The Barren Fig Tree
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree - Luke 13:1-9
1 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” 6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
William Earnest Henley penned the following poem in 1875.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
That’s a ridiculous poem. But it is very famous and well-loved by many because they believe they are the captain of their soul. Our culture looks upon such people as brave, courageous. But we are not as in control of our lives as we like to think. We are, no matter what we do, fragile, always a breath away from death. And when tragedy strikes and people die in a sudden, shocking manner, we see we aren’t ultimately the master of our fate or the captain of our soul. We cannot stop the death that is coming for us, no matter the circumstances. And especially when death is tragic, as we saw in Las Vegas this past weekend, many wonder: who sinned? Why did it happen to them? What did they do wrong?
That’s the context of the parable of the fig tree. Jesus is answering questions about how to interpret tragic events. When disaster falls unexpectedly, how do we think about them? What should the response be? Jesus uses it as an opportunity to teach us about the constant need for repentance. What do we do in the face of tragedy? Repent.
Who is the captain of your soul? That is the question Jesus is asking. William Earnest Henley got the answer wrong. He was not his own master. If he was, he would still be alive. But death comes for us all. And in death’s dark night, what will be your response? What is it now, while the daylight still shines? If it’s not repentance, you’re doing it wrong.
What Repentance Is
Martin Luther opened his 95 Theses with, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance, to Martin Luther and to Jesus, was not one part of the Christian life, relegated to the first of many steps in the Christian’s path to glory. It was, rather, the ground upon which one walked to glory—not merely a stone to be climbed at the beginning but the pebbles leading the way.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines repentance as “a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of and endeavor after new obedience.”
Repentance is not only turning from your sin. It is turning to God. It’s not just feeling sorry. It’s being convicted, becoming inwardly humbled and visibly reformed. It’s a directional change in your life from sin to God.
It’s one of the foundations of Christianity, mentioned over 60 times in the NT. Jesus’ first words in his ministry were “Repent, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). You can’t understand Christianity without it.
Repentance is three things. It is turning from sin, turning to God, and believing the gospel. Let’s consider each briefly.
Turning from Sin
We can never begin to repent unless we first see our need to repent. Our need to repent is seen most clearly when we see our sin clearly. When confronted with the ugliness inside, we see a need for righteousness that we cannot achieve on our own merit. We see the stain of sin, the guilt of sin, the brokenness of sin, and we want with all our heart to turn from it.
We do not sin in generalities. We sin specifically. Therefore, it helps to be specific with our sin in repentance. Repentance begins when we see the specifics, when we stop generalizing and begin specifying. When we begin using I and my in relation to our sin, we step onto the road to repentance. Personalizing our sin creates sorrow over it, and we start hating our sin when we see what it does to our relationship with God. You’ll never turn from a sin you don’t hate.
Sin is always first against God. Every sin you’ve committed is because you loved something else more than God. And it doesn’t all happen at once. We sin step by step, smaller to greater. The earlier we repent, the safer we will be. That’s the point Jesus is making. When bad things happen, use them as an opportunity to repent. See your need before God and turn from sin.
Turning to God
If we think of repentance as only turning from sin, we won’t ever do it. We can’t. It’s too ingrained, too powerful, too alluring. What we need is a power greater than our sin. 19th-century pastor, Thomas Chalmers said we need the expulsive power of a new affection. We need a greater love to drive out our love of sin. And there is no greater love than God’s love.
We need to understand God’s heart toward sinners. King David understood this well, and he records it for us in Psalm 51. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love and abundant mercy.” He’s not demanding something from God but pleading something from God. He pleads God’s own promises using covenant language, God’s “steadfast love”—the love he promised to have for his people for all time. He pleads for God’s abundant mercy, the kind of tenderness a mother has with her child. In David’s fall into sin, he pleaded for God to be God to him. He turned to God to find the remedy for his sinful heart. The lower we go in repentance, the clearer we see God. Sin clouds our vision. Repentance cleans the window. In repentance, we position ourselves under the grace of God, waiting on him to pour it out. Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke comments, “Standing in the deep, dark hole of his sin, David looks up and sees stars of God’s grace that those who stand in the noonday sunlight of their own self-righteousness never see.”
Repentance is often view negatively. It is the thing we do when we sin or something bad happens. But Jesus doesn’t want us to repent only in the bad times. He wants us to repent in the good times too, because in the good times, we often attribute the goodness to ourselves. We think we’ve done something right, something deserving. But that is dangerous as well. We are not worthy of one single good thing in our life. If something good happens, it is because the Lord is being gracious and merciful to us. So, when something bad happens, repent. When something good happens, repent. We’re never free from the need to repent. We must always turn to God.
