Chapter 15 | Table
of Contents | Chapter 17
The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah
THE DESCENT: FROM THE MOUNT OF TRANSFIGURATION
INTO THE VALLEY OF HUMILIATION AND DEATH.
THE THREE PARABLES OF WARNING: TO THE INDIVIDUAL, TO
THE NATION, AND TO THE THEOCRACY
THE FOOLISH RICH MAN
THE BARREN FIG TREE
THE GREAT SUPPER
(St. Luke 12:13-21, 13:6-9,
The three Parables, which successively follow in St. Luke's
Gospel, may generally be designated as those 'of warning.' This holds specially
true of the last two of them, which refer to the civil and the ecclesiastical
polity of Israel. Each of the three Parables is set in an historical frame,
having been spoken under circumstances which gave occasion for such
1. The Parable of the foolish rich man.1
It appears, that some one among them that listened to Jesus conceived the idea,
that the authority of the Great Rabbi of Nazareth might be used for his own
selfish purposes. This was all he had profited, that it seemed to open
possibilities of gain - stirred thoughts of covetousness. But other inferences
also come to us. Evidently, Christ must have attracted and deeply moved
multitudes, or His interposition would not have been sought; and, equally
evidently, what He preached had made upon this man the impression, that he
might possibly enlist Him as his champion. The presumptive evidence which it
affords as regards the effect and the subject-matter of Christ's preaching is
exceedingly interesting. On the other hand, Christ had not only no legal
authority for interfering, but the Jewish law of inheritance was so clearly
defined, and, we may add, so just, that if this person had any just or good
cause, there could have been no need for appealing to Jesus. Hence it must have
been 'covetousness,' in the strictest sense, which prompted it - perhaps, a
wish to have, besides his own share as a younger brother, half of that
additional portion which, by law, came to the eldest son of the family.2
Such an attempt for covetous purposes to make use of the pure unselfish
preaching of love, and to derive profit from His spiritual influence, accounts
for the severity with which Christ rejected the demand, although, as we judge,
He would, under any circumstances, have refused to interfere in purely civil
disputes, with which the established tribunals were sufficient to deal.
1. St. Luke xii. 13-21.
2. Bekhor viii. 2; Baba B. viii.
3. Cases might, however, arise when the claim was doubtful, and then the inheritance would be divided (Baba B. ix. 2). The double part of an eldest son was computed in the following manner. If five sons were left, the property was divided into six parts, and the eldest son had two parts, or one-third of the property. If nine sons were left, the property was divided into ten parts, and the eldest son had
two parts, or a fifth of the property. But there were important limitations to this. Thus, the law did not apply to a posthumous son, nor yet in regard to the mother's property, nor to any increase or gain that might have accrued since the father's death. For a brief summary, see Saalschütz, Mos. Recht, pp. 820 &c.
All this accounts for the immediate reference of our Lord to covetousness,
the folly of which He showed by this almost self-evident principle, too often
forgotten - that 'not in the superabounding to any one [not in that wherein he
has more than enough] consisteth his life, from the things which he
In other words, that part of the things which a man possesseth by which his
life is sustained, consists not in what is superabundant; his life is sustained
by that which he needs and uses; the rest, the super-abundance, forms no part
of his life, and may, perhaps, never be of use to him. Why, then, be covetous,
or long for more than we need? And this folly also involves danger. For, the
love of these things will engross mind and heart, and care about them will drive
out higher thoughts and aims. The moral as regarded the Kingdom of God, and the
warning not to lose it for thought of what 'perisheth with the using,' are
4. So literally.
The Parable itself bears on all these points. It consists of
two parts, of which the first shows the folly, the second the sin and danger,
of that care for what is beyond our present need, which is the characteristic
of covetousness. The rich man is surveying his land, which is bearing
plentifully - evidently beyond its former yield, since the old provision for
storing the corn appears no longer sufficient. It seems implied - or, we may at
least conjecture - that this was not only due to the labour and care of the
master, but that he had devoted to it his whole thought and energy. More than
this, it seems as if, in the calculations which he now made, he looked into the
future, and saw there progressive increase and riches. As yet, the harvest was
not reaped; but he was already considering what to do, reckoning upon the
riches that would come to him. And so he resolved to pull down the old, and
build larger barns, where he would store his future possessions. From one
aspect there would have been nothing wrong in an act of almost necessary
foresight - only great folly in thinking, and speaking, and making plans, as if
that were already absolutely his which might never come to him at all, which,
was still unreaped, and might be garnered long after he was dead. His life was
not sustained by that part of his possessions which were the 'superabounding.'
