First Look: Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’

Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’

Note: A sermon on this text, entitled, “Sentenced to Life” can be found here.

I once heard a pastor preach a sermon on this text that focused on the incident at Siloam mentioned by Jesus in verse 4.  The pastor proclaimed with vigor that the fall of Siloam’s tower – which resulted in the death of eighteen people – showed that God will eventually punish the unfaithful with some tragedy unless they repent of their sinful ways.  Hearing that sermon bothered me, not only because the pastor was someone I respected and spoke with when faced with my own turmoil, but additionally because he was speaking of a God I didn’t know. I believed the text to say just the opposite.  This was my first real faithful disagreement with religious authority, and it affected the way I read the Bible for years to come.

While it’s tempting to launch into a discussion on the fallibility of pastors and their sermons, I’ll leave that topic alone (for now) and instead stick to the text at hand.  What does it really say?  Whenever we address a text in which tragic events are discussed we must be careful, particularly when the text pops up in the lectionary cycle immediately after we’ve seen tragedy unfold in the world around us.  Our expositions of Jesus’ words will undoubtedly end up not just being applied to Jerusalem and Siloam, but to Haiti and Chile as well.

The text comes at the end of a litany of warnings from Jesus to his hearers.  In response to some of Jesus’ warnings pertaining to faith and persecution, some of those listening to him tell him of the slaughter of Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices”.  It is both ironic and horrific that those performing religious rituals would be slaughtered along with their sacrifices, and it was an event that undoubtedly reverberated through the region.  The Jewish culture at the time held a strong connection between calamity and sinfulness, seeing tragic events as divine justice against sinners.  Those following Jesus likely would have had questions about the character of those Galileans slaughtered in Jerusalem as they made their temple sacrifice, and we can infer much about their concerns from Jesus’ response.  On a theological level, this text closes in on the question of why bad things happen to seemingly good people, but ultimately sidesteps a concrete answer.  Rather than address such a timeless and troubling question head-on, Jesus uses the event as a call to repentance.

While the tragedy at Siloam was fundamentally different in nature (accidental rather than intentional), Jesus’ response is the same.  It would seem here that Jesus’ listeners are very much caught up in the question of “why” tragic events like this happen.  Perhaps it is simple human nature to assign blame or determine causality when catastrophes occur.  One doesn’t have to look very far today to see that we are very quick to blame, very quick to seek retributive justice in the wake of catastrophic events.  In the foreword of The Second World War, John Keegan discusses the different cultural perspectives on the cause of World War II.  Most of us in the West, he explains, are very comfortable assigning the blame entirely to Hitler and his murderous regime.  Many historians in Europe, however, typically raise questions about western leaders’ hesitancy to support Soviet power, which could have effectively kept Hitler in check.  The point here is not to wade into a morass of historical debate, but rather to illustrate a tendency among all cultures to find fault with others rather than turn a critical eye on our own actions.  When Jesus uses the tragic events at Jerusalem and Siloam as a backdrop for confession and repentance, the point is clear: As no one is without sin, seek to be more mindful of your own sins than the sins of others.  It is an appropriate message for the season of Lent, made even more so by recent events in Haiti and Chile.  Rather than attempting to discover the cause of such tragedies or assigning blame to our foreign brothers and sisters, it would be more appropriate to confess our own failure to care for them as we should.  Unless we repent…

But Jesus is not done, is he?  Instead of just ending the discussion on that note, he uses it as a springboard into a parable of grace.  This juxtaposition of seemingly paradoxical ideas is characteristic of Luke’s gospel.  The splendor of transfiguration is immediately followed by a shrieking, convulsing sickness (9:28-43).  Jesus’ lament over the obstinacy of Jerusalem is immediately followed by his tender desire to protect them as a mother hen protects her chicks (13:31-35).  Luke often presents a paradoxical gospel, one that resists reduction into black and white terms.  We see this again in Jesus’ parable of the fruitless tree, a story which seems very much to be about just punishment until Jesus presents the figure of the hard-working gardener who convinces the landowner to give the tree another year.  This is a parable of grace through and through, yet even here there is a call to repentance.  The tree is given another year along with a promise from the gardener to do everything in his power to help it bear fruit, but there is also the expectation that the tree will yield something when the gardener’s work with it is done.

What does this say about us?  Do we not all tend to be fruitless trees?  If we interpret the gardener as the voice of Jesus, working for the well-being of those he loves and securing second chances for those of us who refuse to bear fruit, then what does it say about our relationship with God in Jesus Christ?  While it’s obvious that we could use this parable as a call to repentance, or as motivation to do the best we can with our second chances, might we stay closer to the meaning of Jesus’ parable if we simply give thanks that it is ultimately the gardener who works for our salvation, and not ourselves?  In this season of Lent, might we come closer to something resembling repentance if we admit that we fruitless trees are incapable of suddenly deciding to bear fruit, and instead we depend on the faithful work, care, and nurture that Jesus alone provides?  At the end of our second-chance year, what will it be that keeps us from being cut down?  Will it be our own will to yield fruit?  Or will it be the labor and sacrifice of the gardener?

There is one final point which bears discussing.  This text opens with the horrible description of a group of Galilean worshipers who went to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices at the temple, and were slaughtered as they did so.  The image of one’s own blood mixing with the blood of one’s sacrifice is vivid and gruesome, and in brutal detail Luke tells us that the lines between Galilean worshiper and atoning sacrifice were blurred.  The blood of the two mingled, and became one sacrifice.  We cannot help but notice that at this point in the text, Jesus, a Galilean, is himself journeying toward Jerusalem with a group of Galileans.  There is the very real possibility that their own blood will be spilled as well, and Jesus’ litany of warnings suggests that when he goes to Jerusalem, he goes there to die.  The irony is unmistakable.  Once again Pilate will brutally dispose of a Galilean, and once again the line between Galilean and atoning sacrifice will disappear.  Jesus’ own blood will be spilled in a sacrificial event.  Once again, the horrors of violent injustice will be followed by a note of grace.  Jesus, from the cross, will cry out for his murderers to be forgiven.  He will use the same word from the cross as he uses in the parable of the fruitless tree: aphiemi.  It means to let something alone, or to forgive.

“Let it alone for one more year.”

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Grace abounds.

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First Look is a weekly commentary on the upcoming gospel lectionary text, and is usually published on Mondays.  Remember to check back next week!

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