The Fruitless Fig Tree Story.

Luke 13.1-9.

Two stories before Jesus presented the Mustard Seed Story in Luke, he told the Fruitless Fig Tree Story in response to then-current events. Let’s start with the events, since they’re relevant.

Luke 13.1 KWL
Some were present among Jesus’s listeners at that time, who brought news
of the Galileans whose blood Pontius Pilate mixed with the sacrifices.

We don’t know the actual story behind this. We just have guesses. Most of ’em presume Pilate put down an uprising, and in so doing killed some Galileans in the temple area, either close enough to the ritual sacrifices to splatter blood on ’em… or at least close enough for the Israelis to object it was just as bad, and hyperbolically claim he may as well have splattered their blood on their sacrifices. You know how people can get.

But again: We don’t know this is what happened. The Romans are pretty good at keeping records about such things, and we have no record of such an uprising. It’s certainly staying in Roman character to indiscriminately kill people in order to keep the peace, and certainly staying in Roman character to kill people even in sacred spaces. The whole concept of claiming sanctuary is a Hebrew thing 1Ki 2.28-34 and later a Christian thing. Not a Roman thing.

Popular songwriter Ephrem the Syrian (306–73) told an interesting story. Remember when Antipas Herod had John the baptist executed? Ephrem claimed this outraged Pilate—’cause the execution was illegal. After all, John hadn’t done anything wrong; he only pointed out it was against the Law of Moses for Herod to marry his sister-in-law. Lv 18.16 Which is true after all. Anyway because Pilate couldn’t do anything to Herod, he decided the next best thing was to arrest and execute anybody else who was present. He found ’em in the temple, killed ’em as they were offering sacrifice, and that’s the backstory. Commentary on Tatian’s Diatesseron 14.25 But Ephrem lived three centuries after it happened, so again: We don’t know this is what happened.

What we do know is Luke kinda expected his readers—or his main reader, Theophilus Lk 1.3 —to know this backstory. And maybe Theophilus did. But we don’t.

Anyway, back to Jesus.

Disasters and karma.

Luke 13.2-5 KWL
2 In reply Jesus told them, “You think these Galileans were sinners.
Worse than all the Galileans, because they suffered such evil things.
3 No, I tell you.
But unless you repent, everyone will likewise be destroyed.
4 Or those 18 killed when the tower in Siloam fell on them:
You think they were worse debtors than all the people inhabiting Jerusalem?
5 No, I tell you.
But unless you repent, everyone will likewise be destroyed.

We know of a pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, Jn 9.7 but not a tower. Probably because it fell. Possibly while it was under construction; it fell, killed the workers, and was never rebuilt. Possibly it was poorly made—or well-made, but an earthquake took it down. Again, we don’t have the backstory. But it was likely another then-current event. One Jesus brought up for two reasons.

First, both Pilate killing the Galileans, and the tower falling on people, were disasters. One was the deliberate product of human will. The other was an accident. But if you’re planning to highlight this difference, don’t bother. Jesus treats ’em exactly the same. A disaster’s a disaster.

Second, Jesus didn’t want anyone in his audience getting the idea that Galileans needed to repent but Judeans didn’t. Disaster strikes Galileans and Judeans alike. Disaster strikes Jews and gentiles alike as well. Everybody needs to repent. Everybody’s a sinner.

The problem was the ancient Israelis—and present-day Christians, and really everybody—had and have the bad habit of leaping to the conclusion every disaster is a consequence. They don’t have any apparent, visible reason, but they happen because these people need to die. ’Cause karma. The universe needs to balance out good and bad karma, and destroy evildoers one way or another. Christians might credit God for balancing things out; determinists certainly do. But they act as if God is beholden to follow the laws of karma. He is not. He does grace. Always has.

So the Galileans were sinners, and the Jerusalemites were debtors (a popular synonym for sinner). So they deserved to die; and since everybody sins we kinda all deserve to die, as determinists love to uncharitably point out whenever disaster strikes. But as Jesus points out, everybody’s gonna die—unless they repent.

We Christians usually assume Jesus means we’re gonna die in our sins, and go to hell, unless we repent and follow him. And yeah, maybe Jesus means that too. But on a more historical level, in about four decades after Jesus taught this, the Romans came and destroyed Israel—and only the Christians among the Israelis were forewarned, fled, and survived. Unless these literal people repent, follow Jesus, and hear from his apostles to flee for the hills, they’re literally, in their present era and not the End Times, gonna die. Jesus might be talking about humanity’s need to repent, but he’s definitely talking about Roman-era Israel.

