Luke 13:1-9 (NRSVCE)
It’s easy to see the symbolism in the parable of the barren fig tree. God owns the garden, and He plants a fig tree expecting it to bear fruit. The fig tree could be taken to be Israel here, but also it could just refer to an individual. God sends a gardener to tend the tree, to help it along so that it would bear fruit. “For three years” the gardener does this (the duration of Jesus’ public ministry), and every year God sees no fruit is being brought forth. In His justice, He seeks to cut it down. But the gardener, Jesus, intercedes on behalf of the tree and promises to tend it some more, so that it might bear fruit. At this point Jesus has not yet concluded his public ministry, and there are a great many miracles yet to come. Jesus promises to tend us, to nurture us, to give us everything we need in order to bear fruit. But we must act as well. We must accept the pruning and take the fertilizer and the water and turn it into fruit. We must allow the gardener to work in our lives.
That this parable is given immediately after a call to repentance is no coincidence. Jesus is making a very pointed statement here. If you do not repent, you will die, as that is what sin results in. The Galileans who died were no worse than any other sinner. We are like them, and we will die just like them unless we repent. To put it another way, there were many fig trees in the garden. Many of them did not bear fruit, and they were cut down. But we who are alive are the fig trees which remain, with the gardener still interceding on our behalf. We still have the opportunity to repent, to allow the gardener to transform us so that we might bear fruit.
The condition at the end of the parable is the most important, and what ties the call to repentance to the parable. The gardener does not promise that the tree will bear fruit. He only promises that he will provide everything which is necessary. It is up to us to respond to the gardener’s work in us. If we do not repent, we will be cut down, just as the Galileans were and just as the eighteen in Jerusalem were. Repentance, true repentance, involves a transformation from a barren fig tree to one that bears fruit. Not only one that lives, but one that brings new life, and supports the life of things around it. Absent repentance, we will bear nothing. We will remain barren, and eventually be cut down. Or perhaps a tower will fall on us. But the result is the same.