The Parable of the Barren Tree

The Parable of the Barren Tree

Thoughts on the parable of the Barren Tree- Please read Luke 13:6-9.

THE CONTEXT. a. The early parts of this chapter in Luke refer to Jesus’ call for national repentance. This parable, more allegorical than most of his parables, continues that theme of repentance, only the story is directed toward the Jewish leadership, the pious ones, especially in the Temple. This parable is not referring to the Jewish nation (the orchard) as a whole, but to its fruitless leadership.

b. Jesus is referring to some well-known biblical symbols in this parable. A vineyard has already been established as a symbol for the nation of Israel, in  Isaiah 5. Later on in Luke 20, a vineyard was a symbol for the kingdom of God. Upon hearing the word vineyard, every faithful Jew would immediately think of the Jewish nation.

c. It’s clear as  bell to the audience: the vineyard is Israel, the owner is the Lord God. It might have been clear to some that Jesus Himself was the vinedresser, the gardener. So some would have begun picking up on the idea that they perhaps were in the Messianic Age.

THE FIG TREE. a. This is the symbol for the Temple, the religious leadership of Israel, which is not bearing the fruits of repentance and spiritual union with God. It would have been sensed immediately that the parable was told against the religious authorities, as in Luke 20.

b. The fig tree was generally regarded as the most fruitful tree in that region. It had three harvests each year, and had ripe fruit ten months of each year. The fig tree was so valuable and esteemed that it would be unthinkable to cut one down unless it was barren for many years and thus considered hopeless.

c. To dig around the tree and fertilize it was common gardening practice. If it was barren, it would indeed deteriorate the soil and take up usable space. Also, the fig tree absorbs more than its share of nourishment from the ground, and so often deprives the surrounding vines of what they might need. It would be the gardener’s duty to cut a fruitless tree down if such was the case.

THE PARABLE. a. The owner/God has discovered that a particular fig tree/temple leadership in his orchard/Israel is fruitless, barren. He’s thinking of getting rid of it. He intentionally planted that tree to bear Him fruit. He planted the Temple and its leaders through Torah, His presence, prophets, interventions, and He expects fruitfulness. He wants a productive vineyard and a fruitful tree in its midst. The gardener/messiah pleads for some additional time of grace. He will give it special attention for a time to renew its life, to make it fruitful. The gardener then agrees that if he can’t renew it in the future, then he will let it be cut down.

b. Jesus knows that the religious leadership is not showing the fruits of repentance. As the Great Intercessor, He is asking the Father for a time of patient forgiveness to renew its spiritual life. Then Jesus says if, after a while, it is not renewed, then judgment is called for.

c. “Let it alone” literally means “forgive.”

d. “Next year” literally means “in the future,” an unspecified time period.

e. Renewal has to come from the gardener’s work. The fig tree will not come back to life by itself. The Jewish leadership can not renew itself. It needs the special attention of Jesus the Messiah, who will act to redeem the leadership, to make it spiritually fruitful.

f. When the fig tree is barren, it affects the surrounding vineyard. The same with fruitless leadership. God doesn’t want the fruitless leadership to effect the Jewish community or the kingdom of God. So He can’t accept this barren status forever. It is not sustainable.

g. It’s fascinating to note the discussion between the owner and the gardener, between the Father and the Son. It seems they are talking about the virtue of mercy and grace in the midst of spiritual expectation. God is longsuffering and patient, but He seems to be saying that the time is now to repent. This grace won’t last forever, evidently.

FINAL THOUGHTS. a. W can take this parable at the individual level as well. Christ has looked at the world and found us barren, spiritually dead. In His mercy He has worked for our redemption, through His death and resurrection. He has now renewed us to live a life of fruitfulness, especially thinking of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

b. As a Christian community and as individual believers, we are told time and again in Scripture to bear fruit: that a good tree is recognized by bearing good fruit; that if we don’t produce good fruit we will be cut down at the roots; to produce fruit in keeping with repentance; that we were chosen and ordained to go and bear fruit that will last; that we belong to Jesus in order that we might bear fruit to God; that we will please God by bearing fruit in every good work; that the wisdom that comes from God is full of mercy and good fruit. Fruitfulness doesn’t save us, it shows that we are saved. Good fruit isn’t what makes a tree alive, it is evidence that the tree is alive.

c. I want to hold God to a promise He made in Psalm 130:7-8: “O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love, rich mercy, and with Him is full redemption. He Himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.” God is without a doubt good to His Word, and He will indeed redeem Israel when the time is right.

d. The parable is open-ended. Does the owner respond in any way? Does the fig tree become fruitful? Does the audience get the point? Were there religious leaders in the audience who were offended? or challenged? or ready for repentance? We don’t know.

e. Where does the current spiritual leadership of the Christian Church stand with regards to faithful fruitfulness? If we are in a waiting time of grace, the Gardener working to bring fruit to the tree, then it behooves us to hold ourselves and the leadership accountable to biblical fruitfulness. Spiritual fruitfulness has nothing to do with popularity, financial success or size of membership. This current time of grace evidently won’t last forever.

f. When in Egypt, Joseph named one of his sons Ephraim. That name means “fruitful”, and Joseph named him that because “God has made him fruitful in the land of affliction.” What an amazing name! Would that we all live up to that name, and remain fruitful by God’s help, in the land of our suffering.

GOING FURTHER

  1. The Holy Spirit is the sap running through the tree (the individual believer) to produce fruitfulness, more specifically the fruit of the Spirit in Galations 5. That is how we are to be fruitful. Are you growing in the fruit of the Spirit?
  2. Ephraim is a name we can all take on, fruitful in the land of affliction. In what ways are your afflictions disrupting your fruitfulness? In what ways do you need more fruitfulness?
  3. The fruit of repentance is another important aspect of our fruitfulness. How often do you confess your sins to God and your neighbor in a spirit of repentance?
  4. God expects the Church to be spiritually fruitful during this time of patient grace. In what ways does the Church need to be more fruitful?
  5. God has promised to “redeem Israel from all its sins.” Is that promise still in effect? Do you regularly pray for them, our spiritual brethren, for their full redemption?

Resources: Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah; Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes; Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus; Henry Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible.

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