It is obvious that the massacre of the Galileans by Pilate was mentioned on this occasion, not for its own sake, but for the purpose of supporting a doctrine which the narrators held and desired to establish. Their meaning is echoed distinctly in the answer of the Lord. These Pharisees seem to have found grist for their own mill in all events and all persons; everything was turned to the account of their own self-righteousness. Peculiar sufferings seemed to prove peculiar guilt. The logical consequence they did not express, and perhaps did not distinctly frame even in thought; but they solaced themselves with it, notwithstanding: they were not visited by such calamities, and therefore it might be presumed they were not chargeable with such sins.
The Lord expressly denied the truth of their silent, hidden inference, and fortified his teaching by reference to another analogous case, -- the sudden death of some men through the fall of a tower. Leaving untouched the general doctrine that mankind suffer for sin, he clearly and emphatically teaches, that particular calamities do not measure or prove the particular guilt of those who suffer in them. Otherwise, it is obvious that God's government begins and ends in this life; there is neither the necessity nor the evidence of a judgment to come. He indicated to the Jews that the sudden and unexpected destruction of those sacrificing Galileans, was but an emblem of the sudden and unexpected destruction that would overtake themselves if they were not converted in time, and shielded in mercy from the judgment that sin entailed. To repeat, expand, and enforce this lesson the parable is spoken: "He spake also this parable," -- the similitude is given in addition to the more direct instruction which had gone before, and for the same purpose.
"A certain man had a fig-tree planted in his vineyard." This was not a seedling that had sprung accidentally within the fences of the vineyard, and through carelessness been permitted to grow: the language is precise, and indicates that the fig tree had been planted within the vineyard by a deliberate act of the owner. The husbandman planted the fig-tree that he might enjoy its fruit; and in order more effectually to secure his object, he selected for the tree the most favourable position. It is obvious both from the structure and design of the parable that the position of the fig-tree was the best that it could possibly have obtained.
In countries where the vine is cultivated, not by a few wealthy proprietors with a view to an export trade, but by each family on a small scale with a view to the food of the household, to plant some fruit trees of other kinds within the same enclosure is the rule rather than the exception. The vineyard is not the luxury of the few, but a common necessity of life with the many. It becomes the most cherished possession of the permanent rural population. Its aspect is sunward, its soil is good, its fences are in order. Within this favoured spot the owner is willing to make room for one or more fig-trees, for the sake of the fruit which in such favourable circumstances he expects them to bear.
 In the valley of the Rhine where the vine is cultivated as the material of a great manufacture, and the staple of a foreign trade, fruit trees of other species are not admitted within the vineyard; but at Botzen in the Tyrol, where the habits of society are more simple and primitive, I have repeatedly seen fig-trees growing within the lofty wall of the carefully cultured vineyard, rewarding the possessor for his care with abundant fruit.
When the tree had reached maturity the owner expected that it should bear fruit; but that year, the next, and a third it continued barren. Having waited a reasonable time, he gave orders that it should be destroyed; since it produced nothing, he desired to utilize in another way the portion of ground which it occupied.
The dresser of the vineyard is a person who has the entire charge, subject to the general instructions of the proprietor. He has long occupied this position, and is acquainted with the fig-tree from its infancy; he knows it, as a shepherd in a similarly primitive state of society knows his sheep. He has formed for it a species of attachment; and a sentiment akin to compassion springs up in his heart, when he hears its sentence pronounced. "Woodman, spare that tree," is a species of intercession thoroughly natural and human.
The intercession of the dresser, however, is not sentiment merely; it is sentiment completely directed and controlled by just reason. He does not plead for the indefinite prolongation of a useless existence. He asks only another year of trial: he intends and promises to take in the interval the most energetic measures for stimulating the barren tree into fruitfulness. If under these appliances it bear fruit, he knows the owner will gladly permit it to retain its place; if not, he will abandon it to the fate which it deserves and invites.