Believe the Gospel
In repentance, God doesn’t abandon. He heals. But it’s not painless. In C.S. Lewis’s book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there is a selfish boy named Eustace. He loved his treasures more than anything else, and one night he falls asleep with a gold bracelet on his arm, so happy to have it. He transforms into a dragon, becoming an outward manifestation of his inward selfishness and greed. He’s driven from humanity and in a moment of loneliness begins to cry. Aslan, a great lion, the Jesus figure, arrives. He offers to help Eustace remove his dragon-ness by removing the dragon skin. Eustace tries himself but to no avail. Aslan offers to help.
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off...
Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again...
After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me...in new clothes.”
To repent is to be de-dragoned, to be de-sinned. In repentance, we’re not asking God to be anything he isn’t. Aslan wasn’t unwilling to clean. It was Eustace who wanted to do things on his own. When Eustace finally asked for help, it flooded in. In repentance, we’re asking God to be all that he promises to be to us: heart-cleanser, spirit-renewer, Holy Spirit-giver, joy-restorer, life-upholder, sin-remover. When God washes us in his grace, we get our humanity back, we transform from dragon to boy. He blots out our iniquities, cutting it out of the official record book and throwing it away. He keeps us and recreates us. The bones that are broken don’t just mend, they dance. As soon as we admit to ourselves who we are and what we’ve done, we feel God drawing near. We see his truth coming down to us, teaching us things that we could not otherwise know.
Repentance itself is a grace. You may not see what you need to repent of right now. But in God’s timing, he will reveal it. The prime mover in your relationship with God is God, and he loves you too much to let you remain unrepentant. God created you; he loves you; he’ll bring you back to himself. And if you build your life on repentance before God, no matter what happens—good or bad—you will find yourself coming continually back to God in humility, and if some tragedy befalls you, you will have the pure conscience of one who lived open before God, honest with him about who you are and who he is. Repentance always moves us close to God. That’s why we must do it constantly. The gospel alone compels us to repent and has the power to change us. Only in the gospel do we have a message that says, “I know you’ve sinned, but your sin can’t keep my love from you because I paid the penalty for it.” We can deny our sin, we can beat ourselves up over our sin, or we can believe the gospel that God’s love has covered our sin. The greatest power for change is always love.
The Reality of the Fig Tree
Until we understand repentance, we will not understand the parable of the fig tree. After answering the questions of the crowd regarding the two tragedies (Pilate’s murder and the Tower of Siloam), Jesus reinforces his message with the parable of the fig tree.
A man plants a fig tree in his vineyard, but it never produces fruit. He comes year after year, for three years, to harvest and finds nothing each time. So, he says to the vinedresser, “Cut it down.” But the vinedresser asks for another year to cultivate fruit. If it fails another year, he’ll cut it down. The parable is short. It’s simple. But what is it telling us?
We can see the truth of the parable by looking back at the truth of Israel in the Old Testament. In fact, the fig tree imagery was used throughout. Hosea 9:10, for example, says, “Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel. Like the first fruit on the fig tree in its first season, I saw your fathers. But they came to Baal-peor and consecrated themselves to the thing of shame, and became detestable like the thing they loved.” Israel failed to bear fruit as they should. They even bore some fruit, but they failed to bear what they should have.
Israel’s lack of fruitfulness was not due to any lack in the provisions of God. They were not planted in the wrong spot, as it were. They were planted by streams of living water and yet still found a way to fail. God gave them every spiritual advantage. He gave his word, his covenant promises, his sacrificial system, his prophets and kings and priests. And yet Israel failed to bear fruit. Now, in the presence of Jesus, Israel stands side by side with the Messiah. Will they finally bear the fruit they should?
This barren fig tree was a problem for the owner of the vineyard. It was taking up space. That space could have been used for another tree, another plant, something that would bear fruit and bring prosperity to the owner. As it was, the fig tree was using the ground, the soil, and the vinedresser’s time that could be better used elsewhere. After all, what good is a fig tree without figs? Should he not cut it down and use the resources for some other purpose?
In the same way, what good is a man without an open heart toward God? What good can come of an unrepentant sinner? Should not God cut the man down and spend his resources elsewhere? The logic is sound, and Jesus uses this to send a message to his audience. “Do not worry about what sins these people had,” Jesus says. “Instead, worry about your own heart before God. Are you fruitful in repentance? If not, perhaps God will cut you down as well, and use the space you’re taking up for some other purpose. Do not look at these tragedies and wonder about their souls. Look at these tragedies and wonder about your own soul. Repent, for you know not when God will end your days.”
