One More Year
Luke 13: 1 — 9
This reading is made up of a warning (verses 1— 5) to repent or perish followed by a parable
Notes On Our Text
We do not know the exact circumstances in which this account takes place, but the location is certainly away from Jerusalem. Some people arrive where Jesus is teaching and describe yet another brutal massacre by one of Pilate's many patrols. Some Galileans had been offering sacrifices at the Temple in the prescribed way. Pilate's soldiers interrupted the ceremony and slaughtered them so that their own blood was mixed with that of their sacrificial victims.
It is obvious from how they told the story that they thought the victims must have been exceptionally sinful to have been allowed by God to receive such punishment. Our Lord is quick to point out how wrong they are.
"Let me be very emphatic"; says Jesus, "You are quite wrong. In fact if you don't repent of your own sinfulness you'll perish in the same way".
Then he drives home the point by adding, "And it's no use, either, claiming that the eighteen who died when the tower they were building at Siloam collapsed on them, were any worse than the rest of Jerusalem". In other words, "You have no grounds on which to compare yourselves with others less fortunate and then pride yourselves on a supposed superior righteousness. Quite the opposite. Unless you make a spiritual turn-around in your own life, you will suffer a worse fate".
There are times when our Lord gets rather abrupt. These usually occur when he is confronted with an open manifestation of an attitude of superiority. And this is one of those occasions, which deserves a corresponding warning. "Repent or perish!" And so he lets them have it.
But typical of his style, after hitting home very hard, he offers a way through what seems an impossible situation. Without delay he starts telling a simple parable. It is the well-known story of the barren fig tree. Fig trees and other fruit trees were sometimes planted in patches in a vineyard where it was awkward to get at the grapes. In our story the owner of the vineyard had planted a fig tree and went after a period of time, to look for fruit on it.
Since fruit could not be taken from a tree during the first three years (Lev.19: 23) this tree in our parable was presumably six years old, for he declares: "For three years I have been looking for fruit and so far it has not produced any". Meaning - it has therefore reached an age that if it did not bear fruit now, it was unlikely to in the future.
So he gives the instruction: "It's using up valuable space to no advantage: cut it down!" We don't blame the owner for a decision like that. It is completely reasonable.
Verses 8 and 9
However the gardener is prepared to speak up for the fig tree. "Yes Sir, it is not doing what you put it there to do. May I leave it in place one more year, and do what I don't normally need to do with such trees. I will give it very special extra attention. Perhaps its roots are struggling to find their place. I will loosen the soil and help them to go down and find moisture. It seems to need extra food. I will apply abundant fertilizer so that it has all it needs. It will only take one season to see if it will bear fruit. At the end of this time, if it has not responded to all the care I can give it, then, by all means, cut it down".
The parable ends here without a closing. It is, as we would say, open-ended.
Clearly, the gardener is Jesus. He has left his short parable open-ended because while he was certainly making a point to his listeners present, he has a message for all in the future who are willing to pause and listen to him.
The owner of the vineyard was entirely reasonable. He had every right to expect a tree to develop at its normal pace and in due course to mature — i.e. to do what mature plants do — bear fruit. If a plant has its development interrupted, and it cannot become what it is meant to be, then something has to be done. Something has to change. In this case, of itself the tree can do nothing. The loving gardener recognises this but also knows what the tree can become if only it will respond to the care he is prepared to lavish upon it. He therefore pleads on its behalf, needing only one season to test whether the tree will respond or remain stunted and useless.
As usual, in our readings, Jesus warns people not to slip into the dangerous rut of judging how evil others must be while excusing and overlooking their own actions. His warning is anything but subtle. However, he hints to those who ponder his teaching, that he can help us repent — help us turn our lives around. Like the caring gardener in his parable, if we are prepared to let him, he will "dig around" and apply all we need for growth, and, as he hints, much more.
This is a parable of the living Word of God at work. He will open up the ground and feed the roots. The tree must take it in, feed on what he provides and do what the Word requires. It is about listening with the intention to obey: listening to the deeper message, and allowing it to shape our lives.
It is a parable about the mercy of God who sends His Word to save what cannot save itself. But there is a time set-aside for this, and that time is already being extended. A positive response is expected: in fact, it is demanded. The message is addressed to every follower, and there is an urgency about it: an urgency to save from destruction.
We close with some fitting remarks by a 19th century scholar J. C. Ryle.
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