Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Luke 13.1-9
Third Sunday in Lent- Year C

Other texts:


In most of the outlines I have of Luke, these verses conclude a section that begins at 12:1. Neither the setting nor the audience has changed since that verse when Luke tells us: "Meanwhile, when the crowd gathered by the thousands, so that they trampled on one another, he began to speak first to his disciples,...." Jesus' audience in this section includes "disciples" (12:1, 22), "Peter" (12:41), "crowd" (12:13, 54), and "some present" (13:1).

A new day and setting is implied in 13:10 where we are told: "Now he [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath."

Luke gleans a number of sayings from a variety of sources in the section 12:1-13:9.





Leaven of the Pharisees




Exhortation to Fearless Confession




The Sin Against the Holy Spirit




The Assistance of the Holy Spirit




Warning Against Avarice



The Parable of the Rich Fool



Anxieties about Earthly Things




Little Flock



Treasures in Heaven




Returning Master



Homeonwner & Burglar




Reliable Manager




Fire on Earth



Jesus' baptism




Peace or Conflict




Interpreting the Times




Before the Judge




Repent or Perish



The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree



An emphasis that I see in the uniquely Lukan sayings is God's gracious actions on behalf of the people.

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom (12:32).

Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves (12:35-38).

This theme is illustrated well in the second half of our text where the gardener seeks to spare the barren fig tree for one more year.

At the same time the recipients of this divine grace have some responsibilities: "Do not be afraid." "Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit." "Open the door for the returning master." "Repent!" "Bear fruit!"


The first part of our text (13:1-5), two different examples with nearly the same "punch line" are given.

There are some differences between the two examples:

The first example is offered by someone in the crowd; the second by Jesus.

In the first, the untimely deaths of the Galileans were human-caused. In the second, the untimely deaths of the Jerusalemites were nature-caused.

Note that in the first one, Jesus' question refers to their "suffering," although the "mingling of blood with their sacrifices" probably implies death.

In the first example, Jesus refers to the Galileans as "sinners" (hamartolos). In the second, the Jerusalemites are called "offenders" (or "debtors" -- opheiletes).

There are some similarities in the two examples.

Both refer to Jews, although "Galileans," living some distance away from the holy city, might be viewed as less pious than those living in the city.

Jesus concludes both examples with exactly the same words: "No! I am saying to you, unless y'all would be repentant, you all will likewise perish."

The examples of untimely deaths are about "them" -- "those other people." Jesus' exhortation is addressed to "you" (plural).

We might take the plural "you" (as well as the image of the fig tree which frequently represents Israel) as a corporate need to repent and bear fruit. What sins have we commented? How do we repent of such wrongs? How do we begin to bear the proper fruit? We may be our family, our congregation, our city, state, or government.

The verb "to repent" (metanoeo) is in the present tense (subjunctive), which implies continual action = "be repentant" or "continue to repent" or "keep on repenting." This is not a one-shot event that saves one from "perishing," but a lifestyle of penitence.

Repenting/Repentance (metanoeo/metanoia) is a theme throughout Luke/Acts. To compare the frequency of these words with the other gospels:

For Luke, the primary content of our proclamation is repentance and forgiveness. Part of Jesus' concluding words in this gospel are: "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem" [24:46b-47].

Frequently, in the gospel, Jesus talks about the importance of repenting:

Jesus' harshest words of judgment are towards the unrepentant:

It seems that the crux of Jesus' message (which continues in Acts) is a call to repentance. It is not primarily a call to worship or praise God. Such actions without repentance are meaningless. What brings the greatest joy in heaven is the repentance of sinners. As I noted earlier, the present tense of the verbs in our text indicate living repentantly, rather than seeing repentance as an occasionally act. Along with that, we are called to "bear fruits worthy of repentance" [3:8].

The word for "perishing" (apollumi) can refer to being physically dead.

However, the word is also used for being figuratively or spiritually or relationally dead or lost:

How should the word be understood in our text? I don't think that Jesus implies that if someone is not repentant, that they will die an untimely death as the people in the illustrations. I would be more inclined to think that what is destroyed or lost is the relationship between God and humanity.


