The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree

Pastor Kyle McIver


The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
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Even though it’s still August, it feels like Christmas is right around the corner in the McIver house. Now before you take me to task for skipping over fall - the best season in Minnesota - I’d like to do the mature thing and blame my children for this. You see, my kids work on their Christmas lists all year long, and the intensity has started to pick up now that the countdown toward Christmas has dwindled from the three hundreds, past the two hundreds, and down closer to 100 (it’s 133 days away if you were wondering).

It has become something of a tradition in our family beginning sometime each summer to start asking Siri each morning how many days are left until Christmas - my kids even make it a game to see if they can keep the count in their heads and beat Siri to the punch. And with the countdown to Christmas comes the many painstaking decisions around what will make the final cut for their Christmas list. Spiderman legos or Star Wars legos? A new My Generation doll or some added accessories for the ones they already own? If it’s something that makes noise, Dad tries to covertly remove those items from the list in hopes that my kids will forget about them…

Allie and I observe the same struggle in our kids each year with their Christmas lists: it’s so hard to choose what they’d like for their gifts because there are so many options. There are hundreds of lego sets in the Target app, and likewise seemingly countless numbers of dolls and accessories. And it’s honestly hard as a parent to see my children agonize over this decision. It’s always a challenge for them to narrow down the choices because there are so... many.... options. I think many of us as adults have become accustomed to this too.

When we walk into a Target there are five or six different kinds of peanut butter and an entire aisle full of different bags of bread. There are enough jelly options available as well that you could probably mix and match different peanut butter and jelly sandwich options on your choice of bread for a whole year! Restaurants do this too - they usually offer a “build your own…” option so that we can tailor our meals exactly the way we want them.

Of course, it is a luxury to have so many options, such a wide variety available to us. This is something we can give thanks for when we walk into a grocery store containing an abundance of food with options that suit our dietary needs and preferences.

But I wonder if many people around us have started looking at God like a grocery store or a Christmas list. The functional way many people approach God today is that they can pick and choose whatever fits their preferences or their felt needs and simply leave what does not on the shelf. But that is not the way that Jesus relates to the world. In fact he strikes a very clear contrast to this view in Luke 13. As we turn to our text there this morning, we’ll see that Jesus makes clear we have just two options when it comes to the most significant decision before us in life. Let’s pray before we jump in.

Jesus - thank you for speaking clearly to your people. Thank you that you have not left us to piece life together on our own, to guess at who you are or what you demand from the world. As we examine Luke 13 together this morning, please give us hearts ready to receive your word with humility, repentance, and joy. In your name we pray… Amen.

If you haven’t already, I invite you to turn with me to Luke 13. We’ll be covering all nine verses that Bob just read, and I want to give you a quick overview of where we’re headed. The first five verses of our passage detail a conversation Jesus has with a surrounding crowd over two recent, tragic events in the area. Jesus interprets these events and provides a very direct point to his hearers: repent or perish, which he then follows up with a brief parable about a barren fig tree to further illustrate his point. Here’s the order:

We’ll look at the two events Jesus discussed with the crowd and how that interaction sets up the parable:

...the parable to see how it draws out a profound picture of repentance.

...the motivations for and marks of true repentance.

Luke 13 opens with the crowd describing a horrific event to Jesus: the blood of Galileans had been mingled with the Jewish sacrifices. And we should note the language with which chapter 13 opens: There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. The short phrase, at that very time, links us back to Luke chapter 12 - it is a clue that Jesus has not started an entirely new theme, but rather is able to use the interjection of this story from the crowd to build further on what he has just been teaching them.

Now we aren’t going to dig too deep into chapter 12, but one of the threads running through that chapter is judgment and the second coming. Luke 12:13-21 and the parable of the rich fool serves to highlight the foolishness of stockpiling wealth as your heart’s treasure in light of the fleeting nature of this life, and the reality of the coming judgment. In Luke 12:35 Jesus begins teaching his disciples about the need to be ready - to always be watching and on guard because you do not know the hour when the Son of Man will return. And when he does return, he will require an accounting of your life and what you did with the time and resources given to you.

Of course, much more could be said about this theme in Luke 12, but even those two sections serve as a foundation upon which we can understand why Luke links the opening verses of chapter 13 back to the teaching given in Luke 12. So we see that the table has already been set - we have the pressing realities of Jesus’ second coming and the judgment we will face either at the end of our lives or upon his return. And when some in the crowd raise the recent event when Galileans were killed close enough to the altars and sacrifices so that their blood mixed with the blood of the sacrifices, Jesus is ready to respond and further press his point.

Consider that Jesus first responds with a question: Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way? In asking this question, Jesus is exposing a faulty assumption underneath many people’s thinking - both during the time when these events took place, and even today. It was common to assume that people who suffered greatly or died in very tragic and public ways were somehow getting what they deserved. “They must have been some kind of sinner to go out like that!” And I think that we might be guilty of this same line of reasoning as well.

