The Parable of the Fig Tree: Luke 13.1–9
At that moment some people came up and told them the news. Some Galilean“ had been in the Temple, and Pilate had mixed their blood with that of the sacrifices.
`Do you suppose’, said Jesus, ‘that those Galileans suffered such things because they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, let me tell you! Unless you repent, you will all be destroyed in the same way.
‘And what about those eighteen who were killed when the tower in Siloam collapsed on top of them? Do you imagine they were more blameworthy than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? 5No, let me tell you! Unless you repent, you will all be destroyed in the same way.’
He told them this parable. ‘Once upon a time there was a man who had a fig tree in his vineyard. He came to it look- ing for fruit, and didn’t find any. 7So he said to the gardener, “Look here! I’ve been coming to this fig tree for three years hoping to find some fruit, and I haven’t found any! Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?”
‘“I tell you what, Master,” replied the gardener; “let it alone for just this one year more. I’ll dig all round it and put on some manure. 9Then, if it fruits next year, well and good; and if not, you can cut it down.”’
If the New Testament had never been written, we would still know that Pontius Pilate was an unpleasant and unpopular governor of Judaea. The Jewish historian Josephus lists several things he did which upset and irritated the local Jewish population. Sometimes he seemed to be deliberately trying to make them angry. He tram- pled on their religious sensibilities; once he tried to bring Roman standards (military emblems) into Jerusalem, with their pagan symbols. He flouted their laws and conventions; once he used money from the Temple treasury to build an aqueduct, and then brutally crushed the rebel- lion that resulted. These incidents, and others like them, are recorded outside the New Testament, and help us to understand what sort of person Pilate was.
So it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that on another occasion, while some people on pilgrimage from Galilee had been offering sacrifice in the Temple, Pilate sent the troops in, perhaps fearing a riot, and slaughtered them. The present passage simply speaks of their own blood mingling in the Temple courtyard with the blood of their sacrifices – polluting the place, on top of the human horror and tragedy of such an event. It is as though occupying forces were to invade a church and butcher worshippers on Christmas Day.
Remind yourself for a moment where we are in Luke’s story. Jesus has decided to go to Jerusalem at the head of a party of Galilean pilgrims. If today I was planning a journey to a town under enemy occupation, and was told on the way there that the local governor was making a habit of killing visiting English clergymen, I suspect I would call my travel agent and book a flight to somewhere less dangerous.
These people, then, aren’t simply bringing Jesus information. Two questions hover in the air as they tell their shocking news. First, does Jesus really intend to continue his journey? Isn’t he afraid of what may happen to him there? And second, what does this mean? Is this the beginning of something worse? If Jesus has been warning of woe and disaster coming on those who refuse his message, is this a sign that these Galileans were already being punished? Jesus’ stern comments address the second of these questions. (The first remains in the air throughout the chapter, until finally (13.31–35) we discover the answer: Herod is out to kill Jesus in Galilee, but Jesus knows that he must get to Jerusalem. Nowhere is now safe.) Yes, Pilate has killed Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem; but they were no more sinful than any other Galilean pilgrims. Rather – and he is about to repeat the point – unless you repent, you will all be destroyed the same way.
The same way? That’s the key. Jesus isn’t talking about what happens to people after they die. Many have read this passage and supposed that it was a warning about perish- ing in hell after death, but that is clearly wrong. In line with the warnings he has issued several times already, and will continue to issue right up to his own crucifixion, Jesus is making it clear that those who refuse his summons to change direction, to abandon the crazy flight into national rebellion against Rome, will suffer the consequences. Those who take the sword will perish with the sword.
Or, if not the sword, they will be crushed by buildings in Jerusalem as the siege brings them crashing down. Siloam is a small area of Jerusalem, close to the centre of the ancient city, just to the south of the Temple itself. Building accidents happen; but if the Jerusalemites continue to refuse God’s kingdom-call to repent, to turn from their present agendas, then those who escape Roman swords will find the very walls collapsing on top of them as the enemy closes in.
This terrifying warning, about the political and military consequences of not heeding his call, is at once amplified by the almost humorous, yet in fact quite sinister, parable of the fig tree in the vineyard. (People often planted fig trees in vineyards; it was good for the grapes.) Underneath the banter between the vineyard-owner and the gardener we detect a direct comment on Jesus’ own ministry, and a further answer as to what’s going to happen when he gets to Jerusalem.
There are two ways of taking the story, both of which give a satisfactory meaning and arrive at the same point. Jesus himself could be seen as the vineyard-owner. He has been coming to the Lord’s garden, seeking the fruit of repentance, throughout his ministry. (We might take the ‘three years’ of 13.7 as an indication that Jesus’ ministry had lasted that long, but it’s more likely that it is simply part of the logic of the story.) So far, apart from a very few followers, who are themselves still quite muddled, he has found none: no repentance, not even in the cities where most of his mighty deeds had been done (10.13–15). He is prepared, then, to give Israel, and particularly Jerusalem, the Temple, and the ruling priests one more chance. If they still refuse, their doom will be sealed.
Or maybe it is God who has been coming to Israel these many years, seeking fruit. Maybe Jesus is the gardener, the servant who is now trying, as the owner’s patience wears thin, to dig around and put on manure, to inject new life and health into the old plant before sentence is passed. Either way the end result is the same: ‘If not, you can cut it down.’ Luke’s arrangement of the material from chapter 10 onwards leaves us in no doubt as to how he saw the matter: when Jerusalem fell in ad 70, it was a direct result of refusing to follow the way of peace which Jesus had urged throughout his ministry.