And karma really has nothing to do with it. We Christians need to ditch these karmic ideas. They’re not of God; they’re not his idea; they’re ours. They’re how humans imagine the world should work; how people explain things away when bad things happen to good people. But Jesus tells us no. Twice.

Not every disaster is God smiting the wicked, nor balancing out the cosmos. Some events don’t mean anything. Stop trying to find meanings in them, and connecting cosmic dots which aren’t there. Focus on what we properly oughta focus upon: Our lifestyle of repentance. On following Jesus, and pointing others to him. On loving God and our neighbors. On his kingdom come.

Now for the fig tree.

The Fruitless Fig Tree Story doesn’t follow the previous lesson for no reason. It’s definitely connected.

Luke 13.6-9 KWL
6 Jesus was speaking this parable: “Someone has a fig tree,
planted in his vineyard, and comes to check for fruit on it, and finds none.
7 He tells his vinedresser, ‘Look, it’s been three years;
I come checking for fruit on this fig tree; I find none.
Cut it down. Why should it waste the soil?’
8 In reply the vinedresser tells him, ‘Master, leave it be this year,
till the time I can dig round it and can throw manure on it.
9 If it produces fruit, it can stay.
If not, cut it down indeed.’ ”

Historically Christians have interpreted this story thisaway:

  • The vineyard represents the church, or the world.
  • The tree represents a Christian.
  • The vineyard owner is the Father, who’s lost patience with this fleshly Christian.
  • The vinedresser is Jesus, who talks the Father down.

The reason we know this is a problematic interpretation is ’cause Jesus somehow has more patience than his Father. “The Father” might insist, “Times up; we should see fruit by now; cut it down,” but “Jesus” sees our potential and talks his Father out of it.

Thing is, the Father shares Jesus’s attitude of wanting to save the world. Jn 3.16, 1Ti 2.3-4, 2Pe 3.9 Saving the world is their idea. Patience is a trait they have in common ’cause they’re God, and not in unequal amounts. Pitting them against one another presumes they aren’t One God.

So there are a few problems with the traditional interpretation. Something’s amiss.

What’s amiss is Christians interpret this story without looking at the previous passage. Jesus’s audience was talking about disasters, and Jesus brought the discussion round to disaster coming for ancient Israel. This story is likewise about disaster coming for Israel. The tree represents ancient Israel. Contrary to the Pharisees’ intentions, Israel wasn’t adequately producing fruit.

The people knew this already, and not just because John the baptist had said so.

Luke 3.7-9 KJV
7 Then said [John] to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. 9 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

Yep, Jesus is talking about the very same thing John did. Even used a tree, and cutting it down, to make his point.

Jesus brings up one tree, and John many. One can argue each tree represents an individual person, and I’m inclined to say it’s an individual nation. Either way we know God judges both individuals and nations—that sometimes unrighteous people like Jeconiah and Zedekiah get what’s coming to them, and righteous people like Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel get caught up in the disasters that befall their nation. It’s why we all need to be forewarned.

In his story Jesus’s landowner says he’s seen nothing for three years. No this isn’t a secret code for how many literal years Israel had gone wrong. Too many Christians are trying to crack a code which isn’t there. Don’t fall for that. The three years in this story doesn’t represent literal years, but a length of time where a farmer should reasonably expect fruit. It doesn’t secretly represent three “weeks” of years, i.e. 21 years; the LORD took a lot longer than that to smite Egypt for its sin of Hebrew slavery, and to smite the United States for its sin of African slavery.

The Father and the Son have the same mind about salvation, and if the vineyard owner and the vinedresser represent them, they represent a discussion the LORD has within himself about what to do with his fruitless people. It’s not one person debating another person; it’s an inner monologue within the godhead. It’s the LORD determining what he’s gonna do, same as he does elsewhere in the scriptures.

Genesis 18.17-18 KJV
17 And the LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do; 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?

Who’s he talking to? Himself. He does that. We now know God is a trinity, and while we don’t fully understand how he works, we know there are persons of the One God who have different wills, Lk 22.42 yet agree because he is One. The vineyard belongs to Jesus, the king of kings who conquered the world, Jn 16.33 who may decide, “Okay, this fruitless tree of mine oughta come down.” Yet the Holy Spirit says, “But I want some more time to work on it first. And if I don’t get results, then it’ll come down.”

So this is what God’s up to. Disaster was coming. (Disasters are always coming.) God sees his fruitless tree, wasting soil, and knows it oughta come down… and also knows if he pushes the tree just a bit more, he can wring fruit from it. He wants to save everybody he can. He’s still trying to.