Perhaps you’re someone in this room who hasn’t suffered much in life… we’ve all encountered challenges and setbacks and hard days to be sure, but your life has been relatively free from significant hardship and acute suffering. And I wonder: in the corners of your mind and the quiet places of your heart, do you attribute this to your own “goodness?” To your own “righteous” in that you’ve done nothing to deserve such suffering? Or maybe you find yourself on the other side of this spectrum - you’ve suffered a great deal. You’ve walked through profound pain and traumatic events, and find yourself asking “why me?” “What did I do wrong to deserve such suffering?”

Jesus’ simple answer to these questions is “no.” He continues in 13:3: No, I tell you; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Jesus rejects the small, self-centered thinking that believes we simply get what we deserve in life - that good people have a good life, and that bad people earn for themselves suffering and distress. He then reasserts this point with another example from current events, citing the tower of Siloam falling down and killing 18 people, and then repeating the exact same line of reasoning: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Rather than buying into the works righteousness “you get what you deserve in life” line of thinking, Jesus levels the playing field. Look at the way he presents his argument: unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. What direction is every single person headed - no matter how good or bad they may seem in this life? Perishing. What is the only means of escaping this fate? Repentance. Jesus pointedly deconstructs the flawed “you get what you deserve” line of thinking. And it is against this backdrop that he gives our parable for this morning, which we find in the next four verses.

This short parable tells the story of a fig tree. The fig tree has been planted and cared for over three years, but has yet to bear any fruit. The owner of the vineyard looks at this fruitless fig tree and decides it has soaked up enough time and resources, so it is time to cut it down. But the vinedresser responds in defense of the fig tree, asking for one more year to apply fertilizer and further cultivate the tree, to see whether it might yet bear fruit. If it does, the tree will remain in the vineyard and produce fruit for years to come. If not, they will then cut the tree down and remove it.

So now let’s press in to better understand the parable’s main components, and then we’ll see how it furthers Jesus’ teaching on repentance. The two main elements here are the first the fig tree and the fertilizer (and I know it says manure in the text, but you all probably don’t want to listen to me say manure 10-12 times this morning, so I’m going to roll with “fertilizer”), and second, we have the two people, the owner, and the vinedresser. And these elements are plain - straightforward. The fig tree represents God’s people - you could appropriately look at this on both the corporate and individual level, and the fertilizer applied around the fig tree is an image of the patience and grace God shows sinners. The dialogue between the two human characters demonstrates God’s character, shown here demonstrating both his justice and his mercy.

So the narrative of the parable shows us a person or people who are not bearing fruit. And justice for such a person demands that they be cut down. Now, why is that? Look at the question the owner asks the vinedresser: why should it [the fig tree] use up the ground? This fig tree has been soaking up water and nutrients from the ground, but for what purpose? If the tree bears no fruit, it is worthless to the owner and should not be allowed to continue using those resources.

And this image helps us understand an element of our own guilt. You see, God is kind to his enemies. He causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both the good and the evil. He sustains the most innocent among us as well as the most wicked by the word of his power. And if our response to God’s kindness is to shun him… to delve deeper into sin and rebellion rather than bearing fruit, then we will be held accountable. Remember that what Jesus demands of the world and the way we relate to him is not like shopping at Target - he operates on his time and on his terms, not our own. Trees either bear good fruit, or they do not. The same is true of us.

And this connects very clearly back to the point Jesus made about the Galileans and those who died under the tower of Siloam, doesn’t it? He first established the point that we’re all going to perish unless we repent. And this parable serves to reinforce those same two options while at the same time underlining our accountability before God. How can this poor little fig tree survive? It must bear fruit! It’s been planted and watered and cared for - the expectation is that it will then bear fruit. And this says a great deal to us about repentance.

Jesus was very fond of connecting repentance with bearing fruit. He didn’t see repentance merely as turning away from our sin, but also as turning toward him and his grace in a way that begins to bear the fruit of the Spirit in your life. That is the fullness of repentance. It’s not only turning away from materialism and discontentment but also then bearing the fruit of generosity and service toward others like Zacchaeus in Luke 19. He not only put an end to his corrupt practices, he then gave away half of what he owned and repaid fourfold anyone he had defrauded.

To give another example, repentance isn’t merely that you stop looking at pornography, you also start doing all of the good works that were missing because of its oppressive weight in your life - you lead your family and fully engaged at home, and cultivate friendships and discipleship relationships that you were previously either too afraid or too ashamed to invest in.

This turning away from our sin plus then bearing good fruit is the full measure of repentance that Jesus holds up for us here in Luke 13. And that’s our parable - short, and to the point. We can summarize the main idea of the parable simply as this: repentance is urgent and God is patient.

I want to put a little time in together this morning to make sure we understand how urgency and patience fit together in our lives. Urgency doesn’t normally fit right alongside patience, but that is the picture Jesus paints when it comes to our repentance. So with the rest of our time this morning, we’re going to examine both urgency and patience to see how they meet for our good in repentance. This is our final point, the motivation for and marks of repentance.

Let’s start with motivation by going back to the fig tree again. The fruitless fig tree was very nearly cut down - ended without ever bearing fruit. But what did the vinedresser say? “Sir, let it alone this year also until I dig around it and put on manure.” What is the vinedresser asking for? Patience. And what is he providing? Fertilizer. Here we find two primary motivations for repentance. And in saying motivation, I want to be clear that it is very much my goal this morning to draw you toward repentance. To persuade of you of the vitality and joy to be found by bearing fruit in keeping with repentance.

