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The parable of the barren fig tree

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By Prof. A.P. Lopukhin, Interpretation of the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament

Chapter 13. 1-9. Exhortations to repentance. 10 – 17. Healing on Saturday. 18 – 21. Two parables about the kingdom of God. 22 – 30. Many may not enter the Kingdom of God. 31-35. Christ’s words concerning Herod’s plot against Him.

Luke 13:1. At the same time some came and told Him about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.

The calls to repentance that follow are found only in Luke the Evangelist. Also, he alone reports the occasion that gave the Lord occasion to address such exhortations to those around Him.

“At the same time”, ie. while the Lord was speaking His previous speech to the people, some of the newly arrived listeners told Christ important news. Some Galileans (their fate seems to be known to the readers, because the article τῶν precedes the word Γαλιλαίων) were killed by order of Pilate while they were offering sacrifice, and the blood of the slain even sprinkled the sacrificial animals. It is not known why Pilate allowed himself such cruel self-dealing in Jerusalem with King Herod’s subjects, but in those rather turbulent times the Roman procurator could indeed resort without serious investigation to the most severe measures, especially against the inhabitants of Galilee, who were generally were known for their wayward character and tendency to riot against the Romans.

Luke 13:2. Jesus answered them and said: Do you think that these Galileans were more sinful than all the Galileans, that they suffered thus?

The question of the Lord was probably dictated by the circumstance that those who brought Him the news of the destruction of the Galileans were inclined to see in this terrible destruction God’s punishment for some particular sin committed by those who perished.

“were” – it is more correct: they became (ἐγένοντο) or punished themselves precisely by their destruction.

Luke 13:3. No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish.

Christ took advantage of this occasion to exhort His hearers. The extermination of the Galileans, according to His prediction, foreshadows the destruction of the entire Jewish nation, in case, of course, the people remain unrepentant in their opposition to God, Who now requires them to accept Christ.

Luke 13:4. Or do you think that those eighteen people on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them were more guilty than all those living in Jerusalem?

It is not only the case of the Galileans that can strike the mind and the heart. The Lord points to another apparently very recent event, namely, the fall of the Tower of Siloam, which crushed eighteen men under its rubble. Were those who perished more sinful before God than the rest of the inhabitants of Jerusalem?

“The Tower of Siloam”. It is not known what this tower was. It is only clear that it stood in close proximity to the Spring of Siloam (ἐν τῷ Σιλωάμ), which flowed at the foot of Mount Zion, on the south side of Jerusalem.

Luke 13:5. No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish.

“all” is again an allusion to the possibility of the destruction of the entire nation.

It cannot be inferred from this that Christ rejected any connection between sin and punishment, “as a vulgar Jewish notion,” as Strauss puts it (“The Life of Jesus”). No, Christ recognized the connection between human suffering and sin (cf. Matt. 9:2), but did not recognize only the authority of men to establish this connection according to their own considerations in each individual case. He wanted to teach people that when they see the sufferings of others, they should strive to look into the condition of their own souls and see in the punishment that befalls their neighbor, the warning that God sends them. Yes, here the Lord is warning people against that cold complacency that is often manifested among Christians, who see the sufferings of their neighbor and pass them by indifferently with the words: “He deserved it…”.

Luke 13:6. And he said this parable: a man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came to look for fruit on it, but found none;

To show how necessary repentance is now for the Jewish people, the Lord tells the parable of the barren fig tree, from which the owner of the vineyard is still waiting for fruit, but – and this is the conclusion that can be drawn from what has been said – his patience may soon be exhausted. run out and he will cut her off.

“and said”, that is, Christ addresses the crowds standing around him (Luke 12:44).

“in his vineyard… a fig tree”. In Palestine figs and apples grow in the bread fields and vineyards where the soil permits (Trench, p. 295).

Luke 13:7. and he said to the vinedresser: behold, for three years I have been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree, and I have not found any; cut it down: why should it only deplete the earth?

“I’ve been coming for three years”. More precisely: “three years have passed since I began to come” (τρία ἔτη, ἀφ´ οὗ).

“why only deplete the earth”. Land in Palestine is very expensive, as it affords the opportunity to plant fruit trees on it. “Depletes” – takes away the strength of the earth – moisture (καταργεῖ).

