his teaching now in this parable. It is that simple. It is a further warning to make the most of the moment, repent now, get right with God now, before it is too late. That had been implied in the parable of the rich fool who hadn’t realized that his time was short.

How many times are there people who have thought they had years to go, years in which they might eventually do something about their spiritual state, and then a heart attack ended it all and the opportunity was lost. All of this present teaching in these two chapters has been about grabbing the time – carpe diem – grab the day, make the most of the time. The apostle Peter must have had this in mind when he wrote, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9)

Follow-up: Now we mentioned earlier the healing that followed. Jesus heals a crippled woman in a synagogue – on the sabbath. It is that last part that annoys the leader of the synagogue. But here we have yet another ‘time’ element to what is happening. Jesus is not deterred by the fact that is the sabbath because, as he reasons with them afterwards, they look after their animals on the sabbath, so how much more caring for people. Grab the time, don’t be put off by the artificial constraints that are sometimes put on us. Jesus was not put off even by fear: “Just then some Pharisees came up and said, “Run for your life! Herod’s on the hunt. He’s out to kill you!”  Jesus said, “Tell that fox that I’ve no time for him right now. Today and tomorrow I’m busy clearing out the demons and healing the sick; the third day I’m wrapping things up.” (Lk 13:31- Msg version) How delightful! Jesus expects us to be fruitful, making the most of the time. John recorded Jesus saying, All of us must quickly carry out the tasks assigned us by the one who sent me, for there is little time left before the night falls and all work comes to an end.  But while I am still here in the world, I give it my light.” (Jn 9:4,5 Living Bible).  Let’s do it. Grab the opportunities that crop up before you today.

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