Have you ever considered the settings and situations behind the Lord’s parables? Did Jesus see a flock of sheep nearby when He identified Himself as the Good Shepherd? Was there a field in the background when He shared the parable of the Sower? Did the Lord see a red sky on the horizon when He gave the parable about discerning the time? The materialistic greed of a hearer in Luke 12 resulted in the Lord giving a parable about the rich fool.
Were These Worse Sinners?
The context of Luke 13 reveals why Jesus gave the parable of the fig tree. There were some who spoke about a group of Galileans who had been killed by Pilate. It isn’t revealed why they spoke of this tragedy, but the Lord’s response indicates that they seemed to believe they got what they deserved. Jesus said to them,
Do you suppose these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered such things? I tell you, no, but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:2-3)
Jesus mentioned another tragedy, eighteen souls on whom a tower fell. Did they deserve to die Were these men evil, worthy of death? No, no more than any other man. Again, Jesus made the statement,
…unless you repent you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:5)
All Have Sinned
This context helps us understand why Jesus gave the parable of the fig tree. He was surrounded by a crowd of people who judged others to be worthy of death, but did not consider their own deeds and what their due reward was. The apostle Paul revealed that all have sinned (Romans 3:23), and as a result, our due reward is death (Romans 6:23). Certainly physical death came into the world because of sin and comes upon all, but worse than that, those who have sinned are subject to spiritual death. Paul wrote of himself,
…sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived men, and by it killed me (Romans 7:8-11).
It will be evident to the honest Bible student that Paul is not speaking about physical death in this text, but spiritual. He does not say that death was going to come upon him in the future, but that when he became subject to the commandment of God, he died (verse 9). God’s commandment, which will bring life to the obedient, he found to bring death (verse 10). When he disobeyed the will of God, it killed him (verse 11). Sin resulted in spiritual death, which is elsewhere in the Bible identifies as separation from God (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9; Isaiah 59:1-2).
Fruitless and Heartless
With the understanding of man’s condition before God because of our sin, and the realization that in the immediate context, Jesus had just heard heartless people speak disparagingly of those who had died (possibly even in the act of making sacrifice to God), let us turn our attention to the parable of the fig tree.
Jesus spoke to them:
A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 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, why does it use up the ground?’ But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.’ (Luke 13:6-9)
A Fruitless People
What does this fruitless fig tree represent? Is it not Judah, the people of God, who bore Him nor fruit? Isaiah used a similar analogy in Isaiah 5, where he spoke of the Lord planting a choice vine, expecting to receive good grapes from it, but instead it brought forth wild grapes (Isaiah 5:2). Here what the Lord would do to His vineyard, since it would not bring forth good fruit. He said:
…I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned, and break down its wall, and it shall be tramped down. 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. (Isaiah 5:5-6).
This was the case with Judea of Jesus’ day. They were a plant which the Lord expected to see fruit from, but they bore none. They occupied a place in His vineyard, but had no produce to give glory to God. It is interesting that Jesus speaks of the owner of the vineyard having come to seek fruit from the fig tree for three years. Is it coincidental that Jesus’ ministry while upon the earth is typically perceived to be just a bit over three years in length? He looked for good fruit from the nation, but there was none to be seen.
God displayed His patience with Israel and Judah for a long time. He sent prophet after prophet to them, urging them to forsake their evil ways and to bear good fruit for Him. They did not. Eventually, He sent His Son. If the three years of the parable are representative of a three-year ministry for Jesus, the Lord was still being patient and seeking to find fruit among the people of the Old Covenant. There was none.
In the parable, a servant pleads with the landowner to allow more time – just one more year to dig around the plant, to fertilize it. Maybe the plant would respond favourably and bear good fruit. Is that not what took place during the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry? Was He not here on the earth, specifically with the Jewish nation, digging up the ground that had been trodden down by generations of apathy towards the things of God? While Jesus worked among the Jewish people, He not only worked the ground, but He fertilized it. Jesus spoke the message of God with authority. He shared the pure seed of the kingdom with His people, in the hope that it would grow and prosper in their hearts. It didn’t. In the end, the plant would be cut down.
That is exactly what happened to Judah. On the day Jesus was put to death by the people He came to save, God departed the temple in Jerusalem, leaving a torn curtain behind Him. In that same generation, a judgment much like that which was exercised through Assyria against Israel or Babylon against Judah came upon the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem in particular. The Romans besieged the city, and would eventually burn it and tear it to the ground. The fig tree was cut down.
Why This Parable?
Now, why would the comment about the Jews killed by Pilate provoke this parable? Here were a people slated to be destroyed because of their wickedness, and yet they had the gall to infer that those who died at the hand of Pilate deserved it! Their comment was the epitome of arrogance and the height of ignorance. It must have frustrated the Judge of all mankind to no end to hear those who would eventually come before His throne and be found guilty and cast out judging others. He knew the state of those whose blood was mixed with their sacrifices, these self-righteous sideline judges did not.
What might we learn from the parable of the fig tree? We too will come before the Judge of all humanity someday. He expects us to bear fruit, to do good, to obey His word, to give glory to Him in all that we do. Will we be like the nation He came to, indifferent to the will of God and unconcerned about the coming judgment, or will we be those who heed every word of God with diligence, preparing ourselves to enter heaven by His mercy?
Let us not judge where we have no knowledge or right to judge; and may we ever be of a penitent spirit, always bringing our sins to Him from a contrite heart. If we repent, He will forgive; if we do not repent, we shall die in our sin.