There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:1-9 ESV)
In a world of wars and violence it is expected that one rallies for one’s country or one’s side. The trenches of past wars are a good image of the position one takes up when we’re in conflict. There are two sides – we’re right – they’re wrong; we’re righteous – they’re evil. It’s clear and obvious – doesn’t need debating – in fact the time for discussion is over – in conflict, all that is required is action that will support the cause – anything else is unacceptable.
Jesus, it seems, was unacceptable to many people. He lived in an occupied country for all of his life and during his adult years the fervour of both political and military resistance would have seen him challenged on numerous occasions. To many of Jesus’ contemporaries – and even at least one of his disciples – Simon the Zealot – Israel was a country at war. Zeal for God and his covenant was transferred in time to zeal for the law which was constantly intensified because of all the foreign rulers who controlled Israel. And so the Zealot was willing to lay down his own life rather than transgress the law; was willing to kill Gentiles if required; and was even prepared to take the life of a fellow Israelite if necessary. This is the time for action!
“Jesus! That so-and-so Pilate has killed Galileans in the temple. He defiled our sacrifices!” The words are looking for sympathy and denunciation. Anything else is simply unacceptable. It strikes me that Jesus really missed the cue. People expect him to speak about God and Jews in a positive way and denounce Rome or at least Pilate but he, instead, speaks about the Galileans. Are they worse sinners than anyone else for this to have happened to them? And before there is any comment – though uneasy murmurings are probably filling hearts and minds – Jesus personalises the target – as if to say “Pilate’s not here in front me, you are” – we might talk about bad situations all we like but what about you – repent, otherwise you will truly perish.
And then as if to take the whole argument further, Jesus takes up a local incident that they’re all aware of – the falling of the tower in Siloam – which unless it is going to blamed on some Siloam construction company will be thought of as an act of God – and Jesus asks the same question. Were the 18 dead more sinful than anyone else? The answer is simply ‘No’ for Jesus shatters the idea that there is a simple cause and effect to sin, suffering, and death. God doesn’t sit up in heaven zapping the big sinners and giving them their just rewards. Again, Jesus zeros back in on those around him – there might be a place for academic discussions about sin, death, tragedy, and suffering – but I’m interested in you listeners here and now – sinners need to repent (do you hear the message? you need to repent?) and that can be done because God is fundamentally merciful.
Incidentally, when Jesus stood in front of Pilate, he then spoke words that Pilate needed to hear – reminding him – and indeed all leaders that there is a higher authority to which an account will be given. In Christianity, worldly authority – governments – the right to wield the sword – exist to serve the cause of justice, good order, and the well being of all and they are not synonymous with the kingdom of God. All the Pontius Pilates of this world will personally need to repent – not so much of their politics (though that may be the case) but of their sin against God – as will we all.
When people want the world to be friend or foe; good and bad; categorised as those for us and those against us, Jesus takes the unpopular road and says that the world is grey, a mixture of good and bad, and those we demonise might not be as bad as we think and those who support us might not be as good as we think. But Jesus quickly points out that if you do want definite definitions, trenches, good and bad issues, and talk in terms of for and against then you’ve entered the world of human beings and God. Sin rebels and God will judge. Sin leads to death and repentance leads to life.
But sin by its nature doesn’t allow repentance to occur – instead it produces scheming, comparisons with others, it looks for an edge, it gets ready to argue with God (if you created this world then sin must be your fault so don’t blame me). It falls into pride or despair. There’s no point in telling people to repent if they actually can’t do it. Repentance is not paying for one’s crimes – that’s justice. Repentance is a lifestyle revolution that affects thoughts, words, and deeds – affects us right to the core – and as such remains beyond our abilities. We’re like barren trees who don’t bear fruit being told to get some fruit. If you’re barren then you’re stuck, you need assistance.
And so Jesus talks about the fig tree in the vineyard and the owner and the gardener. If the vineyard is Israel then maybe the fig tree represents the leaders of Israel – maybe Jerusalem itself. If the vineyard is the world, then maybe the fig tree is Israel. Fig trees1 in the Middle East take time to bear fruit – 3 years for the tree to mature – then 3 years for the fruit to form – on the 7th year one hopefully takes the first fruits to the Lord in thanks and then from the eighth year one eats the fruit. These fig trees also bear fruit up to ten times per year so that at almost anytime of the year the owner should be able to eat figs. But it isn’t happening.
Enter the gardener and the owner – often thought of as good guy – bad guy – the owner wants his fruit and the gardener wants to save the fig tree. If the Father and the Son of the Trinity are superimposed then you get angry Father and placating Son. But this interpretation doesn’t work. For the owner has shown grace to the tree – he has waited – but the tree’s lack of fruit means lack of life. It is in effect dead – rip it out and bury it. The gardener says in truth don’t bind it and dig it up – but loose it and leave it for a while – he’s in effect saying ‘forgive’ it. Be gracious towards it and I will work on it. By itself the tree is doomed but the gardener is going to work – rescue work – dirty work – manure work – and we’ll see whether there is fruit in the future. Jesus doesn’t say what happens to the tree – the point is obvious – you see what happens. Both the owner and the gardener are gracious and merciful – the owner is patient and the gardener is prepared to get his hands dirty – but their actions are the only thing that will bring life to the tree – it can’t do it by itself. Repentance is only possible because God makes it possible for us to repent – to see our sin for what it truly is – and to see his grace and mercy as real – as an opportunity to bear fruit – to live. And this option is not just for a select few – for those we think are good enough and not for those who are too bad – but God’s plan is for all people – God desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth – who is Jesus. That is the dirty and manure work that was done on us – Jesus’ suffering and death – so that we – you – me – us – might be saved.
In the world of wars, violence, conflicts, feuds this truth is foundational – we are all sinners – the good I want to do I don’t do and the bad I don’t want to do I find I do! – and Christ has died for all of us. Sadly atrocities and tragedies will continue to occur and we must be wise in response. The world says kill your enemy before he kills you – and that might be literally or metaphorically or socially or electronically or organisationally. Jesus says that we should love our enemies and the starting point is his love for us and our awareness of sin and our daily repentance. In the cross of Christ, God’s grace and forgiveness goes into no man’s land and commits us to engage with others, not disengage; to seek to reconcile, not actively destroy. If we bring our judgements, labels, criticisms of others to Jesus, we will be surprised how he replies.
1 K Bailey (1980), Through Peasant Eyes, p.81.82.
- Luke 13:1 - 9