Atrocities, Disasters and Repentance

Luke 13:1-9

At that time there were those who were bringing reports of the [massacre of] Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with that of their sacrifices. And Jesus response to this was:
“Do you think, perhaps, that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered like this? No, no, I tell you, but unless you turn around and repent [heading in the opposite direction to which you have been going] you shall all perish in the same way.
“Or even [as an example] those eighteen who were killed with the collapse of the Tower of Siloam – were they greater sinners than all the others in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, not at all. But unless you repent [turn around], you too will similarly perish.”
And this is the parable he gave them [at this time]:
“[Once upon a time there was] a man had planted a fig-tree in his vineyard, and so [in due course] he came to it seeking fruit but he found none. And he said to the vinedresser: “Look I have been coming here for three whole years looking for fruit on this fig tree and still I find nothing. Cut it down! Why should it leech the soil?” But the vinedresser in reply says to him: “Master, leave it for this year that I may dig [the soil] around it and apply manure, to see indeed if [with this] it will grow fruit in the future. And if it doesn’t, at your word it shall be cut down as you say it should.””

From Jesus’ teaching, as here recorded, we can infer his awareness of his disciples’ needs. They had to learn from him to interpret their lives in the light of his coming. They were called to a life of repentance and right judgement in following him.

But then, how should they respond to the atrocities meted out by Pilate? How should they view Roman massacres of their fellow Israelites? And then there were those disastrous accidents. What about the tragedy at the Pool of Siloam and the eighteen who lost their lives? They can hardly ignore these things. What are they to think about them?

It is not simply a matter of giving these matters their attention, say a prayer and light a candle. As subjects to God’s law they are to love God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength. So the question is: what are they thinking? And also: what is their response to be? How are these events to be interpreted in the light of the immanent arrival of God’s Kingdom, as John had been teaching and how Jesus had continued to teach?

How were the disciples to think about these events? Jesus was intent upon unmasking the presumptuous judgements that were rife among those who flocked to him. These ritualised massacres of Pilate, even with all their attendant pagan presumption, along with the collapsed tower were evidently taken as signs that God was busy cleaning up His land and His people in anticipation of His full glory being revealed. Obviously these were viewed as sinners who deserved such deaths, but Jesus’ response to such secret interpretations was to rule them out completely.

Instead, his “line” in response to these events – if it can be called that – was to reiterate that these were a people who like Isaiah, before his commissioning, should be crying out:

Woe is me. I am undone. I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the Lord, the King of Glory (Isaiah 6:5).

Some of Jesus’ disciples might have had an inkling that here indeed was the Lord, the King of Glory, on his way to his triumph, but just because they had this faith it did not give them permission to presume that their allegiance to him allowed them to dodge the consequences of their own unclean lips, their sin. Repentance then, and now, was and is the proper response. Similar disasters lie ahead for you, he told his disciples, if you do not repent.

If they were listening carefully, they would realise that this warning, once more, refers them to the significance of his presence among them, of his spending time with them. This is the time of mercy before judgement. There is no time to lose.

This is no explanation of the evil that has befallen the massacred Galileans, or the crushing of those who perhaps were seeking the healing waters of Siloam. Neither Pilate for his pagan ethnic cleansing deed nor the Jerusalem engineer liable for his negligence have escaped God’s notice. But Jesus directs his disciple’s attention to himself – they have to learn from him and that means repentance. There is no time to lose.

And the parable he provides them is all about the fig-tree’s time-line. The fig-tree has to “get cracking” and produce the goods or else it will be for the chop.

It might seem to be another instance of a parable telling us about the relationship between Jesus and his Heavenly Father, that is between the Vineyard Owner and the Vinedresser. In Jesus’ parable in John 15, he identifies himself as the vine and his Father as the vinedresser, the one who prunes off the unproductive branches. But here, though it is also about a vineyard, it may involved a vinedresser and the vineyard owner but it is not the vine that is under consideration – except indirectly; the soil needs to be protected from leeching. It is the fig-tree in the vineyard that is the focus.

The fig-tree had a special symbolic significance for Israel. The blessed people of the Lord had been specifically designated as those who would sit under the fig-tree’s branches right in the centre of the vineyard with all its luxuriant growth and prosperity [Zechariah 3:10, I Kings 4:25 see also John 1:43-51].

The Assyrian despot Sennacherib abused King Hezekiah and in particular cast scorn upon his child-like faith that the Lord would protect Israel and allow his people to live in peace in the midst of their vines and under the shade of their fig trees. And despite his rant, the Lord God had stood by his promises to Israel. And so it became a long-established symbol of Israel’s hope. It seems likely that it was something known about Israel among the nations, and had also come to the notice of Theophilus.

The tree, it seems, is already on notice. It requires attention. It has a task and that is to bear fruit. And it now, given its hitherto poor crop, has a strict time-line. It lives within a reprieve. And if it does not respond then it is for the chop.

At the time this parable was delivered, it does not seem that Jesus was extending his previous teaching by which he had helped his disciples to work through their anxieties by “considering the lilies of the field” (12:27). But that does not stop us from making that kind of link, and so reflect upon our own responsibility and growing wise in the context of God’s abiding care. Repentance in this instance, walking in the opposite direction, is about turning around to walk in the ways of the the Lord and to thereby bear fruit. The fruit may not come all at once, but the vinedresser in the parable is alert to the fact that the fig-tree is on notice and cannot indefinitely remain barren.

When Jesus’ parable refers to the possible culling of the fig tree, his listeners will have pricked up their ears, particularly if they were alert to the manner in which fig-trees were a recurrent symbol of Israel’s life under the blessings of the Lord. The persistence and fulfilment of ancient covenantal promises are at stake. To live with blessing under the fig tree’s bowers is only possible because of the persistence of God’s mercy and faithfulness. Moses knew this.

He who dwells within the shelter         Of the Most High finds his place;       She who lives beneath the shadow 
     Of the Almighty’s word of grace,      Says straight up “You are my tower  
 “Refuge sure that’s built to last.   “Your love is the source of power,  
“My life long you’ll have my trust!”

(Psalm 91)

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