But to this folly was also added sin. For, God was not in all his thoughts. In
all his plans for the future - and it was his folly to make such absolutely -
he thought not of God. His whole heart was set on the acquisition of earthly
riches - not on the service of God. He remembered not his responsibility; all
that he had, was for himself, and absolutely his own to batten upon; 'Soul,
thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, be
merry.' He did not even remember, that there was a God Who might cut short his
So had he spoken in his heart - proud, selfish, self-indulgent,
God-forgetting - as he looked forth upon what was not yet, even in an inferior
sense, his own, but which he already treated as such, and that in the most
absolute sense. And now comes the quick, sharp, contrast, which is purposely
introduced quite abruptly. 'But God said unto Him' - not by revelation nor
through inward presentiment, but, with awful suddenness, in those unspoken
words of fact which cannot be gainsaid or answered: 'Thou fool! this very
night' - which follows on thy plans and purposings - 'thy soul is required of
thee. But, the things which thou hast prepared, whose shall they be?' Here,
with the obvious evidence of the folly of such state of mind, the
Parable breaks off. Its sinfulness - nay, and beyond this negative
aspect of it, the wisdom of righteousness in laying up the good treasure which
cannot be taken from us, appears in this concluding remark of Christ - 'So is
he who layeth up treasure (treasureth) for himself, and is not rich towards
It was a barbed arrow, we might say, out of the Jewish quiver,
but directed by the Hand of the Lord. For, we read in the Talmud5
that a Rabbi told his disciples, 'Repent the day before thy death;' and when
his disciples asked him: 'Does a man know the day of his death?' he replied,
that on that very ground he should repent to-day, lest he should die to-morrow.
And so would all his days be days of repentance. Again, the son of Sirach
wrote:6 'There is
that waxeth rich by his wariness and pinching, and this is the portion of his
reward; whereas he saith, I have found rest, and now will eat continually of my
goods; and yet he knoweth not what time shall come upon him, and that he must
leave those things to others, and die.' But we sadly miss in all this the
spiritual application which Christ made. Similarly, the Talmud,7
by a play on the last word (dlx), in the first verse of Psalm xlix.,
compares man to the weasel, which laboriously gathers and deposits, not knowing
for whom, while the Midrash8
tells a story, how, when a Rabbi returned from a feast where the Host had made
plans of storing his wine for a future occasion, the Angel of Death appeared to
him, grieved for man, 'since you say, thus and thus shall we do in the future,
while no one knoweth how soon he shall be called to die,' as would be the case
with the host of that evening, who would die after the lapse of thirty days.
But once more we ask, where is the spiritual application, such as was made by
Christ? So far from it, the Midrash adds, that when the Rabbi challenged the
Angel to show him the time of his own death, he received this reply, that he
had not dominion over the like of him, since God took pleasure in their good
works, and added to their days!
5. Shabb. 153 a line 16 &c. from top.
6. Ecclus. xi. 18, 19.
7. Jer. Shabb. 14 c, top.
8. Debar. R. 9, ed. Warsh. p. 19 b, line 6 from top and onwards.
2. The special warning intended to be conveyed by the Parable of the
sufficiently appears from the context. As explained in a previous chapter,10
the Lord had not only corrected the erroneous interpretation which the Jews were
giving to certain recent national occurrences, but pointed them to this higher
moral of all such events, that, unless speedy national repentance followed, the
whole people would perish. This Parable offers not merely an exemplification of
this general prediction of Christ, but sets before us what underlies it: Israel
in its relation to God; the need of repentance; Israel's danger; the nature of
repentance, and its urgency; the relation of Christ to Israel; the Gospel; and
the final judgment on impenitence.
