Luke’s Fig Tree

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, the Third Sunday of Lent, is Luke 13:1-9.  This reading has two parts, the first of which tells of the misfortunes of certain Jews and the second of which is a Parable about a fig tree.  This passage is again in Luke’s long travel narrative of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, so Jesus is not pictured in Jerusalem when he says these things.

The first verses, 13:1-5, tell of some Galilean Jews whom Pontius Pilate had killed as they were making sacrifice in the temple.  They also tell of some who had the misfortune of walking by the Tower of Siloam when it fell, killing them.  Neither of these events are mentioned in other literature that has survived from that time.

The rumors going around in this story are that these individuals must have been bad sinners because of their misfortune.  Jesus doesn’t exactly address here the notion that bad things happen to bad people, although we know this is not strictly true.  After all, bad things happened to Jesus!

What Jesus does do is make it clear that these individuals were no worse sinners than those passing these rumors around.  Unless they repent too, they will perish by God’s judgment.  I suspect the call for repentance is the reason this reading appears in this year’s Lenten cycle. 

The second half of the reading is a Parable of the Fig Tree (13:6-9).  Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke does not have Jesus curse a fig tree before going into Jerusalem, only to find it withered when he either comes out later than day (Matthew) or goes in the next day (Mark).  It would be easy to see both this parable and the cursing story as variations of the same basic thing.

In all three cases, the withering of the fig tree represents the judgment of Israel because of its failure to yield fruit.  In Matthew and Mark, the withered fig tree points to an Israel whose judgment is a foregone conclusion, and it is likely in our opinion that both were written after the temple’s destruction in AD70.  Luke’s parable holds out hope, even though Luke also is probably post-70.  The parable gives Israel one more year to repent.

This reading fits into Lent, again, as a call to repentance in the light of the coming judgment.