Luke 13:8. But he answered him and said: master, leave it this year too, until I dig it up and fill it with manure,

“dig up and fill with fertilizer”. These were extreme measures to make the fig tree fertile (as it is still done with orange trees in southern Italy, – Trench, p. 300).

Luke 13:9. and if it bears fruit, good; if not, next year you will cut it off.

“if not, next year you will cut it off”. This translation is not entirely clear. Why should a fig tree that has turned out to be barren be cut down only “next year”? After all, the owner has told the vintner that she wastes the soil in vain, so he must get rid of her immediately after the last and final attempt to make it fertile. There is no reason to wait another year. Therefore, here it is better to accept the reading established by Tischendorf: “Perhaps it will bear fruit next year?”. (κἂν μὲν ποιήσῃ καρπόν εἰς τὸ μέλλον) If not, cut it down.” We must wait until next year, however, because this year the fig tree will still be fertilized.

In the parable of the barren fig tree, God wants to show the Jews that His appearance as the Messiah is the last attempt that God makes to call the Jewish people to repentance, and that after the failure of this attempt, the people have no choice but to expects an imminent end.

But besides this direct meaning of the parable, it also has a mysterious one. It is the barren fig tree that signifies “every” nation and “every” state and church that do not fulfill their God-given purpose and must therefore be removed from their place (cf. Rev. 2:5 to the angel of the Ephesian church: ” I will remove your lamp from its place if you do not repent”).

Moreover, in the intercession of the vinedresser for the fig tree, the fathers of the Church see the intercession of Christ for sinners, or the intercession of the Church for the world, or of the righteous members of the Church for the unrighteous.

As for the “three years” mentioned in the parable, some interpreters have seen in them a signification of the three periods of the Divine household – the law, the prophets and Christ; others have seen in them a signification of the three years’ ministry of Christ.

Luke 13:10. In one of the synagogues He taught on the Sabbath;

Only the evangelist Luke tells about the healing of the weak woman on Saturday. In the synagogue on the Sabbath, the Lord heals the stooped woman, and the head of the synagogue, although indirectly in His address to the people, blames Him for this action, because Christ broke the Sabbath rest.

Then Christ rebukes the hypocritical zealot for the law and his ilk, pointing out that even on the Sabbath the Jews made their cattle drink, thus violating their prescribed rest. This denunciation made the opponents of Christ ashamed, and the people began to rejoice at the miracles that Christ performed.

Luke 13:11. and here is a woman of infirm spirit for eighteen years; she was hunched over and couldn’t stand up at all.

“with feeble spirit” (πνεῦμα ἔχουσα ἀσθενείας), i.e. demon that weakened her muscles (see verse 16).

Luke 13:12. When Jesus saw her, he called her and said to her: woman, you are freed from your infirmity!

“you break free”. More precisely: “you are freed” (ἀπολέλυσαι), the impending event being represented as having already taken place.

Luke 13:13. And laid His hands upon her; and immediately she stood up and praised God.

Luke 13:14. At this the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, spoke and said to the people: there are six days during which one must work; in them come and be healed, not on the Sabbath day.

“the ruler of the synagogue” (ἀρχισυνάγωγος). (cf. the interpretation of Matt. 4:23).

“being resentful that Jesus healed on the Sabbath.” (cf. the interpretation of Mark 3:2).

“said to the people”. He was afraid to turn directly to Christ because the people were clearly on the side of Christ (see v. 17).

Luke 13:15. The Lord answered him and said: hypocrite, does not each of you untie his ox or his donkey from the manger on the Sabbath and lead it to water?

“hypocrite”. According to the more accurate reading “hypocrites”. Thus the Lord calls the head of the synagogue and the other representatives of the church authorities who stand next to the head (Evthymius Zigaben), because under the pretext of observing exactly the Sabbath law, they actually wanted to shame Christ.

“doesn’t it lead?” According to the Talmud, it was also permitted to bathe animals on the Sabbath.

Luke 13:16. And this daughter of Abraham whom Satan has bound for eighteen years, should she not be freed from these bonds on the Sabbath day?

“that daughter of Abraham”. The Lord completes the thought expressed in the preceding verse. If for the animals the strictness of the Sabbath law can be violated, even more so for the woman descended from the great Abraham, it is possible to violate the Sabbath – in order to free her suffering from the disease that Satan caused her (Satan is represented as having bound her through some of her employees – the demons).

Luke 13:17. And when He spake this, all that were against Him were ashamed; and all the people rejoiced for all the glorious works which he did.