9. St. Luke xiii. 6-9.
10. See ch. xiii. of this Book.
As regards the details of this Parable, we mark that the
fig-tree had been specially planted by the owner in his vineyard, which was the
choicest situation. This, we know, was not unusual. Fig-trees, as well as palm
and olive-trees, were regarded as so valuable, that to cut them down if they
yielded even a small measure of fruit, was popularly deemed to deserve death at
the Hand of God.11
Ancient Jewish writings supply interesting particulars of this tree and its
culture. According to Josephus, in favoured localities the ripe fruit
hung on the tree for ten months of the year,12
the two barren months being probably April and May, before the first of the
three crops which it bore had ripened. The first figs13
ripened towards the end of June, sometimes earlier. The second, which are those
now dried and exported, ripened in August; the third, which were small and of
comparatively little value, in September, and often hung all winter on the
trees. A species (the Benoth Shuach) is mentioned, of which the fruit required
three years for ripening.14
The fig-tree was regarded as the most fruitful of all trees.15
On account of its repeated crops, it was declared not subject to the ordinance
which enjoined that fruit should be left in the corners for the poor.16
Its artificial inoculation was known.17
The practice mentioned in the Parable, of digging about the tree (Nyrd(m),
and dunging it (Nylbzm), is frequently mentioned in Rabbinic writings, and by
the same designations. Curiously, Maimonides mentions three years as the
utmost limit within which a tree should bear fruit in the land of Israel.18
Lastly, as trees were regarded as by their roots undermining and deteriorating
the land,19 a barren
tree would be of threefold disadvantage: it would yield no fruit; it would fill
valuable space, which a fruit-bearer might occupy; and it would needlessly
deteriorate the land. Accordingly, while it was forbidden to destroy
it would, on the grounds above stated, be duty to cut down a 'barren' or
'empty' tree (Ilan seraq21).
11. Baba K. 91 b.
12. War. iii. 10. 8.
13. Phaggim, Shebh. iv 7.
14. Shebh. v. 1.
15. Shebh. i. 3.
16. Peah i. 4.
17. Shebh. ii. 5.
18. Moreh Nebhukh. iii. 37, apud Wetstein, ad loc.
19. Baba B. 19 b.
20. Deut. xx, 19; Baba K. 91 b; 92 a.
21. Kil. vi. 5.
These particulars will enable us more fully to understand the
details of the Parable. Allegorically, the fig-tree served in the Old Testament
as emblem of the Jewish nation22
- in the Talmud, rather as that of Israel's lore, and hence of the leaders and
the pious of the people.23
The vineyard is in the New Testament the symbol of the Kingdom of God, as
distinct from the nation of Israel.24
Thus far, then, the Parable may be thus translated: God called Israel as a
nation, and planted it in the most favoured spot: as a fig-tree in the vineyard
of His own Kingdom. 'And He came seeking,' as He had every right to do, 'fruit
thereon, and found none.' It was the third year25
that He had vainly looked for fruit, when He turned to His Vinedresser - the
Messiah, to Whom the vineyard is committed as its King - with this direction:
'Cut it down - why doth it also deteriorate the soil?' It is barren, though in
the best position; as a fig-tree it ought to bear figs, and here the best; it
fills the place which a good tree might occupy; and besides, it deteriorates26
the soil (literally: (qrqh t) dylxm). And its three years' barrenness has established
(as before explained) its utterly hopeless character. Then it is that the
Divine Vinedresser, in His infinite compassion, pleads, and with far deeper
reality than either Abraham or Moses could have entreated, for the fig-tree
which Himself had planted and tended, that it should be spared 'this year
also,' 'until then that I shall dig about it, and dung it,' - till He labour otherwise
than before, even by His Own Presence and Words, nay, by laying to its roots
His most precious Blood. 'And if then it bear fruit' - here the text abruptly
breaks off, as implying that in such case it would, of course, be allowed to
remain; 'but if not, then against27
the future (coming) year shalt thou cut it down.' The Parable needs no
In the words of a recent writer:29
'Between the tree and the axe nothing intervenes but the intercession of the
Gardener, Who would make a last effort, and even His petition applies only to a
short and definite period, and, in case it pass without result, this petition
itself merges in the proposal, "But if not, then cut it down."' How speedily
and terribly the warning came true, not only students of history, but all men
and in all ages have been made to know. Of the lawfulness of a further
application of this Parable to all kindred circumstances of nation, community,
family, nay, even of individuals, it is not necessary to speak.
22. Joel i. 7.
23. Ber. 57 a; Mikr. on Cant. i. 1.
24. St. Matt. xx. 1&c.; xxi. 33 &c. In Jewish thought the two were scarcely separated.
25. Not after three years, but evidently in the third year, when the third year's crop should have appeared.
26. katargei. Grimm renders the
word, enervo, sterilem reddo.
27. eiV to mellon. Goebel points to
a similiar use of eiV in St.
Luke i. 20; Acts xiii. 42.
