And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.”
A group of people come to Jesus with news of an unthinkable tragedy. Some Jewish believers who had come down from Galilee to offer their sacrifices of repentance had been killed at the temple. Their blood mingled with the sacrifices being offered by the faithful. Remember that the temple would have been a bloody place as bulls, goats, sheep, and birds were killed and offered as sacrifices. Imagine if a terrorist burst into a modern worship service, slaughtered members in the congregation, and poured their blood into the communion cup. This is an unthinkable, vile, unholy occurrence.
The storytellers don't say it, but Jesus hears it in their voices. The slain Galileans must committed a horrible sin for God to allow this to happen to them. Prevailing Jewish thought was that bad things happen to bad people, and good people are blessed. Possibly the first book in the Bible ever written was Job, a story of unrelenting tragedy that tests one man. Job's friends concluded that it must be because of Job's sin that his life fell apart. There is no other possible answer. In John 9 Jesus' followers see a blind man and query Jesus as to whether the blindness is a result of the man's sins or his parents'. Extraordinary tragedy must signify extraordinary guilt.
Jesus corrects, "No, their sin was not extraordinarily horrible. It was ordinarily horrible, just like yours. If you don't repent, your fate will be equally unthinkable." As Paul writes in Romans 3:10, "There is none righteous, no not one". The surprising thing is not that calamity falls upon some who seem good; the surprising thing is that any of us are spared and given more time to repent! We may not "perish" in the sense of a tragic death. The well-known verse John 3:16 instructs, "For God so loved the world, that he sent his one and only Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life." The kind of perishing of which Jesus speaks is an eternal perishing - eternal separation from God. "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 6:23).
In setting the stage for Jesus' ministry, John the Baptizer warned, "Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." Likewise Jesus uses an unfruitful tree as an allegory for repentance. The owner of the vineyard is ready to cut the tree down, but the gardener begs for a bit more time to aerate the ground and add manure. Both agree that the tree should not be given unlimited time. The fig tree was a symbol of Israel's prosperity and could be taken to mean a call for national repentance. But the parable is a call for all to repent while there is time.
Even today we wonder why tragedies happen. In the last week the bombings at the Boston Marathon and the explosion in West, Texas claimed the lives of many and severely injured others. These tragedies are not a judgment on America for our corporate sins. They are not judgment on those who perished because they were worse than others. Those who survive are no better morally than those who perish. A better question than "Why do bad things happen to good people?" is "How can God use this tragedy to bring glory to himself and grow spiritual fruit in my own life?"
God may be adding fertilizing manure to your life now in an effort to bring you to repentance. Your first inclination is that life stinks. Things are not going "your way". Take the time to seek God's will for your life and search your soul for areas that need repentance. Each day we wake offers a chance to draw nearer to God or closer into sin.
"As I look for a moment on the poor mangled bodies of those who had been so suddenly slain, my eyes find tears but my heart does not boast. Far from me be a boastful cry, 'God, I thank Thee that I'm not as these men are.' No, no, no, it's not the Spirit of Christ nor the spirit of Christianity. While we can thank God that we are preserved, yet we can say it is of Your mercy that we are not consumed." - Spurgeon, in 1861 after a collision between two trains in the Clayton Tunnel claimed 23 lives and severely injured hundreds, and about two weeks later another train wreck in North London claimed 15 more lives.