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)
The war in Ukraine testifies that conflict today is fought with armaments and with communication media – sometimes called the ground war and the information war. In the stories we tell ourselves, we are always the ‘goodies’ or there are mitigating circumstances if we are the ‘baddies’ and so those engaged in warfare have wanted to control the message as much as possible. Today, however, with the use of social media, the by-passing of government or official channels, we can access situations in real-time which we believe if we trust the source.
In the past we know how easily it becomes in conflict to fall into tribes – them and us – and, of course, all Germans were the enemy here in the UK over two world wars – and the history of the ELCE has numerous members’ stories of attack and prejudice, vandalism and forced separation – because of a name, language, circumstance – for which there was no evidence or truth that they were the ‘enemy’. Today, however, with our communication we are aware that there are protests in Russia, support for Russia here in the UK, and different accounts about the colour of the flight suits of newly arrived cosmonauts on the International Space Station. With more information and news we are aware more and more of difference and dissent and diversity and so a one-sized fits all explanation doesn’t work. This makes living more complex. It was easier when all – name a nationality, religion, political party – were bad, the enemy – and we, of course, are not.
We often forget, I think, when reading the Gospels that they tell the story of an occupied people under a foreign ruler. Most of the people who walk the Gospels – Jews, Samaritans, Philistines, Idumeans, or Syrophoenicians – had to navigate and deal with the Romans. So when Jesus is told about Pilate’s killing of some Galileans in a worship and sacrifice context – details of which are unknown – it is akin to slaughter during a worship service today – they and we are rightly horrified and Jesus is expected to be horrified and denounce the Romans. We don’t know if what he was expected to say was to be used against him but he was expected to show solidarity with those killed and antipathy towards the perpetrators.
And what Jesus does could well have got him rejection and a smack in the mouth! He doesn’t join the attack on the foreigner but talks about those who died and asks if they were worse sinners than others because of what happened to them.
And then Jesus goes on about a building accident in which 18 died – and some scholars think this might have been an aqueduct project of Pilate’s – and Jesus asks the same question – were they worse than others? Is that why bad things happen? Were the Ukrainians really bad in some way? Or are the Russians really evil? And Jesus rejects these types of questions and instead points to his hearers – those who came to him to demand support and any who are listening in – and says, ‘What about you?’ What will you say when bad things happen to you? Who will you blame? And then he is even more targeted – he says to them that they need to repent! Jesus’ disciples had a similar view when they saw the man born blind and asked who sinned – him or his parents that he was born blind (John 9). Jesus wants to break this sort of cause and effect – bad things are the faults of others, the evil of others, and maybe the capriciousness of God – and if that is true then we are less responsible for our behaviour.
Jesus recognises evil and tragedy in this world – they happen, of course, they do – and they can shape and even end our life – but they cannot be an excuse for us not to follow God or relate to God. I’ve had a tough life, God, and you allowed it so you have to be nice to me and give me a bit of pass but definitely smite those who hurt me!
In effect Jesus says to such words and attitude that we need to repent of our sins and bad behaviour first. Stop reading the news and thinking how tough life is and how God should help but instead look in the mirror and see sin and repent so that you can face the news – especially when the news is about you! And then Jesus goes on with a parable about a fig tree in a 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.
This parable could well be about the barrenness of the religious leaders and their teaching who have taught the people to bristle and fight the Romans rather than struggling with their own sin first. The owner and gardener have been patient and gracious for many years but the tree appears dead and so it should be buried. The gardener asks for one more year and he will work on it – rescue it – the words hint at loosing it – forgiving it – and if there is life then the fruit will come.
And if Luke is recording Jesus’ commentary about how we live politically or when bad times come and also on the work and words of religious leaders – then we are going to find Jesus troubling because he doesn’t seem to be able to be co-opted for our side only. The husband who complains to God about his wife’s behaviour is more likely to be shown his behaviour and told to go and work on it. That’s not what we want to hear when things are tough! Of course there is a time and place to pray and work against bad things, abuse, and evil but Jesus’ starting point is not that we are good and they are bad but that before God we are sinners in need of repentance. And then God forgives – that’s the message of Jesus in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – so that we can live knowing that whatever is happening is not a punishment from God and that God is with us in it.
But, Lord, life is tough – maybe there are cutting words, fists, bombs, or illness falling on you – of course we want it stop and better times to come. Repentance and its lifestyle teach us that tough times are not evidence of God’s absence or his capriciousness nor that those who hurt us are pure evil for they, too, are loved by God and can come to repentance just like us. Our behaviour responds to our circumstances but it is governed by our relationships – and Jesus was pretty blunt to those who heard him – What about you? Are you going to repent?
During Lent we might be swamped by sin and evil in the world. Jesus doesn’t ignore it. Rather he treats it and responds to it personally – starting with us and giving us a perspective that yes, the world is plagued by sin but that God loves the world – just as he loves us. His love leads us to repentance and a lifestyle of doing what we can to bring others to repentance – and that’s love too – it might even be called loving our enemy.
1 K Bailey (1980), Through Peasant Eyes, p.81,82.
- Luke 13:1 - 9