The parable of the barren fig tree offers both good news and bad news. The good news is that God is merciful and willing to forgive. The bad news is that even God's patient mercy has its limits. Neither you nor I want to be on the receiving end when God's patience runs out. It's better to repent while we have the opportunity!
Repentance is not a fashionable word today. Its basic meaning is to change. It means to stop doing something that’s not productive or taking you in a wrong direction.
Jesus Christ spoke one of His most interesting parables about a barren fig tree. Here's what He said: "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 it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down'" (Luke 13:6-9).
Fruit trees require lot of care and proper handling to continue producing luscious fruit year in and year out. It's rewarding to see a tree bending under the weight of apples, pears, oranges or grapefruit. To go into your backyard and pick your own fruit you watched develop and ripen is both instructive and rewarding.
It's instructive in that we see how fruit develops on a tree. We see the bloom appear and then the first buds of the fruit begin to grow and develop through the months. Seeing the process teaches more than we learn by going to the market and buying the fruit off the stand. Fruit doesn't just appear in the grocery store; it's not grown on a delivery truck. It takes time and care to nurture and develop.
It's rewarding to take part in the process by which fruit grows. Your efforts combine with the work of nature to bring fruit to harvest.
The harvest of ripened fruit is the reason the tree is taking up valuable real estate. Satisfaction is so important in this process that when there is no fruit you stand looking at the tree trying to understand why it has borne no fruit. I've stood looking at barren trees and asked myself the same questions. Before delving further into the parable, we need to look at what Christ was saying before He gave it.
A message about repentance
At the beginning of Luke 13 we see where Christ had been informed about some "Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices" (Luke 13:1). It was an atrocity committed by the Roman ruler of the province upon the Galileans. We're not told whether there was any provocation. Was it done in retaliation for an attack on the Romans, or was it just done on the whim of the Roman governor as a display of Roman ruthlessness to keep the locals in fear? We don't know. However, Christ used it to teach a profound lesson, and as He often did, He moved right into a parable to drive home the point.
In Luke 13:2 Jesus responded to the news: "Do you suppose that 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" (emphasis added throughout).
Time and chance happen to everyone, Solomon once wrote (Ecclesiastes 9:11). We don't always control the events that can happen to us with the rush of events and everyday life.
Jesus was saying that these poor people were just like everyone else. They were human, with weaknesses and strengths like everyone else. They were going about their daily lives and were suddenly caught up in an event that happened to come their way.
In the next verses Jesus referred to another well-known recent event, the collapse of a building on unsuspecting bystanders: "Or those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwell in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:4-5).
Two stories from everyday life. Two calls to repent, to change the direction of one's life. In telling them that they could "likewise perish," Jesus was warning that they could be like those who, unexpectedly caught up in circumstances beyond their control, had their lives snuffed out in an instant.
That's sobering. We don't like to think about it, and to be blunt, most of us don't consider that life is really like this. But it is. There are no guarantees.
Every day we hear news reports of accidents, natural catastrophes and attacks that take innocent lives. People suffer loss of property, lands and rights because of actions taken by others with little thought about what's right or wrong or just.
The world is often this way, and we need to understand the implications. Jesus was being blunt—realistically blunt—with His audience. Events happen in this world over which you have no control, and sometimes good and well-meaning people—people just like you and me—get hurt. His point was that we understand this and do what we can and should do, realizing that time and chance could unexpectedly strike at any time.
Change and produce
Repentance is not a fashionable word today. You might even need to go to a dictionary to look up the meaning. Its basic meaning is to change. It means to stop doing something that's not productive or taking you in a wrong direction. It means to stop going in one direction of life, a direction that can be self-destructive, and to turn around and go another—in a way that's productive and even godly.
Biblically, and as Christ meant it here, it means to stop breaking the law of God and begin to obey God's law. Christ meant it in the same way He used it when first preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God as quoted in Mark 1:15: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." It means that through this announcement a new order of life is at hand and we need to obtain a mind-set that fits. It means to "bear fruits worthy of repentance" (Matthew 3:8).
Which leads us back to the parable.
An unproductive fig tree in a vineyard is pretty much useless—unless you're like Nathaniel and want to use it only for shade (John 1:48). And if it hasn't produced fruit for three years in a row, a remedy needs to be applied. It isn't that the tree is dead and incapable of producing. The tree hasn't had the proper care and feeding and is just there, marking time. It's like a lot of people—alive and breathing, but not really going anywhere.
How about you? Do you understand your life? Can you make sense out of this confusing, sometimes disorderly and uneven existence? Do you know the purpose for your life and what it can become? Forget for a moment the bigger question of "the meaning of life" and just focus on you. What is the purpose for you drawing breath, eating food and taking up space on this planet?
If you don't know, or if your answer is pretty weak and unsure, then just consider for a brief moment that this unproductive fig tree could be a symbol of your life. You are alive. You have a "place." But are you producing fruit? Are you living as part of a bigger, overarching purpose?
You can find the answers to these questions. And they can make a positive difference in your life. And God wants you to find the answer!
Extending time to turn things around
The vineyard owner's solution to this unproductive fig tree was blunt: "Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?" (Luke 13:7).
This is a hard solution, and a final one. It shows us a truth about God. God is full of mercy and compassion. He is patient and loving. But God is also a God of judgment, and Christ is warning here that a time of final judgment will come on a life—especially a life that has had opportunity, warning and the benefit of the doubt. When linked to the earlier statement "unless you repent," we learn that there's a way to avoid being "cut down" and considered of no value.
Don't be discouraged! The remainder of the parable shows us the way out!
The keeper of the vineyard answers the owner: "Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down" (Luke 13:8-9).
The keeper asks for one more year in which to work with the tree—to turn it around and make it useful and productive. There is hope and every expectation that the wise and capable attention of the keeper will produce a new burst of productivity so that the next harvest will see fruit on the tree. That is the key thought here.
We can see that God is in a dual role here as both keeper and owner of the vineyard. This shows us that God both owns us and gives us room to grow spiritually, but He also expects us to produce "fruit"—the product of a life of good works of righteousness.
Galatians 5:22-23 defines the kind of fruit God wants to see produced in our lives: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law." The apostle Paul explains here that these qualities are the fruit of God's Spirit. They are what can be produced by God through our lives when we repent and believe the gospel, surrender ourselves to Him and allow our lives to be led by His Holy Spirit.
This parable of a barren fig tree is meant to teach us a vital truth. Repentance is necessary, and it is possible with God's help. He is patient and grants us time to change and bear fruit. Yet at the same time, none of us knows how much time we have left—so we'd better get moving!
God in His judgment is always just, and only He understands the depth of your life. That He is aware and inspecting His "vineyard" to know the condition of each of His trees is a comfort. His desire is that none perish (2 Peter 3:9) but that all produce abundant fruit and inherit eternal life!