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 illustration.
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 possesseth.’ 4 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 obvious.
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 years.
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 God.’
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 Talmud 5 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, in the first verse of Psalm 49, compares man to the weasel, which laboriously gathers and deposits, not knowing for whom, while the Midrash 8 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!
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 figs 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. 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, and dunging it, 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 fruit-bearing trees, 20 it would, on the grounds above stated, be duty to cut down a ‘barren’ or ’empty’ tree.
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 nation 22 – 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 year 25 that He had vainly looked for fruit, when He turned to His Vine-dresser – 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 deteriorates the soil. And its three years’ barrenness has established (as before explained) its utterly hopeless character. Then it is that the Divine Vine-dresser, 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 against 27 the future (coming) year shalt thou cut it down.’ The Parable needs no further commentation. 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.
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 Superior. 32 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.’
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 feast 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 personally 35 that the Parable was addressed.
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.
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!
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.