No peculiar difficulty attends the exposition of this parable: the main features of its meaning are so distinctly marked, that it is hardly possible to miss them. The lesson is easily read; and when read, it is unspeakably solemn and tender.
God is the owner of the vineyard and the fig-tree within its walls. Abraham's seed, natural and mystical, are the fig-tree; and the Mediator between God and man is the Dresser of the vineyard, the intercessor for the barren tree. These points are all so obvious that there can hardly be any difference of opinion regarding them. One point remains, demanding some explanation indeed, but presenting very little difficulty, -- the vineyard. The fig-tree was planted within the vineyard, and what is the doctrine indicated by this circumstance in the material frame of the parable? The suggestion that the vineyard means the world, in the midst of which Israel were planted, although supported by some honoured names, does not merit much consideration. In no sense is there any likeness between the vineyard and the world. The essential circumstances involved in the fact that the fig-tree grew within the vineyard are, that in soil, south exposure, care and defence, it was placed in the best possible position for bearing fruit. The one fact that it was planted in the vineyard indicates, and was obviously intended to indicate, that the owner had done the best for his fig-tree. The meaning is precisely the same as that which is more fully expressed in the analogous parable: "Now will I sing to my well-beloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard," &c. (Isa. v.1-7). In the prophet's allegory, while in general the vineyard represents the house of Israel, the vine trees more specifically represent the people, and south exposure, soil, care, and defence, represent the peculiar providence and grace of God displayed in their history and institutions. "The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant" (ver.7); the plants represent the men, and all that the proprietor did in their behalf represents the goodness of God to Israel in redeeming them from bondage and giving them his covenant. On the same principle in our parable the fig-tree represents the people who were favoured, and the advantages of the vineyard represent the privileges which the people enjoyed. The intimation that this barren fig-tree grew within a vineyard, is a short method of informing us that it enjoyed a position on a very fruitful hill, and was there fenced, watched, and watered with the most patient care. Now, obviously, none of these things, in their spiritual signification, were enjoyed by Israel simply in virtue of their existence in this world. The Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the Persians were placed in the world too, and yet they enjoyed no peculiar privileges, -- could not be compared to a vineyard on a very fruitful hill. This feature of the parable, so far from merely intimating that Israel were placed in the world, teaches us that they were separated from it; they were protected by special providences in their history, and cherished by the ordinances of grace. The place of the fig-tree within the vineyard indicates that the people to whom God looked in vain for the fruits of righteousness, were distinguished from the nations by the peculiar religious privileges which they enjoyed: the favourable circumstances of the tree aggravated the guilt of its barrenness.
Three successive years the owner came seeking fruit on this fig-tree, and found none. In regard to the specified period of three years, I do not think we gain much by a particular reference to the well-known natural process by which the fig develops simultaneously the fruit of this season and the germs of the next; for we do not know in this case whether the germs were never formed, or fell off before they reached maturity. I am not able to perceive that the number three has any necessary reference to the peculiarities of the fig; I think the same number would have been employed for the purposes of the spiritual lesson, although a fruit tree of another species had been taken as an example. Three years was a reasonable period for the owner to wait, that he might neither on the one hand rashly cut down a tree that might soon have become profitable, nor on the other permit a hopelessly barren tree indefinitely to occupy a position which might otherwise be turned to good account.
While the lesson of the parable bears upon the Church at large, both in ancient and modern times, it is to individuals that it can be most safely and most profitably applied. Most certainly we enjoy at this day the advantages set forth under the figure of the favoured fig-tree. Besides the life and faculties which we possess in common with others, we have spiritual privileges which are peculiar to ourselves. Civil and religious liberty, the Scriptures, the Sabbath, the Church, place us in the position of the fig-tree within the vineyard, while other nations are more or less like a tree rooted in the sand, or exposed on the wayside. The God in whom we live has conferred these advantages upon us, that we might bear fruit unto holiness; and if we remain barren, notwithstanding all his kindness, he will give forth the decree to cut us down. In some he finds bad fruit, and in some no fruit, and even in the best, little fruit. He has not cast out the unfruitful, but has tenderly spared them.
