This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on February 28, 2016.
In last week’s lectionary text (Luke 13:31-35), the narrative began with a group of Pharisees bringing frightening news to Jesus about a threat upon his life. We begin this week’s text with another troubling political report. Jesus is informed that Pilate has killed a group of Galileans. The events described in this passage cannot be located in Jewish resources from this period, but the historian, Josephus, acknowledges that Pilate was known to act with brutal force to maintain the balance of power. We are not given a reason for Pilate’s actions. It is possible that the Galileans were accused of insurgency and then executed. Their blood flowed together with the blood of sacrifices at the temple which suggests that they were likely in the vicinity of the temple when they were killed. This fact makes the report seem even more horrific.
Luke’s account does not provide insight into the intent of those who bring this report to Jesus. Perhaps they expected him to speak to the relative injustice of the situation as many of us might do. Perhaps they wanted him to be outraged and come to the Galileans defense, pronouncing God’s judgement against Roman perpetrators. Instead, Jesus responds in an unexpected manner by raising questions about judgement and suffering. There are references in scripture pointing to the fact that some Jews wondered if tragic events occurred as punishment for personal sins (for example, John 9:2-3). Why did these Galileans have to suffer so greatly, and what about the eighteen souls killed because the tower of Siloam fell upon them? We continue to ask difficult questions of theodicy today about why bad things happen to seemingly good people.
Jesus answers his own questions emphatically. No, God’s does not pass judgement in this manner. It is not a sin or an offense that necessarily causes suffering and unfortunate events. Instead of passing judgement on a political leader or a victim, Jesus faces his listeners with determination. He turns the tables on the conversation and warns that they are the ones who risk judgement if they do not choose to act promptly. They should worry less about the sins of others and more about their own need for confession. Unless they repent, they will all perish. Jesus’ words continue to challenge us today to examine our own hearts with a sense of urgency. Are we so fixated upon judging the lives of people whose stories are told in the news or who live down the street from us that we avoid examining our own souls? Jesus was calling his listeners to earnest repentance, and he continues to call his people to humble themselves before God in genuine contrition.
Jesus explores the invitation to repentance further through the parable of the barren fig tree. We are not told if the tree has borne fruit in the past and has recently stopped producing or if it is relatively young and has not yet generated a harvest. Newly planted fig trees have a long juvenile period, generally requiring four to five years to produce the first crop. Once they are producing fruit, they will generate an edible crop once or twice a year depending upon the weather conditions and the care provided through fertilization and pruning. Healthy fig trees can continue to provide fruit for decades.
In Jesus’ parable, the owner of the fig tree has been expecting to see fruit for some time now. He is frustrated at the lack of production, especially since the tree uses significant resources from the soil to stay alive. He has had enough and is ready to cut it down! The vineyard owner’s gardener urges patience, promising to give the tree some extra support over the course of the next year with the hope that it will finally produce fruit in line with its purpose in the vineyard. The gardener agrees to cut it down if nothing changes in the coming year. The parable ends without a final word from the vineyard owner.
We can surmise that the barren fig tree represents the people of God, including Jesus’ listeners, who are not bearing the fruit of repentance. A few references in the Old Testament point to the fig tree as a metaphor for Judah and Jerusalem (Jeremiah 8:13; 24:1-10; Micah 7:1; Hosea 9:10). God is frustrated with the lack of repentance that characterizes his people, and he is losing patience with them. Jesus may take on the role of the gardener who urges forbearance and one more chance for change and growth. His presence among them, including his teachings and miraculous works, are like the extra attention the gardener gives to the tree by digging around its base and spreading manure to nourish the soil and the roots. However, even the gardener recognizes time is limited.
Stories of judgement and repentance are no more popular today than they were in Jesus’ time. We hesitate to talk about sin for fear of offending someone. In this season of Lent, the church has an opportunity to seek restoration and renewal through the discipline of confession and heartfelt repentance.
Dr. Angela Reed
Assistant Professor of Practical Theology; Director of Spiritual Formation
George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Waco, TX
Tags: Pilate, Siloam, suffering, judgement, fig, confession, gardener