So what are we to understand in hearing that God is patient? Listen to Romans 3:25, where we read that in [God’s] divine forbearance he passed over former sins. And 2 Peter 3:9 where we hear that the Lord is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. We know that God’s justice is coming - Jesus said to repent or perish. The owner will cut down the fig tree if it bears no fruit. But God also delights to show patience. Heaven rejoices when even one sinner repents.

God does not immediately visit the consequences of our sins upon us. Think about that - every single one of us in this room has done enough to be condemned. God would have been just to do so many, many years ago. But we’re all here! We’re still breathing God’s air and drinking his water and eating his food and enjoying his creation. This is not what we deserve… it is an expression of his patience toward sinners. And without his patience, repentance would not be possible. The sentence could have fallen so many times. But if you’re listening this morning, it hasn’t. So there is time to repent - for now.

The one thing we cannot do is take God’s patience for granted. None of us knows how much time we have left… how long God’s patience will last. So do not wait. God’s patience toward you is not license for sin. Be drawn in by the urgency of repentance alongside the incredible, longsuffering patience of God.

Now for the second motivation, which we see in the fertilizer. What is the purpose of fertilizer? To promote growth! And healthy growth bears good fruit. The vinedresser didn’t simply ask for more time and then stand back and watch to see if the fig tree could bear fruit - he helped it along. He gave what was needed for fruit to be borne. In the same way, Jesus grants grace to his people. The fullness of what Jesus accomplished on the cross includes both the forgiveness of our sins and the provision of every grace that we need to walk with him.

Now in the same way that fertilizer for the ground is made up of many different ingredients if you were to break it down, so too is God’s grace varied and sufficient. Here are just four of the graces he has provided so that you might bear fruit in keeping with repentance:

1. Us
This room is full of people right here who have covenanted together as Redeemer Church. Within the church, we exhort one another and meet together and spur one another on in love and good deeds. And the church was purchased at the price of Jesus’ own precious blood - both for his possession, and our belonging. Belonging to and living amongst your brothers and sisters in the local church is a powerful means of grace on the path of repentance.

2. The Bible
Here we come to the feast our hearts crave, even when we don’t exactly recognize it. The warnings and promises, stories and instruction, correction and encouragement we find in God’s very words to us is like nothing else in all the world. The Holy Spirit loves to work through the Word to show us Jesus and make us like him. The more we read this book and hear this book and meditate on and memorize this book, we lay ourselves in the paths where the Holy Spirit loves to work and bestow a thousand graces on all who want to receive them.

3. Prayer
Our Father delights to give us good things when we ask. Our asking is shaped by our life together and by the Bible, as our hearts are transformed to be more like Jesus. And he pours out his grace when we pray - rewiring our broken hearts and renewing us as we repent.

4. The Created World
Creation is communication. God has revealed himself in the things he has made. And the glory of his creation-revelation is such that we’ve seen enough of God to be accountable for our sin. It’s proof enough of his existence, though so many deny this today. Creation rightly interpreted however ought to humble us, and aid us on our way to repentance before a God so great and so grand that he stretched galaxies upon galaxies with just a few syllables.

Church, Jesus is merciful. He is patient with us. He has provided all that is necessary for true repentance. So come to him. Our need is great, and our time may be much shorter than we think. Do not receive his patience in vain. Do not squander the opportunities that he gives you. Avail yourself of the live-giving patience and grace of God found in repentance today.

Finally, I want to provide several marks of genuine repentance. How can we recognize true repentance in our lives? Let me give you just a few:

Repentance is specific. We cannot simply say we’re repenting and following Jesus without turning away from specific sins. Genuine repentance requires examining ourselves and with God’s help, seeing where we’re walking in specific sins that we can then turn away from by the grace that he supplies.

Repentance includes confession and forgiveness. We do not repent in our own power or apart from other people. We need to confess our sins to Jesus and seek his forgiveness, and when we’ve sinned against others, confess to them also and seek their forgiveness as well.

Repentance creates in us a hatred for sin. Romans 12:9 tells us: Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. When we repent of sin, we grow to hate it. Its pull and power over us are broken because we’re moving from protecting our sins to killing them. Instead of sheltering and enjoying sin, we treat it with hostility.

And lastly, as we’ve seen in our parable, repentance bears fruit. The flimsy love and energy we once poured into sin is redirected toward real love for God and neighbor, yielding the fruit of the Spirit and good works toward others.

And this brings us to the table. Each week we remind you that this table is for those who have put their trust in Jesus - those who are bearing fruit in keeping with repentance. Eating at this table is a tangible reminder, a practical teacher, demonstrating for us that repentance is worth it. Repentance is often difficult in the moment, but it is the only way to Jesus. And there is nothing in all the world that we should hold on to ahead of Jesus. He died in your place to rescue you from sin and death, to bring us to himself by sustaining us on the narrow road of repentance and faith until the great and glorious day that we will see him face to face.