Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

131. Parables of Warning (Luke 12:54-13:9)*

Even though the nation seemed to be having second thoughts about Jesus, there was still no lack of crowds eager to hear his words and witness the wonders he did. Yet Jesus could hardly be other than distressed about the indifferent attitudes with which they heard his teaching. More than anything he sought in them a whole-hearted unqualified acceptance of himself as Lord and Christ: "Except a man take up his cross, and follow me, he cannot be my disciple."

Those who saw and heard, and yet held back, were not playing for safety but for danger. They needed to be warned that in such circumstances he that is not for Christ is against him. There can be a dire storing-up of judgment by those who are merely interested in the Son of God.


So he appealed to them to use their commonsense on the situation. Clouds blowing in from the Mediterranean Sea certainly betokened rain before long (1 Kgs. 18:44). But if the wind should swing round to the south-east, then soon it would become the dreaded khamsin from the desert, oppressing everyone with its furnace heat and making life inescapably miserable.

To all who lived in that land this was mere ABC. 'Ye can assess the face of the sky and earth,' Jesus said, 'then how is it that ye cannot similarly interpret what is impending for you in more important issues than the weather?' Were they to enjoy the fertilizing blessing of his gospel or the hot blast of the wrath of heaven? In making this remonstration he called them hypocrites-and since a hypocrite is one who chooses a course of action out of harmony with his convictions, this savage word was surely justified.

Recognizing that it was over-much respect for the priests and Pharisees, as much as anything else, which discouraged their allegiance to him, he appealed to them not to be led by the nose any longer. Instead, let there be an independent commonsense decision regarding his claims: "Yea, and why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right?"


This was reinforced by what is unmistakably a parable and not just a piece of advice about how to make the best of a law-suit: "When thou goest with thine adversary to the magistrate, as thou art in the way, give diligence that thou mayest be delivered from him." The change here to singular pronouns indicates clearly that Jesus was making his appeal for individual decision to become a disciple. He had no use for mass enthusiasm or for sheep which follow sheep.

The point of his illustration is not difficult to discern. By their interested but uncommitted attitude many in the nation were turning Christ's gospel from good news into bad news—an adversary. Except they change, this would ultimately arraign them before the court of God's justice, so that in the ultimate day of reckoning Christ would be a judge, and not a friend. Then the outcome must be that "the judge deliver thee to the officer—the angel of death?—and thou be cast into prison ... till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing, the very last! mite," that is, the oblivion of the tomb, to last for ever, for no man in prison has the wherewithal to pay his debts.

But what way is there for paying off a debt when a man is being dragged before the court and he has no resources to save him from this predicament? The version of these words in Matthew 5:25 has this: "Agree with thine adversary quickly." Once again, as in so many other instances, because of the necessity to teach fundamental spiritual realities, the Lord's parable comes right away from the matter-of- fact truth of daily life. All that is necessary- indeed, all that is possible—for the sinner to do when he knows himself to be face to face with (the righteous law of God is precisely what this parable specifies: "Agree with thine adversary." That is, let a man agree that he is a sinner and that he has no means within his own power of ever discharging the debt of sin, and forthwith the adversary becomes a Friend, and the debt vanishes into thin air. "When I kept silence (concerning my sin), my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me... I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin" (Ps. 32:3-5)

Thus a man makes his choice between the shower and the hot wind.

Grim events in Jerusalem

It would seem that even whilst Jesus was driving this lesson home, he was provided with yet another opportunity to underline its supreme importance. There arrived (so the Greek text implies) some who had just come from Jerusalem with the news of a terrible affray in the temple court, in the course of which some Galileans had been slain at the very altar of burnt offering, so that where normally the blood of the sacrifices was poured out at the base of the altar, Jewish blood had flowed freely. This had been done by Pilate's soldiers.

During his short term of office the Roman governor had had a number of Jewish riots on his hands in Jerusalem, and especially in the temple area. On one occasion, a Passover celebration, about three thousand had been slain in the temple court. Very probably the present disturbance was part of the insurrection led by Barabbas (Lk.23 :18,19). The narrative seems to imply that some Galilean participants in the rebellion had tried to masquerade as genuine worshippers offering sacrifices when really they were bent on seizing the temple as a stronghold. Pilate's vigorous action forestalled it. Of course, Jewish indignation made the most of this.