As the fig-tree greedily drank in the riches of earth and air, and wasted all in leaves, so the unconverted in a land of Christian light enjoy God's goodness and employ it in ministering only to their own pleasures. The line of justice, stretched to the utmost, -- to the utmost and more, snaps asunder at last: the sentence goes forth, Cut the barren tree down, and cast it out. This is the doom which guilt deserves and justice proclaims: if the sinful were under a government of mere righteousness, it would be inexorably executed upon all.
Here is the turning point: here an intercessor appears, -- an Intercessor who cares for man and prevails with God. The first part of his plea is, Spare: he appeals for a respite of definite and limited duration, -- one year: less would not afford an opportunity for amendment, and more would in the circumstances confer a bounty on idleness. All who have under the Gospel reached the age of understanding, and are still living without God in the world, enjoy the present respite in virtue of Christ's compassionate intercession. If that Mediator had never taken up the case, or should now abandon it, the sentence already pronounced would descend like the laws of nature and inexorably execute itself. It is Christ's intercession alone, that stands between the unpardoned on earth, and the punishment which is their due.
 I cannot see any force in the argument by which Stier endeavours to show that the interceding vine-dresser represents primarily the human ministry in the Church.
But the Intercessor does more than secure for the sinful a space for repentance: He who obtains the respite takes means to render it effectual. The two chief applications employed in husbandry to stimulate growth and fruitfulness are digging and manuring: these accordingly the dresser of the vineyard undertakes to apply in the interval to the barren fig-tree. I think something may be gained here by descending into the particulars. One of these agricultural operations imparts to the tree the elements of fruitfulness, and the other enables the tree to make these elements its own. Digging gives nothing to the tree; but it makes openings whereby gifts from another quarter may become practically available. The manure contains the food which the plant must receive, and assimilate, and convert into fruit; but if the hardened earth were not made loose by digging, the needed aliment would never reach its destination.
Similar processes are applied in the spiritual culture: certain diggings take place around and among the roots of barren souls, as well as of barren fig-trees. Bereavements and trials of various kinds strike and rend; but these cannot by themselves renew and sanctify. They may give pain, but cannot impart fertility: the spirit much distressed may be as unfruitful as the spirits that are at ease in Zion. These rendings, however, are most precious as the means of opening a way whereby the elements of spiritual life conveyed by the word and the Spirit may reach their destination. The Lord who pours in the food for the sustenance of a soul, stirs that soul by his providence, so that grace may reach the root and be taken in. As the constituents of fruit, held in solution by air and water, cannot freely reach the plant whose roots lie under a long unbroken and indurated soil, so the grace of God contained in the preached Gospel is kept at bay by a carnal mind and a seared conscience. It is when afflictions rend the heart, as a ploughshare tears up the ground, that the elements of life long offered are at length received. It is thus that providence and grace conspire to achieve the purpose of God in the salvation of men. In this work mercy and judgment meet; and saved sinners, on earth and in heaven, put both together in their song of praise (Ps. ci.1.)
But a feature appears in the close, well fitted to arouse those who have hitherto presumed upon impunity and neglected Christ. Even this kind Intercessor does not propose that the unfruitful tree should be allowed indefinitely to maintain its place without changing its character: He spontaneously concedes that if this trial prove ineffectual, justice must take its course; "After that thou shalt cut it down." When Jesus lets a sinner go, who shall take him up? But there is love even in this last stern word. Love intercedes for a time of trial, -- an opportunity of turning; and love, too, after securing sufficient opportunity, lets go its hold and leaves all hopeless beyond. It is the terrible concession, "thou shalt cut it down," issuing from the Intercessor's lips, that gives power to the invitation, "Now is the accepted time." To warn me now that if I let the day of grace run waste, even Jesus on the morrow of the judgment will not plead for me any more, is surely the most effectual means of urging me to close with his offer to-day.