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Luke 13:1-9

The Parable of the Unfruitful Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-9) works metaphorically to illustrate God’s character as both one who judges and one who is merciful in relation to human sin and repentance. At the level of the characters, this parable punctuates a discourse (Luke 12:1 – 13:9) to answer an interruption about the murder of some Galileans. At the level of the reader, who has a special insight into Jesus’ identity as Lord that the characters do not, this parable rounds out a series of agrarian themes images and parables that develop the reader’s understanding of Jesus’ ministry, repentance, and God’s subsequent judgment. At the overall level of the gospel, the parable receives the ending that it lacks from the following narrative and further illustrates Jesus’ identification with the lowly and his ministry of liberation. Overall, the resonance among these three levels to the parable draw Luke’s reader into a deeper and fuller understanding of both the Lord’s character with regards to human repentance, mercy and judgment and the nature of discipleship that entails following this Lord.

Throughout the discourse of 12:1-13:9, Jesus repeatedly holds up an image of God as judge followed by an assurance of God’s mercy and provision. For example, in 12:4-5, Jesus says, “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (NRSV). He then tempers his command to fear by relating God’s care for sparrows. He then argues from the lesser to the greater, “Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (12:7). The Parable of the Unfruitful Fig Tree also functions to temper Jesus’ teachings in 13:1-5 concerning sinners and death.

Regardless of the motivations behind the report of the Galileans, Jesus utilizes this moment to teach about the general need for repentance.  In 13:1-5, he challenges a certain understanding of the Old Testament witness that disaster come upon those who disobey God, such as in Deuteronomy 28-30 and Job.[1]   One cannot argue from calamity back to a person’s sinfulness nor can one assume that calamity befalls only sinners.  Also, disaster does not come to people because they are “worse” sinners than others.  Rather, Jesus concludes, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” (13:5).  All people have sinned and so all are in need of repentance.

Like the previous two cycles on judgment and mercy, the Parable of the Unfruitful Fig Tree illustrates God’s mercy on the heels of Jesus’ teaching on God’s judgment in 13:1-5.  The parable functions as a metaphor or image.[2] There is no need to allegorize every part of the parable by identifying the vineyard owner as God, the vinedresser as Jesus, and the fig tree as Israel, Jerusalem, the Church, or the individual (though the tree could represent any of these).  Rather, it is the action of the vinedresser that exemplifies God’s mercy.  The vinedresser intercedes on the tree’s behalf, secures more time for the fig tree to “bear fruit” (or repent (see 3:8, 6:43-45)), and provides care to maximize the fig tree’s potential to bear fruit.  

Just as Jesus has shown God to be one who cares for and sustains nature (12:24-28), so too, God is merciful and provides for those in need of repentance as the vinedresser does. However, such care and provision from the vinedresser does not eliminate the possibility that the fig tree will be cut down. God’s mercy does not negate God’s judgment. God’s judgment will ultimately come upon those who have not repented after a time. Holding God’s judgment together with assurance of God’s mercy undergirds an assertion Luke has already placed on the lips of Mary: “[God’s] mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (1:50).

The Parable of the Unfruitful Fig Tree complicates the idea that fruit trees produce, or fail to produce, fruit in and of themselves and, by analogy, that all people are equally capable of repenting. Sometimes people, like the fig tree, are planted in soil that could never lead to fruits of repentance if left untended. God is not a distant owner who condemns people for their unfruitfulness, as if God’s people were some far flung colonial holding. But rather, God is paradoxically both the owner and the gardener, intimately working within God’s vineyard, knowing all of the factors at play in fruitfulness and fruitlessness among the plants and thus can judge rightly. The land owner is the vinedresser. The Lord has come as a servant. Those who follow this Lord are also to engage in this same ministry of care, while keeping in mind that judgment belongs to God alone. The lack of the parable’s back story, which connects with the general lack of concern on Jesus’ part to deduce first exactly why people are in the conditions they are in, complicates any judgment from a human perspective. Jesus meets people where they are and serves them. Jesus’ disciples are called to do the same.

This parable offers at least three avenues for preaching. The first is to use the parable as a means for sharing people’s understanding of God, holding together judgment and mercy. This avenue could also provide you with space to preach about parables and how they work. The second avenue is to focus more on our response as followers of Jesus to the God of judgment and mercy that he proclaims. This avenue is particularly fitting for Lent, a season of spiritual introspection and discipline. How do we open our lives daily to Jesus as our vinedresser to dig around our roots and provide us with manure? Sometimes the workings of God’s grace is like manure: stinky and messy, but ultimately nourishing and exactly what we need. The third avenue is to see this parable as a summons to mission for the life of the Church. How do we represent the God of Jesus Christ to the world, holding together God’s judgment and God’s mercy? Where is God calling your church to join God in the work of liberating people from sin or whatever is holding them from a whole and holy life in God? [1] See Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (NICNT; Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 197): 514 and Alan r. Culpepper, “Luke,” New Interpreters Bible (Vol. 9; Nashville: Abingdon, 1995): 270. [2] Culpepper makes a similar observation, see 271.