“for all the glorious works done by Him” (τοῖς γενομένοις), by which the works of Christ are signified as continuing.

Luke 13:18. And He said: what is the kingdom of God like, and what can I liken it to?

For an explanation of the parables of the mustard seed and leaven cf. the interpretation to Matt. 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; Matt. 13:33). According to the Gospel of Luke, these two parables were spoken in the synagogue, and here they are quite appropriate, since in verse 10 it is said that the Lord “taught” in the synagogue, but what His teaching consisted of – that is not what the evangelist says there and now compensates for this omission.

Luke 13:19. It is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden; it grew and became a great tree, and the birds of the air made their nests in its branches.

“in his garden”, i.e. he keeps it under close supervision and constantly takes care of it (Matt.13:31: “in his fields”).

Luke 13:20. And again he said: to what shall I liken the kingdom of God?

Luke 13:21. It looks like leaven that a woman took and put in three measures of flour until it all soured.

Luke 13:22. And he passed through cities and villages, teaching and going to Jerusalem.

The evangelist again (cf. Luke 9:51 – 53) reminds his readers that the Lord, passing through towns and villages (most likely the evangelist is referring here to the towns and villages of Perea, the region beyond the Jordan, which is usually used for traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem), went to Jerusalem. He finds it necessary to recall here this purpose of the Lord’s journey because of the Lord’s predictions of the nearness of His death and of the judgment upon Israel, which, of course, are closely connected with the purpose of Christ’s journey.

Luke 13:23. And someone said to Him: Lord, are there few who are being saved? He said to them:

“someone” – a person who, in all probability, did not belong to the number of Christ’s disciples, but who came out of the crowd of people around Jesus. This is evident from the fact that in answering his question, the Lord addresses the crowd as a whole.

“are there few who are saved”. This question was not dictated by the strictness of Christ’s moral requirements, nor was it simply a question of curiosity, but, as is evident from Christ’s answer, it was based on the proud consciousness that the questioner belonged to those who would surely be saved . Salvation here is understood as deliverance from eternal destruction through acceptance into the glorious Kingdom of God (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18).

Luke 13:24. strive to enter through the narrow doors; for I tell you, many will seek to enter, and will not be able.

(cf. the interpretation of Matt. 7:13).

The evangelist Luke reinforces Matthew’s point because instead of “enter” he puts “strive to enter” (ἀγωνίζεσθε εἰσελθεῖν), implying the serious effort that will be required to enter the glorious Kingdom of God.

“many will seek to enter in” – when the time for the home building of salvation has already passed.

“they will not be able” because they did not repent in time.

Luke 13:25. After the master of the house gets up and shuts the door, and you who are left outside, start knocking at the door and crying: Lord, Lord, open to us! and when He opened you and said: I do not know you where you are from, –

Luke 13:26. then you will begin to say: we ate and drank before You, and in our streets You taught.

Luke 13:27. And He will say: I tell you, I do not know where you are from; depart from Me, all ye that work iniquity.

Announcing the judgment of the entire Jewish people, Christ represents God as the master of a house waiting for his friends to come to dinner. The hour comes when the doors of the house must be locked, and the master himself does this. But as soon as he locks the doors, the Jewish people (“you”), who have come too late, start asking to be admitted to the dinner and knocking on the door.

But then the householder, ie. God, will tell these tardy visitors that he does not know whence they come, ie. what family they are from (cf. John 7:27); in any case they do not belong to His house, but to some other, unknown to Him (cf. Matt. 25:11-12). Then the Jews will point out the fact that they ate and drank before Him, ie. that they are His close friends, that He taught in the streets of their cities (the speech clearly already passes into a picture of Christ’s relations with the Jewish people). But the Host will again tell them that they are strangers to Him, and therefore they must go away as unrighteous, i.e. wicked, stubborn unrepentant people (cf. Matt. 7:22 – 23). In Matthew these words mean false prophets.

Luke 13:28. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves cast out.

The conclusion of the preceding discourse depicts the sad condition of the rejected Jews, who, to their greatest chagrin, will see that access to the Kingdom of God is open to other nations (cf. Matt. 8:11-12).

“where” you will be banished.

Luke 13:29. And they will come from the east and the west, and the north and the south, and they will sit at the table in the kingdom of God.

Luke 13:30. And behold, there are last who shall be first, and there are first who shall be last.

