“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’ (Luke 13:1-5)
Jesus speaks of two local news items for which we have no other information. They both come under the category of “Shock! Horror!” stuff which the media to this day insists that we get a massive daily dose. If there isn’t something awful near at hand, then we’re taken further and further afield until there is. Spiritually speaking, it’s like an intravenous drip of raw sewage.
But sure, these things happen.
The first event was the grisly account of Pilate’s treatment of pilgrims; the second of the collapse of a wall in Jerusalem. As today, both news items prompt the question: “Why did God let these things happen?” A typical response was (and sometimes is) that “Maybe they deserved it!” That is to say, God was punishing them for something or other.
Aren’t you glad that Jesus simply ditched this explanation so we don’t have to bother with it ever again?
We are left with acknowledging that life is fragile; that bad things just happen without purpose and design. Jesus implies that the victims did nothing wrong at all, and that life is (as Thomas Hobbes put it) “nasty, brutish and short.”
Though the description always reminds me of my HIgh School Gym teacher.
Jesus notes that we cannot equate tragedy with divine punishment. Sin does not make atrocities come. They just come.
So how should we respond to such news items? Jesus flips the question around so that instead of focusing on the victims, we focus upon the survivors -us. If we can’t equate tragedy with divine punishment, neither can we mistake our survival as evidence of divine blessing!
The point that Jesus underlines is that of repentance. The connecting link between Pilate’s victims and the wall’s victims is the suddenness of their demise. No one saw it coming! They had no chance to put things right with God.
For Jesus is not referring to physical death but spiritual death. As in the previous chapter: “‘I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5 But I will show you whom you should fear: fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell.” (Luke 12:4)
So don’t delay getting yourselves right with God. You don’t get to choose the day of your death. Jesus urges his hearers that if life’s fragility demands urgency, that urgency shows that right now we have the chance to seize God’s opportunity of grace.
And this is the connecting link with the next bit:
6 Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig-tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig-tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?”
8 ‘“Sir,” the man replied, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig round it and fertilise it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.”’ (Luke 13:6-9)
The story about the fig tree speaks of imminent judgment: that tree is coming down! It reminds me of Luke 3:9: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the tree and every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Do you see the link? The unproductive tree still has a chance to do its stuff. It’s been granted extra time. Unless it begins to bear fruit (an image of repentance, according to Luke 3:8), the result will be its just and swift destruction.
Just because you have not been cut down, do not presume that you are bearing fruit. You’re being given a chance.
And God is the gardener, not leaving you to your own resources but patiently, and mercifully encouraging your repentance.
And the story ends with a question: Will fruit emerge in time to thwart the axe? How will this season of second chances play itself out? How do the gardener’s efforts make the tree’s existence a state of grace and opportunity?
In this passage the need for repentance is assumed and so it takes a backseat in emphasis to the urgency of Jesus’ call. Tragedy and hardship have their ways of nudging people toward God, but these verses suggest that tragedy and hardship come so suddenly that they often mark the end, not the beginning, of our opportunities to live lives inclined toward God.
Jesus’ words about judgment and repentance are scary, yet they depict human life as a gift, albeit a fragile one. Jesus does not explain the causes of violence that nature and human beings regularly inflict upon unsuspecting people. He does not blame victims. He does not attempt to defend creation or the Creator when “why?” questions seem warranted. At least in this scene, he offers no theological speculation. He simply asks: What about you? How will you live the life you get to live?
Tragedies arrest our attention. They shake us out of the complacencies or stupor that we use to get through ordinary life. They impress upon us the perils of our existence. But tragedies also lead many of us to protect ourselves with rationalizations and false assurances.
Do we build our lives upon those rationalizations that allow us to get through the day feeling blessed, safe, and able to presume upon a better fortune than that of others who suffer across the world in a hundred horrors? Or, do we build our lives on the knowledge that God’s judgment is certain? Do we build them on the efforts that God, like the parable’s gardener, undertakes to prepare us for that judgment?
And so we return to the title, that lovely line from Mary Oliver that came to mind this morning:
what is it you plan to do
with your one
wild and precious life?”