The tale of the fruitless fig tree

An atrocity had taken place in the temple: on the orders of Pilate, some Galileans had been massacred, apparently in the act of offering their sacrifices. It was a shocking act on the part of the governor. What did Jesus think?

So begins a short section in Luke 13 which includes the tale of the fruitless fig tree.

A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 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?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.

This is a parable about repentance. For it was the challenge to repent (Luke 13:5) that was ringing in the ears of Jesus’ listeners as he told them this story. His call to repentance was his response to the issue of Pilate’s massacre.

When the issue of the temple massacre was raised with him, perhaps some people thought that those who raised it were inviting Jesus to make a political statement. It would not have been the only time im his ministry that people challenged him to make such a statement. For his opponents, inviting Jesus into the arena of political discussion seemed a perfect opportunity to trap him.

For example, on the issue of taxes to Caesar, an approval of taxes would be construed as an approval of the occupying forces and a denial of patriotism; advocating non-payment, on the other hand, would be construed as sedition. Jesus couldn’t win. Or so they thought until he silenced them with his “Render to Caesar, render to God…” reply.

In this instance a failure to condemn Pilate might similarly be construed as a betrayal of the cause, landing him in trouble with nationalists for failing to stand with them. A word against Caesar might quickly be reported to the Romans as evidence that this man was fanning the flames of Palestinian discontent.

If the issue had been raised in an attempt to trap Jesus in this way, he did not respond to the bait. In fact his reply ignores Pilate and seems instead to focus more on the question of whether the Galilean victims of the massacre were particularly deserving of judgment. Perhaps then the issue had been raised in an attempt to draw him out on this question: were the victims of the atrocity particularly bad sinners?

It is not unusual for tragedies and atrocities to raise theological questions. Where was God on September 11? Why did he allow an earthquake to cause such massive devastation in Japan earlier this year? What about Haiti, a year earlier? Sometimes people – even prominent Christians – take it on themselves to pinpoint what they believe to be the reasons for these tragedies, highlighting supposed sins in the background of the victims.

Such statements of judgment were not unknown in Jesus’ time. John 9 tells the story of a man who had been blind from birth. None other than Jesus’ disciples want to know whose fault this was. Someone must have sinned. Was it the man himself or was it his parents? Jesus had to tell them that this was not the issue.

On a similar note, when Paul landed in Malta, having survived shipwreck, a snake attached itself to his hand. The islanders assumed that justice had caught up with him. He might have survived the sea, but the snake would get him.

If there was any hint of similar thinking among Jesus’ contemporaries when they told him about the temple massacre, Jesus was not going to indulge them. A far more important issue than either condemning Pilate or passing judgment on his victims was the need for these people to repent.

Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Further, Jesus then added a second example. We don’t know much detail, but a tower had fallen, killing eighteen people in Jerusalem. Alfred Edersheim has speculated that these eighteen people were working on a building project for Pilate. Apparently Pilate had diverted money from the sacred treasury to build an aquaduct: Edersheim suggests that this is the project that the eighteen men may have been involved in when the tower fell on them.

If Edersheim is right, it would certainly add an interesting twist to the story with the involvement of Pilate and the diversion of money from the treasury. Perhaps, in the minds of some with strong patriotic tendencies, the deaths of these eighteen men was a form of judgment on them for betraying the Jewish cause.

Jesus closes the door to any such judgments and underlines his call to repentance.

Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

To repent means to change your mind. What has been acceptable up to now is no longer acceptable: because God says so. To repent means to evaluate and to rethink.

Jesus challenges us to repent. There are four perspectives to his challenge.

  1. The perspective of personal responsibility.
  2. The perspective of invested resources.
  3. The perspective of renewed grace.
  4. The perspective of limited opportunity.

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