The Unfruitful Fig Tree Read: Luke 13:1-9
On a day in the early spring some years ago, I saw a dogwood splendidly in bloom. I commented on its beauty to the owner of the tree, who stood nearby. “This is the first year it has bloomed like this,” he said. “In fact, in previous years, it was doing miserably. I thought I should just take it down and replace it with another. ” His explanation begged a question, which he proceeded to answer. “I was complaining about the tree to a farmer, who said: ‘Try giving it a few kicks.’” He paused: “I don’t know the scientific explanation, but last fall I kicked it firmly a few times, and look at the results.”
There is an interesting spiritual lesson here. Often blows to the trunk of our life help us grow spiritually. Hardship can be helpful. Yet, the Lord does more than that in His people’s lives. In our parable, usually known as the unfruitful fig tree, Christ tells us that He both digs around us and fertilizes us (v. 8) in order that we would bring forth fruit.
This parable has an interesting context. Verse 1 mentions a horrifying atrocity ordered by Pilate. Now bloodshed was not uncommon in the many conflicts between the Romans and Jews during this time. However, this time, human blood had become mingled with the blood of animals that were being sacrificed daily at the massive temple complex in Jerusalem (13:1). This would have been appalling even to pagans; much more so to the Jews. This would have desecrated their temple in a horrible way. And if the temple was not the boast of their nation and religion, what was?
Similarly, when terrorists brought down the twin-towers in New York, the attention of the whole world was gripped. All people spoke for days and weeks about the number of people who died, the rescue efforts and rescuers, the perpetrators of the crime, the stories of survival, the underlying causes, how to prevent such a thing again, etc. Man brings all his available wisdom to bear on the situation, and feels the need to say something.
Back in our passage, the people clearly wanted some reassurance from Jesus that they were different and better than the victims of the calamities around them. That way they could put up a barrier between themselves and the real message of the calamity. Jesus’ response shows this: “Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things?” (v. 2) These people wanted to rank themselves on a higher plane than these victims. If they couldn’t do that, they would have to face the fact that such judgment could just as easily have come upon them, and would, if things didn’t change. Would Jesus help reassure them? Would He, in the words of one of the prophets, heal the wound of the daughter of my people slightly (Jer. 8:11)?
At first glance, the parable might seem to have little or nothing to do with calamity. Nevertheless, the context shows that it must. And when you read it carefully, you see that it does.
Here is how the parable unfolds. Christ pictured a fig tree in the midst of a vineyard. For three years, the owner came looking for and expecting fruit, but did not find any. So he instructed the keeper of the vineyard to cut it down. “Why cumbereth it the ground?” (13:7) In contemporary terms, we would say: “It is wasting space and soil, water, and care that could be used much more profitably elsewhere.” Then Jesus records the plea of the labourer to the owner:
Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.vv.8-9
Jesus announced the theme of the parable already in verse 3: “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (13:3). The parable only serves to drive home this point (Luke 13:6-9). Its basic message is this: “God is still giving you time to see if you will bear fruit; if not, you too will soon be cut down.”
Calamities are reminders that God can take anyone away at any time
God has placed us here and God can and will take us away. We have not been made simply to breathe God’s air, eat God’s food, and drink God’s water. We have been placed on earth for the purpose of bringing forth fruit to God. The question is: Have we yielded the fruit that we were intended to yield?
National calamities are also messages to nations
Though the parable can be applied to individuals, in the first instance Jesus was very likely referring to the nation of Israel. The parable speaks of a fig tree in a vineyard. Israel was a unique plant among other plants; thus they were to bring forth a unique fruit. All nations rise and fall and God gives every nation an appointed time and purpose. God bears with nations, but He also judges them.
Calamities are reminders of the fact that we owe our continued existence only to the plea of Jesus Christ
The calamity is only a calamity; not the final judgment, which we deserve. Ultimately, He is the Vine‑dresser of our passage. On the cross, He interceded for transgressors, that they would be given a space of time for repentance (Luke 23:34). We are living on borrowed time.
Calamities are God’s way of labouring with us to produce fruit
Instead of congratulating ourselves that we escape calamities that have fallen on others, we should see calamities as God’s way of labouring with us. It is God’s forbearance with us that we might yet yield fruit.
Calamities have a way of unsettling us, and through grace enriching us
If you think of these actions “dig” and “dung” (v. 8), they have parallels in spiritual life. When a farmer digs around a tree, he is aerating the soil and loosening the encrusted earth. It is unsettling to the tree. Yet, ultimately, it can enrich it, especially if it helps the fertilizer to drop down into the roots of the tree. So too, calamities can shake us up and unsettle us; however, if God’s grace thus reaches the roots of our lives, it will produce fruit.
Calamities should produce the fruit of repentance (13:3, 5)
A lot of times, we don’t think of repentance as “fruit.” Yet, already John the Baptist called for the “fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). The Reformers often spoke of the whole Christian life under the heading of “repentance.” Psalm 51:17 says:
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
If calamities would bring us to offer true heart-sacrifices unto our great Owner, He would have His fruit.
- We may or may not think of others as worse sinners than ourselves; however, we all have ways of distancing ourselves from the massage God sends us through calamities. What are some ways in which we do that?
- What is a calamity that you and your nation have recently faced or are facing now? How does the parable shed light on your circumstances?
- Think about what it means to “cumber the ground.” How do we do this? What insight does this give into the life that God rightly demands from us?
- Read Hosea 14:4-7. In what way could you see this passage as a positive ending to our parable and what would it look like?
- How does God “dig” and “dung” the lives of His people? Give examples from Scriptures of how God did that in certain people’s experience.
- Do you think of repentance as fruit? Do you agree with Luther, who says, that “the whole of the Christian life is repentance”?