Let’s remember where we are in Luke’s story: Jesus has decided to go to Jerusalem with a group of fellow Galilean pilgrims when they decide to share some news tainted with self-righteous anger. They inform Jesus of an atrocity committed by Pilate who slaughtered some other Galileans while they were offering sacrifice in the Temple.
It was a tragic event worthy of anger. It was bad enough to live under the occupation of Pilate and his reign of terror but this was an event where he sent soldiers into the Temple and had innocent people killed alongside of their sacrifices so that the blood of the innocent mingled with the blood of the sacrifice on the floor of the Temple courtyard. It was sacrilege.
Some of the Galilean pilgrims shared this news with Jesus. Having been informed Jesus responds not by condemning Pilate nor by minimizing His fellow Galillean’s oppression but by addressing the larger and very human question: why do bad things happen?
He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?
Why is the first question we ask when tragedy strikes. It’s such a human question. Why did this happen? Was is the result of some evil I participated in? Was it punishment for sin? Why did the hurricane hit New Orleans and not Georgia? Why did those people die and not others? Why is such a natural question to ask but so impossible to answer. We ask “why” because we need a reason. We need an explanation.
Jesus responds to their question of “why” by raising the connection of suffering and sin. In Deuteronomy, Proverbs, Job, Ezekiel and many other places suffering and sin were connected. The relationship was formulaic. Obedience to the Torah brought blessings. Disobedience brought a curse. It’s simplistic cause and effect.
This is particularly poignant for those of us who, when speaking to someone about hunger in various parts of the world, have heard the response that these people are suffering from famine because of their sin. Or, when speaking of the suffering in our communities, we have been told the news that such misery is the result of those people’s sin.
The second example is raised by Jesus and it is parallel to the first: the fall of a tower in Siloam killing 18 Galileans. Jesus’ response follows form: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?
Why? I can imagine that as those who shared the news are listening they are desiring for Jesus to affirm that yes, indeed, those people were worse sinners therefore they died and since they weren’t sinners like those people were they would be saved.
Jesus didn’t say any of that. Jesus responds to these rhetorical questions adamantly: No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.
It’s a stern warning with a clear call to repentance – to change directions. Jesus is making it clear that those who refuse to change their course and continue down the path of redemptive violence will suffer the same consequence.
His response also completely dismisses the assumed cause and effect nature of sin. If it were a matter of sin, we would all be dead. Twice Jesus says: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” and then he illustrates his meaning with a parable of a man who found an unproductive fig tree. Normally, he would have cut it down but the owner agrees to allow it to stand for one more year. It will even receive special care. If at the end of that time it has not produced fruit, then it will be cut down.
What does the parable mean, in this context? It clearly means that those of us who survive, those Galileans who were not killed by Herod, or those Jews on whom the tower did not fall, or those of us who have not died from famine, or those who have endured suffering yet still live, are living only by the grace of God, and that our continued life is for the purpose that we bear fruit.
Maybe it also means that we shouldn’t boast in our perceived abundance. The unproductive tree receives special treatment and added fertilizer not because it is so good but because it is so poor.
This is not one of the more popular parables of Jesus for many reasons. I wonder if one of the main reasons is that we would like to continue to believe the reason we have a nice income when others are poor, or a nice home when others are homeless, or plenty of food when others have little, or a healthy body when others are ill is because we have been uniquely faithful.
This passage, however, won’t stand for that. It’s not cause and effect. Could the more sobering reason why some of us have been given all of these advantages be that otherwise we would have a really hard time bearing fruit?
Repent. Turn around. Because the miraculous grace of the owner of the vineyard has decided to give us one more chance.