Fig Trees and Temples

Fig Trees and Temples February 29, 2016

Luke 13 begins with a discussion of guilt and disasters. Pilate had slaughtered Galileans in the temple, mingling their blood with the blood of their sacrifices. Jesus denies that the Galileans who perished were greater sinners than others. Rather, “unless you repent, you shall also likewise perish.”

NT Wright takes the “likewise” literally: Those who refuse to repent will end up just like the Galileans, slaughtered in the temple, sacrificed with their sacrifices. It is a direct warning about the coming destruction of the temple.

The parable of the fig tree that follows is on topic. A vineyard owner plants a fig tree in his vineyard. As in other gospel scenes involving figs, the fig tree is specifically a symbol of the temple, a tree planted in the vineyard of Israel. Having planted the tree, the owner comes looking for fruit and finds none.

In the fig tree incident, Jesus immediately curses the fig tree, and the next day it is withered. In the parable, the owner intends to cut down his fruitless fig tree immediately, but the vinedresser intercedes. There has been no fruit for three years, but the vinedresser asks the owner to wait another year, give time to dig and fertilize, and see what happens. If the fig tree remains unfruitful, then it will be cut down. Presumably the owner agrees to give the fig tree another year.

In context, Jesus is still talking about the temple: It has proven fruitless, but the vineyard owner is patient. He will wait to see if His care will be effective and make the tree fruitful. In the event, it doesn’t work. Despite the diligent care of the owner, the tree of the temple never produces fruit, and in the end it is cut down, stripped branch by branch.

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