28. Dean Plumptre regards the fig-tree as the symbol of a soul making fruitless profession; the vineyard as that of Israel. For homiletical purposes, or for
practical application, this is, of course, perfectly fair; but not in strict exegesis. To waive other and obvious objections, it were to introduce modern,
Christian ideas, which would have been wholly unintelligible to Christ's
3. The third Parable of warning - that of the Great Supper30
- refers not to the political state of Israel, but to their ecclesiastical status,
and their continuance as the possessors and representatives of the Kingdom of
God. It was spoken after the return of Jesus from the Feast of the Dedication,
and therefore carries us beyond the point in this history which we have
reached. Accordingly, the attendant circumstances will be explained in the
sequel. In regard to these we only note, how appropriately such a warning of
Israel's spiritual danger, in consequence of their hardness of heart,
misrepresentation, and perversion of God's truth, would come at a Sabbath-meal
of the Pharisees, when they lay in wait against Him, and He first challenged
their externalising of God's Day and Law to the subversion of its real meaning,
and then rebuked the self-assertion, pride, and utter want of all real love on
the part of these leaders of Israel.
30. St. Luke xiv. 16-24.
What led up to the Parable of 'the Great Supper' happened after
these things: after His healing of the man with the dropsy in sight of them all
on the Sabbath, after His twofold rebuke of their perversion of the
Sabbath-Law, and of those marked characteristics of Pharisaism, which showed
how far they were from bringing forth fruit worthy of the Kingdom, and how,
instead of representing, they represented the Kingdom, and were utterly unfit
ever to do otherwise.31
The Lord had spoken of making a feast, not for one's kindred, nor for the rich
- whether such outwardly, or mentally and spiritually from the standpoint of the
Pharisees - but for the poor and afflicted. This would imply true spirituality,
because that fellowship of giving, which descends to others in order to raise
them as brethren, not condescends, in order to be raised by them as their Master
And He had concluded with these words: 'And thou shalt be blessed - because
they have not to render back again to thee, for it shall be rendered back to
thee again in the Resurrection of the Just.'33
31. St. Luke xiv. 1-11.
32. vv. 12, 13.
33. St. Luke xiv. 14.
It was this last clause - but separated, in true Pharisaic
spirit, from that which had preceded, and indicated the motive - on which one
of those present now commented, probably with a covert, perhaps a provocative,
reference to what formed the subject of Christ's constant teaching: 'Blessed whoso
shall eat bread in the Kingdom of Heaven.' An expression this, which to the
Pharisee meant the common Jewish expectancy of a great feast34
at the beginning of the Messianic Kingdom. So far he had rightly understood,
and yet he had entirely misunderstood, the words of Christ. Jesus had, indeed,
referred to the future retribution of (not, for) deeds of love, among
which He had named as an instance, suggested by the circumstances, a feast for,
or rather brotherly love and fellowship towards, the poor and suffering. But
although the Pharisee referred to the Messianic Day, his words show that he did
not own Jesus as the Messiah. Whether or not it was the object of his
exclamation, as sometimes religious commonplaces or platitudes are in our days,
to interrupt the course of Christ's rebukes, or, as before hinted, to provoke
Him to unguarded speech, must be left undetermined. What is chiefly apparent
is, that this Pharisee separated what Christ said about the blessings of the
first Resurrection from that with which He had connected them - we do not say
as their condition, but as logically their moral antecedent: viz., love, in
opposition to self-assertion and self-seeking. The Pharisee's words imply that,
like his class, he, at any rate, fully expected to share in these blessings, as
a matter of course, and because he was a Pharisee. Thus to leave out Christ's
anteceding words was not only to set them aside, but to pervert His saying, and
to place the blessedness of the future on the very opposite basis from that on which
Christ had rested it. Accordingly, it was to this man personally35
that the Parable was addressed.
34. The expression 'eating bread' is a well-known Hebraism, used both in the Old Testament and in Rabbinic writings for taking part in a meal.
35. ver. 16.