The common understand of sin at the time of Jesus was a cause and effect system: sin caused suffering and suffering must be the result of some sin.

Job 4:7-8

Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? (apollumi LXX)
Or where were the upright cut off?
As I have seen, those who plow iniquity
and sow trouble reap the same.

John 9:2

His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"

There is some truth to this cause and effect notion. I don't want to completely eliminate our human responsibilities that may cause our own suffering (or the suffering of others). Chain smokers are more likely to suffer from lung diseases. Drunks who drive drunk are more likely to suffer an accident. Our medical science assumes that there are definite causes for illnesses. In our text, Jesus does not deny that those who were killed by Pilate or the tower were innocent victims.

What Jesus discounts is: (1) God caused their deaths because they were sinners; and (2) the fact that they died in such tragedies indicates that they were worse sinners than other Jews.

Everyone needs to repent -- even pious Jews living in the holy city, or Lutherans living in Minnesota -- or even the few in California -- and the need is urgent. The "cause-effect" notion still stands; but now there is a way to avoid the (future) destruction brought about by our sins -- namely, to be repentant.

At the same time, the pain and suffering caused by human sinfulness are not all equal. The drunk who kills a family in a car accident has certainly caused more pain and suffering than the alcoholic who drinks at home; but the tea-totaller who condemns everyone who drinks is just as sinful as a murderer, even if the results are not as tragic.

Or, to use an example in the news as I am writing this, the teenager who shot and killed and wounded classmates has certainly caused more suffering and destruction than the other students who would tease him, call him names -- and, in a sense, take away part of his life in little bits and pieces. Jesus warned us about the sinfulness of insulting others or calling them names: "I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire" [Mt 5:22]. Those who kill -- who take away life with a gun or even little pieces of another's life with words are sinful. They need to repent.


I have frequently quoted Richard Jensen on repentance. In his Preaching Luke's Gospel, he writes about our text:

Repentance is not a fruit problem; it is a root problem. It is the root of who we are that is a problem in God's eyes. So repentance cannot be composed of "I can" statements. "I have sinned God. I am sorry God. I can do better." Repentance, rather, must be composed of "I can't" statements. "I have sinned, God. I am sorry. God, I've tried and tried and tried but I just don't produce good fruit. I can't seem to do better. I need your Vinedresser to work on the roots of my life. Give me a new life, God. Give me your life. I can't. You can." [p. 147]

Given our entire text, repentance needs to be related to bearing the proper fruit. The first part of our text indicates that the need for repentance is urgent. The second part -- the parable (as well as the paragraph preceding our text) -- indicate that the time for repentance is very short. The delay in cutting down the tree (or in destroying the sinners) is to give them opportunity to repent and bear fruit. Note that the gardener, who pleads for the tree and cares for it, is not the one who will cut it down: "If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down" [13:9].

The need for repentance is indicated throughout the section 12:1-13:9. We are given hints at what is expected of us -- the fruit we are to bear.

The "fruit" might be summarized as referring to our relationship with God, our relationship with self (especially concerning money), and our relationship with others. Our text also warns us about thinking that others are worse sinners than we are.


Jeremias (The Parables of Jesus)

The first three years of a fig-tree's growth were allowed to elapse before its fruit became clean (Lev 19:23), hence six years had already passed since it was planted. It is thus hopelessly barren. ... A fig-tree absorbs a specially large amount of nourishment and hence deprives the surrounding vines of their needed sustenance. ... manuring a vineyard is not mentioned in any passage of the OT; moreover, as a matter of duty, the undemanding fig-tree does not need such care. Hence the gardener proposes to do something unusual, to take the last possible measures.... God's mercy goes so far as to grant a reprieve from the sentence already pronounced.... When the limit granted by God for repentance has run out, no human power can prolong it (Luke 13:9). [pp. 170-171]

I think that this "stay of execution" for the tree so that it can be given special care so that it might eventually bear fruit is related to the first part of our text -- the fact that you have haven't tragically died gives you opportunity to repent now; and to the paragraph before our text (12:57-59), says something quite similar: "When you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case." These are proper ways to "interpret the present time" (12:56): time to settle with God, time to repent, and time to bear fruit.

Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreters Bible)

The parable of the fig tree invites us to consider the gift of another year of life as an act of God's mercy. John the Baptist declared that the ax lay at the root, poised to strike (3:9). Any tree that did not bear fruit would be cut down. In Jesus' parable, however, the gardener pleads for and is granted one more year. The year that Jesus proclaimed, moreover, "the year of the Lord's favor" (4:19), would be a year of forgiveness, restoration, and second chances.

What would you do if you had only a year left to live, only a short time in which to make up for wrongs done and opportunities missed? How important that year might be! The lesson of the fig tree is a challenge to live each day as a gift from God. Live each day in such a way that you will have no fear of giving an account for how you have used God's gift. [p. 272]

I note that the "sin" of the fig tree is not that it is doing something bad, but that it is doing nothing! It is just taking up space in the orchard. With this observation in mind, I think that the following poem by Toyohiko Kagawa is appropriate. (I don't have a reference for the quote):

I read
In a book
That a man called
Went about doing good.
It is very disconcerting to me
That I am so easily
With just
Going about.


While I believe that the fruit demanded within our text's context is repentance, the following quote presents a different and expanded understanding of fruitfulness.

While I don't agree with everything he says, Rick Warren (Purpose Driven Church) in a section dealing with "Myth #7: All God Expects of Us Is Faithfulness," gives his answer to the meaning of fruitfulness.

This statement is only half true. God expects both faithfulness and fruitfulness. Fruitfulness is a major theme of the New Testament. ...

What is fruitfulness? The Word fruit, or a variation of it, is used fifty-five times in the New Testament and refers to a variety of results. Each one of the following is considered by god to be fruit: repentance (Matt. 3:8; Luke 13:5-9), practicing the truth (Matt. 7:16-21; Col. 1:10), answered prayer (John 15:7-8), an offering of money given by believers (Rom. 15:28), Christlike character, and winning unbelievers to Christ (Rom. 1:13). Paul said he wanted to preach in Rome "in order that I might obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles" (Rom. 1:13 NASB). The fruit of a believer is another believer.

Considering the Great Commission that Jesus gave to the church, I believe that the definition of fruitfulness for a local church must include growth by the conversion of unbelievers. Paul referred to the first converts in Achaia as the "first fruit of Achaia" (1 Cor. 16:15 NASB).

The Bible clearly identifies numerical growth of the church as fruit. Many of the kingdom parables of Jesus emphasize the unavoidable truth that God expects his church to grow. In addition, Paul connected fruit bearing with church growth. Colossians 1:6 says, "All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it ..." Is your church bearing fruit and growing? Are you seeing the fruit of new converts being added to your congregation?

God wants your church to be both faithful and fruitful. One without the other is only half the equation. Numerical results are no justification for being unfaithful to the message, but neither can we use faithfulness as an excuse for being ineffective! Churches that have few or no conversions often attempt to justify their ineffectiveness with the statement, "God has not called us to be successful. He has just called us to be faithful." I strongly disagree because the Bible clearly teaches that God expects both.

The sticking point is how you define the terms successful and faithful. I define being successful as fulfilling the Great Commission. Jesus has given the church a job to do. We will either succeed or fail at it. Using this definition, every church should want to be successful! What is the alternative? The opposite of success is not faithfulness, but failure. Any church that is not obeying the Great Commission is failing its purpose, no matter what else it does.

What is faithfulness? Usually we define it in terms of beliefs. We think that by holding orthodox beliefs we are fulfilling Christ's command to be faithful. We call ourselves "defenders of the faith." But Jesus meant far more than adherence to beliefs when he sued the term. He defined faithfulness in terms of behavior -- a willingness to take risks (that require faith) in order to be fruitful.

The clearest example of this is the parable of the talents in Mathew 25:14-30. ... [pp. 62-64]

While I don't want to limit fruit-bearing to church membership growth, I also realize that failure to seek to grow may indicate a lack of fruitfulness

However it is defined, it is clear that Jesus is doing all he can to give us time to repent and bear fruit to avoid the coming destruction.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901