While the preceding discussion concerned the people, this one unmistakably concerns the leaders (= fig tree) who are stealing life from the people (= the vineyard; see Isa 5:7).
Later in this Gospel (Luke 20:19) the leadership (scribes and chief priests) clearly understands that vineyard parables are directed to them and told about them. Thus this present parable unmistakably states that current leadership within the nation is fruitless and should be rooted out.
The details of this parable reflect its Mediterranean cultural context perfectly. The vineyard owner obviously lives in the city and rents his vineyard to a tenant farmer who does the digging, the planting, etc. He “had the tree planted.”
The Palestinian fig tree bears fruit ten months of the year, and so one can reasonably expect to find fruit at almost any time. The time sequence regarding fig trees is this: first, the tree would have three years to grow after planting. The fruit of the next three years is considered forbidden (see Lev 19:23). The fruit of the seventh year is considered clean and ought to be offered to the Lord (Lev 19:24).
The owner in this parable has come seeking fruit for three years, hence it is nine years since planting, and the situation begins to look hopeless. He rightly urges that it be rooted out, but the gardener urges “mercy,” give the tree yet another chance.
Keep in mind that the parable is not about trees but about the nation’s leadership. The gardener’s proposed remedy for the tree’s problems reflects Jesus’ mastery of “insult humor.”
Throughout the Gospels Jesus, the authentic Mediterranean native, resorts to insults on a regular basis, and they are always gems. The gardener might have proposed new soil for the tree, or increased watering.
Instead he proposed spreading manure on it. Jesus’ original peasant audience undoubtedly roared with laughter. This is just what those #)%!@* leaders need!
Moreover, in Aramaic there is a wordplay between “dig it out” and “let it alone” (also the word for forgiveness), which makes the parable and its point very easy to remember. Judgment (dig it out)? No, mercy and forgiveness (let it alone)!
The tree cannot lift itself by its roots. They (the leaders) need the intervention of an outsider, the gardener, God himself!
Dedicated reformers are often so focused on the evils to be exterminated that they neglect the need for personal reform as well. This is as true of all as it is of leaders.
This is the point Luke’s Jesus makes in today’s masterful cluster of readings. The passage is beautifully appropriate to Lent. It needs no further comment.