It is fairly certain that such extreme action was only taken by the Roman rulers when Jewish intransigence had goaded them beyond the limit of their patience. It is not unlikely that in this incident Roman soldiers showed their contempt for the Jewish rebels by dragging them to the altar and slaughtering them there in mockery of their sacrifices.

Why? Why? Why?

Like the disciples in their theorising about the man born blind, these, who now brought this gruesome news to Jesus, evidently implied their own conviction that such a catastrophe must be God's punishment of personal wickedness. This was the philosophy of Job's friends: "Remember, I pray thee, whoever perished, being innocent? or when were the righteous cut off?" (Job 4:7; cp. also Acts 28:4; Gen. 42:21). It is an interpretation of the problems of life which sees only the facts it wants to see.

Jesus had a different reading of this latest chapter in the long sorry tale of Jewish suffering: "I tell you, Nay (it is not to be read as a direct punishment for sin): but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." In other words, he offered no direct explanation of the fate of these Galileans (a fact worth noting by those obsessed with the problem of suffering!).

Instead, he bade his disciples read it as a parable designed by Almighty God for their spiritual education. See what comes to men who fling themselves in rebellion against the might of Rome! Yet what is Rome compared with the majesty of God? Then what, think you, will be your fate if you flout God's authority, and think to live your life without due acknowledgement of His supremacy?

The absurdity of rebellion

Jesus was not content to leave the lesson there. He went on to force it home with yet another example: "Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem?" The shape of the argument used by the Lord suggests that here also was the fate of rebels. Presumably these men, citizens of Jerusalem, joining in the rebellion, had turned the tower of Siloam into a fortress. For what other reason should it have been full of people? So, as another example of how Rome deals with rebels, the building was undermined, and its collapse buried eighteen in its ruins. Then what hope for the man who blithely thinks that he can wall himself off from the wrath of Almighty God? It is the name of the Lord that is a strong tower. The righteous runneth into it, and is safe (Pr. 18:10).

Here was another development in the current insurrection which the Lord's informants knew nothing about. He told them of it as an example also of his supernatural knowledge, thus emphasizing that a man's attitude is always fully known to God. Even when his rejection of the authority of God is not openly avowed but kept secret in his own bosom, this is still rebellion, just as fully known, and just as certainly punished.

The commentators refer the "likewise perish" to the horrors of A.D.70 when there was great carnage in the temple and not a few crushed to death in its ruins. But most of the generation to whom Jesus spoke these words were dead and buried by that time. His "likewise" pointed to God's judgment being inescapable rather than to the mode of its execution.

Yet how slow men were, and still are, to learn the lesson. Even those who would reckon themselves dedicated disciples of the Lord often know little of the meaning of true repentance. For three years Peter had been a leader among the chosen twelve when Jesus said to him: "When thou art converted..."! (Lk. 22:32),

The heavy responsibility to" judgment which steadily accumulated on the shoulders of the Lord's own people lay also like a dead weight on the soul of Jesus. The truth of this is evident from the fact that even the series of warnings he had already spoken was not deemed to be emphatic enough. So he said it yet again, in a parable of entirely different form.

The fig tree & its lesson

The owner of a vineyard had there a fig tree which neither bore fruit nor showed signs of bearing. From the obvious meaning of the parable it may be readily assumed that this was not a young fig tree which should have been just coming to maturity. But now for three years in succession no fruit at all (does Peter allude to this? 2 Pet. 1:8). Exasperated, the owner issued instructions for it to be cut down, for not only was it useless in itself but it also "cumbered" the ground — the Greek word means "made it useless, spoiled it" (cp. Mt. 23 : 1 3); and so it did, for with its spreading branches and roots it would effectively reduce the productiveness of a fairly wide area. In its place a True Vine would be much more worthwhile. Even a wild olive would be more use.

