Summary: "Except you repent, you shall all likewise perish!" Without the mercy and help of God, the cry goes forth a second time: "Cut it down!"
AN OMINOUS NOTE
There has been an ominous note ringing in the Gospel of Luke ever since Jesus set His face like a flint, determined to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). This was the turning point of Luke’s Gospel, and has implications both for Jesus Himself (Luke 13:33), and for those to whom He has been preaching (e.g. Luke 10:13-15). If those who have the privilege of hearing the Gospel will not repent, then they will reap the consequences (cf. Luke 13:34-35).
Jesus had been calling for watchfulness (Luke 12:35-36), and upbraided the people for their inability to read the signs of the times (Luke 12:54-56). It was just at this point that some people approached Jesus with the latest gossip: the murder by Pilate of some Galilean pilgrims, whose blood he mingled with their sacrifices (Luke 13:1). This particular atrocity is not recorded elsewhere, but the picture it paints of the ruthlessness of Pontius Pilate is in perfect keeping with other contemporary accounts of Pilate’s tenure as Governor of Judea.
There was an opinion current in those days - as there is now, and as there was in the days of Job - that suffering is meted out in direct proportion to how much a person must have deserved it (cf. John 9:2). This is not necessarily true: we only need to watch the news to know that even the distribution of suffering is unequal. Jesus would not dignify the implication with an answer, but rather used the opportunity to drive home the need for repentance (Luke 13:2-3).
It appears that the old city walls in Jerusalem took a turn just south of the Temple, near the pool of Siloam. With Herod’s building works still going on, this would have been a strategic point to build a tower. Jesus drew attention to a tragic building accident which occurred there, and reiterated His urgent call to repentance (Luke 13:4-5).
Our life is just a vapour (James 4:14), and none of us knows when we might suddenly be snatched away. The twin graces of faith and repentance are not only the door into the Christian life, but also an on-going duty. An unrepentant Jerusalem, along with its priests and Temple, would yet suffer the full force of Roman ire: and not one stone would be left on top of another (Luke 21:6).
Jesus reinforced His teaching on the need for repentance with a parable, giving us the God’s-eye view (Luke 13:6). An unproductive fig tree in a vineyard is nothing better than an encumbrance on the land, drawing essential nutrients out of the soil but giving nothing back. The cry that goes out against the fig tree - “Cut it down” (Luke 13:7) - stands as a solemn warning against those who still refuse to repent.
Yet the Lord delights in mercy (Micah 7:18). Indeed, it is of the LORD’s mercies that we have not already been consumed (Lamentations 3:22). Not only do we have a Mediator with God, but also One who will get right down beside us to help us on the path to true repentance and amendment of life (Luke 13:8).
This parable was acted out for real at a later stage in Jesus’ ministry, when He cursed a fig tree on His journey out of Bethany towards Jerusalem that last fateful week (Matthew 21:19). Jesus’ time had come, yet the tree still showed no signs of bearing fruit. For that one, it was too late!