There can be no difficulty in understanding the main ideas
underlying the Parable. The man who made the 'Great Supper'36
was He Who had, in the Old Testament, prepared 'a feast of fat things.'37
The 'bidding many' preceded the actual announcement of the day and hour of the
feast. We understand by it a preliminary intimation of the feast then
preparing, and a general invitation of the guests, who were the chief people in
the city; for, as we shall presently see, the scene is laid in a city. This
general announcement was made in the Old Testament institutions and prophecies,
and the guests bidden were those in the city, the chief men - not the ignorant
and those out of the way, but the men who knew, and read, and expounded these
prophecies. At last the preparations were ended, and the Master sent out His
Servant, not necessarily to be understood of any one individual in particular -
such as John the Baptist - but referring to whomsoever He would employ in His
Service for that purpose. It was to intimate to the persons formerly bidden,
that everything was now ready. Then it was that, however differing in their
special grounds for it, or expressing it with more or less courtesy, they were
all at one in declining to come. The feast, to which they had been bidden some
time before, and to which they had apparently agreed to come (at least, this
was implied), was, when actually announced as ready, not what they had expected,
at any rate not what they regarded as more desirable than what they had, and
must give up in order to come to it. For - and this seems one of the principal
points in the Parable - to come to that feast, to enter into the Kingdom,
implies the giving up of something that seems if not necessary yet most
desirable, and the enjoyment of which appears only reasonable. Be it
possession, business, and pleasure (Stier), or the priesthood, the
magistracy, and the people generally (St. Augustine), or the priesthood,
the Pharisees, and the Scribes, or the Pharisees, the Scribes, and the
self-righteously virtuous, with reference to whom we are specially to think of
the threefold excuse, the main point lies in this, that, when the time came,
they all refused to enter in, each having some valid and reasonable excuse. But
the ultimate ground of their refusal was, that they felt no real desire, and
saw nothing attractive in such a feast; had no real reverence for the host; in
short, that to them it was not a feast at all, but something much less to be
desired than what they had, and would have been obliged to give up, if they had
complied with the invitation.
36. Rather the principal meal, which was towards evening.
37. Is. xxv. 6, 7.
Then let the feast - for it was prepared by the goodness and
liberality of the Host - be for those who were in need of it, and to whom it
would be a feast: the poor and those afflicted - the maimed, and blind, and
lame, on whom those great citizens who had been first bidden would look down.
This, with reference to, and in higher spiritual explanation of, what Christ
had previously said about bidding such to our feast of fellowship and love.38
Accordingly, the Servant is now directed to 'go out quickly into the (larger)
streets and the (narrow) lanes of the City,' - a trait which shows that the
scene is laid in 'the City,' the professed habitation of God. The importance of
this circumstance is evident. It not only explains who the first bidden chief
citizens were, but also that these poor were the despised ignorant, and the
maimed, lame, and blind - such as the publicans and sinners. These are they in
'the streets' and 'lanes;' and the Servant is directed, not only to invite, but
to 'bring them in,' as otherwise they might naturally shrink from coming to
such a feast. But even so, 'there is yet room;' for the great Lord of the house
has, in His great liberality, prepared a very great feast for very many. And so
the Servant is once more sent, so that the Master's 'house may be filled.' But
now he is bidden to 'go out,' outside the City, outside the Theocracy, 'into
the highways and hedges,' to those who travel along the world's great highway,
or who have fallen down weary, and rest by its hedges; into the busy, or else
weary, heathen world. This reference to the heathen world is the more apparent
that, according to the Talmud,39
there were commonly no hedges round the fields of the Jews. And this time the
direction to the Servant is not, as in regard to those naturally bashful
outcasts of the City - who would scarcely venture to the great house - to
'bring them in,' but 'constrain' [without a pronoun] 'to come in,' Not
certainly as indicating their resistance and implying force,40
but as the moral constraint of earnest, pressing invitation, coupled with
assurance both of the reality of the feast and of their welcome to it. For,
these wanderers on the world's highway had, before the Servant came to them,
not known anything of the Master of the house, and all was quite new and
unexpected. Their being invited by a Lord Whom they had not known, perhaps
never heard of before, to a City in which they were strangers, and to a feast
for which - as wayfarers, or as resting by the hedges, or else as working
within their enclosure - they were wholly unprepared, required special urgency,
'a constraining,' to make them either believe in it, or come to it from where
the messengers found them, and that without preparing for it by dress or
otherwise. And so the house would be filled!
38. St. Luke xiv. 13.
39. B. Bathr. 4 a, lines 8-10 from bottom.
40. It is most sad, and seems almost incredible, that this 'constrain to come in' has from of old been quoted in justification of religious persecution.
Here the Parable abruptly breaks off. What follows are the
words of our Lord in explanation and application of it to the company then
present: 'For I say unto you, that none of those men which were bidden shall
taste of My supper.' And this was the final answer to this Pharisee and to
those with him at that table, and to all such perversion of Christ's Words and misapplication
of God's Promises as he and they were guilty of.
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