This fig tree is, of course, a figure of the nation of Israel. Plenty of Bible passages encourage this interpretation of the symbolism. The three years of fruitlessness correspond fairly obviously to the three years of the ministry of Jesus which had already elapsed. There was now only six months or less to his final Passover. The curt instruction: "Cut it down!" may be seen as a measure of the indignation of heaven because the Lord's appeal to the nation had fallen on deaf ears. The cup of their iniquity was almost full, not so much full of downright wickedness as with indifference to the Son of God in their midst. John the Baptist had warned: "Even now the axe is laid unto the root of the trees." His ministry, much shorter than that of Jesus, had crystallized out very firmly his impressions of Israel's unresponsiveness.

Instead of immediately carrying out the owner's instructions, the husbandman pleaded for time: "Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it." Here is an intimation of the all-out effort and special appeal made by Jesus during the last few months of his ministry. It was a special effort continued by the Holy Spirit into the early days of the ministry of the apostles.

"If it bear fruit — (the unfinished sentence indicates that no further comment or action would then be necessary): and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down." It is surely a fair inference that just as the prayer of Moses saved Israel from extinction in the wilderness (Ex.32:9ff), so also but for the personal intercession of Jesus at this time the wrath of God against a callous nation would have begun already.

True to life?

Once again, in this parable as in so others, there is traceable at least one detail of the story which is not true to life: "And if not, then after that thou (the owner of the vineyard!) shalt cut it down." This is strange talk from an employee to his master. Nor may it be argued that this is just a mode of speech, for Jesus could as easily have phrased it: "I will cut it down, as you instructed." Had he done so, the parable would have been true to life, but not true to history — for it was not Jesus but his Almighty Father who eventually brought national ruin on Israel (see Notes). It is to be observed however, that this destruction came forty years later, and not immediately after the fourth year of opportunity. Then was it Pentecost and the ensuing events which gave the nation further respite?

In this period the teaching of Jesus had taken on a very sombre cast. The encouragement which the success of the mission of the seventy had imparted had been only temporary. Now, almost continuously up to his arrest and suffering, the spirit of Jesus was oppressed by the way in which the nation had apparently decided against him. Warning after warning came from his lips, but apart from his faithful loyal remnant few took him really seriously. However, with but little encouragement to spur him on, he persevered. These were hard cheerless days for the Son of God.

Notes: Lk.1 2:54-13:9

A shower; s.w. in Dt. 32:2 LXX only; and "heavens and earth" (v.56) comes in v.1. Note that this Dt. 32 is one of the most complete "Israel" prophecies in the O.T.
Heal. Gk: /rooson. Note the parable in its only other occurrence: Jas.1:11
In Ant. 18.3.2. Josephus describes a very similar incident. The same?
Suppose ye? This rather implies: "You are sure, are you?'

Galileans. Verse 5: Jerusalem. The entire nation in a spirit of rebellion and under judgment.
Repent. The verb is continuous; i.e. maintain your repentance.

Likewise perish. Context (at end of Lk. 12) strongly supports the reading of this incident given here.
The tower in Siloam. The Lord seems to imply that these two grim incidents are really examples of God's graciousness in giving strong warning of worse judgment to come; cp. Gen. 6:7,8; 18:24; Jon. 3:4; 2 Pet. 3:9. Was he also hinting at a lesson to be learned from Jud. 8:8,9? Note also in Jud. 9:51 a tower being used as a centre of rebellion.
Fig tree: a frequent symbol of national Israel & its law; Matthew 21:19; 24:32; Micah 7:1; Hosea 9:10; Joel 1:7; Jeremiah 24; Ps.80:8-17. Note also Rev. 6:13; Is. 34:4 (8); Hab. 3:17; Nah. 3:12; Lk. 17:6; 19:4.
This year also. Is there allusion here to Lev. 19:23,24?
And if not. Gk: mege here is very sardonic. It expresses Christ's own pessimism.

Thou shalt cut it down. It is not uncommon to hear A.D.70 spoken of as a "coming" of Christ; yet so far as one can discover this conclusion is invariably the result of very indirect inference from shady premises. Is there one explicit statement to this effect?

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