Parable of the Barren Fig Tree

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This is Part 8 in a series about reclaiming the true meaning of Jesus’ teachings (Part 7 here). Today I’ll cover The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-9).

The 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.’

The Meaning

This parable was a veiled threat to the nation of Israel that God’s patience with them was wearing thin.

At the beginning of chapter 12, Jesus began a long discourse in which he addressed a crowd of thousands and warned them repeatedly about the coming judgement. Jesus continued this discourse in chapter 13, where He issued yet another warning to repent and then capped it off with this parable. To better understand the meaning of this parable, it helps to compare it to a very similar passage in Isaiah:

“I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.

‘Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.’

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.” (Isaiah 5:1-7)

Israel was a fertile land with a temperate climate, perfect for growing “wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9), so any farmer worth his salt would have had no problem growing a vineyard there. That’s why the landowner in Isaiah’s prophecy was so shocked at the poor harvest.

In Isaiah’s prophecy, God clearly explained that He was the landowner, the vineyard was the nation of Israel, and the worthless vines were the individual people. God was expecting them to demonstrate compassion for one another as evidence of their love for Him (good grapes), but instead He witnessed widespread evil and injustice throughout the land (bad fruit).

Just as the landowner in Isaiah’s prophecy had given the vines everything necessary to produce a good crop, God had given the nation of Israel every reason to demonstrate their love for Him:

  • God chose them “out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” (Deuteronomy 7:6)
  • God rescued them from out of slavery and planted them in “a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Exodus 3:8)
  • Though they were “the fewest of all peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7), God made them “as numerous as the stars in the sky.” (Deuteronomy 10:22)
  • God helped them to overcome many larger and stronger nations in battle (Deuteronomy 11:23 and Joshua 23:9).
  • God promised to bless their obedience with abundant prosperity (Deuteronomy 28:1-14).
  • “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.” (Romans 9:4-5 ESV)

Despite all that God had done for the nation of Israel, they continued chasing after foreign gods (Jeremiah 2:25), and their leaders constantly took advantage of the foreigners, the widows, the orphans, and the poor (Zechariah 7:9-12). After enduring hundreds of years of Israel’s idolatry and wickedness, God’s patience finally ran out. He removed the hedge of protection around Israel and invited foreign nations to conquer and enslave them (Isaiah 5:25-26).

Now let’s return to Jesus’ parable. Here, the landowner once again represents God, but this time it’s not the entire vineyard that’s in danger of destruction; only the barren fig tree. Instead of warning the entire nation of Israel to turn from evil, Jesus was pleading with individuals, warning them to repent before they were cut down.

Notice that the landowner had been waiting for three years for the fig tree to bear fruit, and the gardener convinced the landowner to give the tree one more chance before chopping it down. This is remarkable because Jesus’ earthly ministry also lasted 3 years, during which He was giving the lost sheep of Israel (Matthew 15:24) one more chance to turn to Him in repentance (Matthew 23:37-39). He warned them that God was delaying His wrath for just a little while longer (John 7:33-34, and John 8:21).

Verse 9 is particularly interesting, because the original Greek language adds weight to the stern warning embedded within the parable:

  • The structure of the conditional language uses two different types of “if-then” clauses. The implication is that it’s very unlikely that the barren fig tree will ever bear fruit and much more likely that it will be cut down, just as it was very unlikely that the people listening would repent and much more likely that they would be condemned to Hell.
  • Most English translations add the word “fine” or “well”, but no such word exists in the original Greek manuscripts. Instead the sentence ends with a cliffhanger, sort of like an ellipsis. Here’s how it reads in Young’s Literal Translation: “and if indeed it may bear fruit –; and if not so, thereafter thou shalt cut it off.” (Luke 13:9 YLT) Since it was very unlikely that the tree would bear fruit, there was no need to finish that thought.
  • Instead of “next year” the original Greek actually says “the coming time.” The uncertainty of this language made it even more important for the audience to heed the warning and repent immediately, because they didn’t know when their time would be up.

There’s one more reason that Jesus’ parable should have sounded familiar to the Jewish audience: John the Baptist had come very recently preaching a similar message of repentance to them:

“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:8-9)

The Judgement

God’s patience was intended to lead the Jews to repentance, but because of their stubborn and unrepentant hearts they just ended up storing up wrath against themselves (Romans 2:4-5). Jesus tried to warn the people about it, and He cried because they would not listen:

“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.'” (Luke 19:41-44)

Jesus even cursed a fig tree in real life as yet another warning to the people:

“Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, ‘May you never bear fruit again!’ Immediately the tree withered.” (Matthew 21:18-19)

This curse should have reminded them of the prophet Jeremiah’s warning:

“I will take away their harvest, declares the Lord. There will be no grapes on the vine. There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither. What I have given them will be taken from them.” (Jeremiah 8:13)

Although many Jews believed and became Christians, most of them rejected the Messiah and died in their sins. Sadly, God’s wrath was finally unleashed when the Jewish Temple and the entire city of Jerusalem were destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. Thousands of people were killed, tens of thousands were enslaved, and the Jewish Temple has never been rebuilt.

The Application

From this parable, we learn that we ought to examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith. A fig tree that grows mighty and strong but produces no figs is as useless as a cloud without rain (Jude 1:12). In much the same way, we must live out our faith by producing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and fulfilling the Great Commission, or else we’re as worthless as pagans (Romans 3:12).

Let’s make sure that our faith is genuine before it’s too late.

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