“last”. These are the Gentiles whom the Jews did not consider worthy to be admitted to the kingdom of God, and the “first” are the Jewish people who were promised the kingdom of the Messiah (see Acts 10:45).

Luke 13:31. On the same day some Pharisees came and said to Him: get out and leave here, because Herod wants to kill You.

The Pharisees went to Christ to warn Him of the plans of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee (see Luke 3:1). From the fact that later (v. 32) the Lord calls Herod a “fox”, i.e. cunning being, we can safely say that the Pharisees came by order of Herod himself, who was very displeased that Christ had been in his dominions for so long (Perea, where Christ was at that time, also belonged to the dominions of Herod). Herod was afraid to take any open measures against Christ because of the respect with which the people received him. Therefore Herod ordered the Pharisees to suggest to Christ that he was in danger from the tetrarch in Perea. The Pharisees thought it best to persuade Christ to go quickly to Jerusalem, where, as they knew, He would certainly not be pardoned.

Luke 13:32. And he said to them: go and say to that fox: behold, I cast out demons, and I heal today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will finish;

The Lord answers the Pharisees: “Go, tell this fox” who sent you, i.e. of Herod.

“today”. This expression signifies a definite time known to Christ, during which He would remain in Perea, in spite of all the plans and threats of Herod.

“I will finish”, (τελειοῦμαι, which is everywhere in the New Testament used as a passive participle), or – I will come to the end. But what “end” does Christ mean here? Is this not His death? Some teachers of the Church and ecclesiastical writers (the blessed Theophylact, Euthymius Zigaben) and many Western scholars have understood the expression in this sense. But, in our opinion, the Lord here undoubtedly speaks of the end of His present activity, which consists in casting out demons from men and healing diseases, and which takes place here in Perea. After that, another activity will begin – in Jerusalem.

Luke 13:33. but I must go to-day, to-morrow, and other days, for a prophet should not perish outside Jerusalem.

“I have to go”. This verse is very difficult to understand because it is not clear, first, what “walking” the Lord is referring to, and, second, it is not clear what this has to do with the fact that prophets were usually killed in Jerusalem. Therefore, some of the more recent commentators consider this verse to be structurally incorrect and suggest the following reading: “Today and tomorrow I must walk (i.e. perform healings here), but the next day I must go on a journey further away , because it does not happen that a prophet perishes outside of Jerusalem” (J. Weiss). But this text does not give us any reason to think that Christ decided to depart from Perea: there is no expression “from here”, nor any hint of a change in Christ’s activity. That is why B. Weiss offers a better interpretation: “Certainly, however, it is necessary for Christ to continue his journey as Herod wishes. But this does not in the least depend on Herod’s treacherous designs: Christ must, as before, go from one place to another (v. 22) at a fixed time. The purpose of His journey is not to escape; on the contrary, it is Jerusalem, for He knows that as a prophet He can and must die only there.”

As for the remark about all the prophets perishing in Jerusalem, this is of course hyperbole, as not all prophets met their death in Jerusalem (e.g. John the Baptist was executed at Mahera). The Lord spoke these words in bitterness because of the attitude of the capital of David towards God’s messengers.

Luke 13:34. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you! How many times have I wanted to gather your children as a hen gathers it’s chickens under her wings, and you didn’t cry! (Cf. the interpretation of Matt. 23:37-39).

In Matthew this statement about Jerusalem is the conclusion of the rebuke against the Pharisees, but here it has a greater connection with the previous speech of Christ than in Matthew. In the Gospel of Luke, Christ addresses Jerusalem from a distance. It is probably during the last words (of verse 33) that He turns His face toward Jerusalem and makes this mournful address to the center of the theocracy.

Luke 13:35. Behold, your home is left to you desolate. And I tell you that you will not see Me until the time comes for you to say: blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!

“I tell you”. In the evangelist Matthew: “because I say to you”. The difference between the two expressions is as follows: in Matthew the Lord predicts the desolation of Jerusalem as a consequence of His departure from the city, while in Luke the Lord says that in this state of rejection in which Jerusalem will find itself, He will not come to its aid , as the inhabitants of Jerusalem might expect: “However sad your situation may be, I will not come to protect you until …” etc. – i.e. until the whole nation repents of its unbelief in Christ and turns to Him, which will happen before His Second Coming (cf. Rom. 11:25ff.).

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