This is a sobering message—one we must not ignore. Jesus is not saying we do not matter. We are image bearers, his creation. But as his creation, we must do what he has commanded: love him and love our neighbor. This parable drives us to an evaluation of our own life. Are we fruitful? Are we bearing the good fruit of repentance? Are we growing, changing, sprouting forth new chutes? Or are we scrawny, fruitless, barren? It is not wrong to do such searching within. Many Christians avoid introspection because they feel it may lead to self-condemnation or poor self-esteem. Indeed, it may. But understanding ourselves as we truly are is not anti-Christian. A lack of looking within is anti-Christian. To go along assuming you’re fine and nothing in your life needs to change is anti-Christian. Christians should seek to live a life fully pleasing to God (Colossians 1:10). How can we do that if we never evaluate our heart before the one whom we are to please?
Of course, it is possible to focus so much on yourself that you become a motionless paralytic in your Christian life. We are sinners, that is true. But a Christian is a redeemed sinner. God is at work in our life, and to refuse to accept his growth strategy for us is to lop off our own limbs. We are not in control of our growth—God is—but we must not hinder his work of grace in our life. We must stay low before him in repentance.
When you look at your life, do you see fruit? If so, what do you see? If not, why not? What’s going on in your life that hinders fruitfulness? What do you need to repent of?
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
There is a very important aspect of this parable. Our focus on repentance is right. It is, after all, Jesus’s main point. But we must not look at this parable as a hopeless, merely terrifying example of what may happen. We must also see the grace and mercy residing within. Notice: the vinedresser is given another year to work fruit out of the fig tree. He gets to work, putting manure around it, cultivating it for fruit. Time remains. What will happen with it?
We are all fruitless to some degree, are we not? Even if we are doing well in one area, there are other areas of failure, or fruitlessness. But God is not calling us to account right now. We have this moment before him. What will we do with it? He may call us to account five minutes from now, but right now we’re here, alive, with an opportunity to live for him.
We don’t often think that way, do we? We see some moments as opportunities to live for God, but, by and large, we see the ordinary moments as stepping stones to the next big thing. We even have phrases (which I hate), “killing time” or “wasting time,” as if we have any to kill or waste. Every second of our life is a second to either live for God or not. What are you doing with the time you have? If God came now to examine your branches, would he find fruit or would he command the saw?
Let not the weight of this parable pass over you. Feel it. Let it sink in. Repent. The window of our life is not open forever. One day, death will make its dreadful call to our house. He will enter and unapologetically remove us from this world. But that time has not yet come. What will we do with the time that remains?
God is patient with us. He gives us time to think through our life. He warns us, giving us minds to understand and ears to hear his word. But we must act. We must respond to him. We cannot go through our life with the knowledge we’ve been given through the Bible and remain unchanged. We should seek to live before the Lord, fully pleasing to him.
Of course, we must remember that we cannot create fruit on our own any more than the fig tree can command itself to bear figs. But we can respond to the working of our vinedresser. We can allow him to do his work in our life.
What is Jesus doing in your life right now? Whatever it is, it probably isn’t easy to endure. Our sin makes God’s work in our heart feel painful. We create idols that God must kill. We have sin that must be surgically removed. The work of grace is wonderful, but it hurts. And even when we believe things are going well, God doesn’t stop at “good enough.” He aims for glory, and he’s bringing us there, step by step, throughout this life. That means even the branches with fruit may be cut off if God sees fit. His work is the work of the Divine Vinedresser, and he knows what he’s doing. We are merely the tree. We don’t know what’s best for us. But God does. So, in his grace and mercy, he will take measures that seem harsh to us but, in the end, are glorious.
In John 15, Jesus told us,
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
Every branch that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. That means that no matter what the Divine Vinedresser finds when he comes to us, we will not remain the same. He will cut us down completely or cut fruitful parts away, but we will not remain unchanged. Therefore, every single moment before the Lord is a moment of repentance. And when he takes even the fruitful branches away, we can be certain that his purposes are good. He’s giving us more time to live for him and to bear more fruit. So we accept his work with gladness and ask the Lord to search our heart that we may live in openness before him all our days. After all, we are merely a fig tree, planted in this world by the owner of it. We have no right not to bear fruit for him. We have every advantage to produce what is pleasing in his sight. And, the best news of all, even when we mess it up, the Divine Vinedresser is there to cultivate in us what he longs for us to be. We are never hopeless. We are never alone, without help. We are always in the presence of the one who can mend our broken heart, prune our branches, till our soil, and feed our soul.
In Christ, our soul has been conquered by his grace. Our head is bowed before his mercy. Our fears are stilled by his love. We are not the master of our fate nor the captain of our soul. We are instead the tree planted in his field, his to do what he sees fit. There is no better place to be.