3 Lent: Luke 13:1-17
HAVE YOU HEARD? Has anyone told you yet? Did you catch the news this morning?
If you have ever had someone start a conversation with a question like that, you know you’re in for something: good news, bad news, shocking news — some kind of news. There is something very human about wanting to announce news to someone else, to share news with another: joy shared is joy multiplied; misery shared is misery reduced; shock shared is…well, it’s just shock shared, but at least we’re in it together.
Have you heard? Has anyone told you yet? Did you catch the news this morning?
The one announcing the news has certain expectations for your response, too; he expects you to feel about the news as he does. Imagine to the contrary: a friend comes up to you all excited and says, “Hey, have you heard? Joe’s wife just had the baby.” And you respond, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” Well, that’s a non sequitur if ever ever there were one. Your friend is likely to be very confused, if not angry, at that response.
Have you heard? Has anyone told you yet? Did you catch the news this morning?
“Hey, Jesus, have you heard about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices?” Someone, some group comes announcing news. Let’s pause the story here for a moment, between the announcement of the news and Jesus’ response to it, for a little background. We don’t know the details of the events surrounding the slaughter of these Galileans, but, historically speaking, it’s not too difficult to reconstruct a plausible scenario. Galileans were troublemakers, at least as far as Rome was concerned: rabble rousing, rebellious insurrectionists always fomenting discontent, likely ready to slit Roman throats at the drop of a hat. Some group of them apparently came to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the Temple and in a moment of paranoia or pique — or just because he had the power and could do — Pilate had them slaughtered in the Temple precincts, metaphorically and probably literally mingling their blood with the blood of their sacrificial animals.
“Hey, Jesus, have you heard about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices?” Why think Jesus would be particularly interested in this news? Well, he was a Galilean, and, in that sense, these were his people. How do you think those who announced this news expected Jesus to respond? Sadness — certainly. Anger — probably. Resolve to restore the Kingdom of God, by which they meant the ousting of Rome? Just possibly.
And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
That’s confounding; that’s not at all the response they expected. What did Jesus mean by that? To Pilate, these Galileans were no worse “sinners” than any other Galileans; he feared and hated them all. Perhaps he had heard lately some new stirring of discontent in Galilee, some hint of trouble coming. Perhaps he was on heightened alert when he learned of this group’s arrival in Jerusalem. Perhaps he had just had a fight with his wife or a lousy breakfast that morning; some kitchen slave burned the toast. The trigger could have been anything or nothing at all. But these Galileans gave Pilate the chance to send an overdue message that day, a not-so-subtle warning to all Galileans; this is what Rome does to your kind, to those who cause trouble, to those who even think about rebellion. These Galileans were just in the wrong place at the wrong time: no worse than any other Galileans either in reality or in Pilate’s paranoid imagination. Any Galileans would have done as well to send the warning.
And [Jesus] answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Now, we begin to see what Jesus is saying. Pilate didn’t single these Galileans out because they were exceptionally bad, but because they were exceptionally ordinary, because they were a symbol of all Galileans, of all those people up north who opposed Rome in heart and mind and deed. “This is what Pilate thinks of all of us Galileans,” Jesus is saying. “And Rome will do to all us Galileans what Pilate did to these few, unless….”
No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
And this is the great non sequitur in the story. Those who carried the news to Jesus expected sadness, anger, resolve. What they got was a call to repentance: not a sorrow-filled confession of sin, but an amendment of life and a change of mind about what it meant to live as God’s covenant people — as Israel — in the midst of internal exile and domination by a foreign power. Jesus had told them before in the Sermon on the Mount or in the Sermon on the Plain just what the Kingdom of God looks like and just what it means to live in that Kingdom:
Matthew 5:3–12 (ESV): 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
To repent meant to embrace this vision of the Kingdom of God, to accept that this is what it means to live as God’s people in exile under the powers of this world. That is still what it means to repent.
Jesus pushes the point home to those who brought him the news and to any who were listening. He reminds them of another disaster, what insurance companies rather foolishly refer to as an “act of God:”
Luke 13:4–5 (ESV): 4 “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
A tower falls and kills eighteen people. No, it’s not fate. It’s not a judgment of God on these particularly miserable offenders. It’s faulty construction techniques or poor materials or age and weathering or a shifting foundation or…. It’s just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But Jesus’ conclusion is exactly the same. If you don’t repent, if you don’t change your mind about what it means to be God’s people, if you don’t amend your lives, then you too will be crushed under the falling towers — the city walls and the Temple walls — of Jerusalem when Rome has finally had enough and comes in judgment to destroy the city, pulling the walls and the towers down on top of you. You can live in the Kingdom of God as the people of God — you can repent — or you can die clinging fast to your own rebellious agenda. The choice is yours. And that leads us to the parable.
Luke 13:6–9 (ESV): 6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”
No good Jew could miss the symbolism here, grape vines and fig trees: the symbols of Israel as spoken of by Hosea, among others.
Hosea 9:10a (ESV): 10 Like grapes in the wilderness,
I found Israel.
Like the first fruit on the fig tree
in its first season,
I saw your fathers.
A man planted a fig tree; God planted Israel. What did the man require of the tree and what does God require of Israel? Fruit: righteousness, covenant faithfulness. But he found none. Read Hosea 9 – 10; it’s all right there. The man showed great restraint; he waited three years for fruit and still nothing. Three years: is there anything coincidental about that period, the length of Jesus’ ministry? And now, judgment comes: cut the tree down. And can’t you just hear John the Baptist’s voice ringing out three years earlier?
Luke 3:7–9 (ESV): 7 He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The time has come. Swing the axe. Throw the tree into the fire. And yet…and yet the gardener asks for a reprieve, just a year in which to dig around the tree, to put manure on it, to see if there is any way at all to bring it to fruitfulness and to avoid its destruction. And then these final, open-ended words:
Luke 13:9 (ESV): 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.
So, the challenge is put to the people. Jesus has issued the call to repent, to live as the people of God in the Kingdom of God in the midst of exile. He has reminded them that the axe is poised to fall on the nation if they refuse to repent. And now, to mix metaphors, the ball is in their court. What will they do? Will they repent? Will they bear fruit? The symbolic and prophetic answer comes only a bit later as recorded by both Matthew and Mark and hinted at by Luke. It comes during what we call Holy Week:
Matthew 21:18–19 (ESV): 18 In the morning, as [Jesus] was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
And so Israel’s judgment is pronounced. Within forty years destruction will come when Rome finally tires of the Galileans and all the rest of those Jews who will just not get with the Roman program: blood will be shed — human blood mixed with the blood of sacrifices — and walls and towers will fall crushing people underneath. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,” Jesus said.
“Ancient news,” you may say. True and fair enough. “What does this have to do with us?” you may ask. Good question.
Have you heard? Another unarmed, young black man shot and killed by a member of a citizen’s watch group just “standing his ground.” Has anyone told you yet? Two police officers responding to a domestic call set up, ambushed, and murdered. Do you think that these were worse sinners than the rest because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
Did you catch the news this morning? Another school shooting, another church shooting, another synagogue shooting, another mosque shooting…another shooting. Do you think that these were worse sinners than the rest because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
Have you read the papers lately? Another famine, another drought, another flood, another hurricane, another genocide. Do you think that these were worse sinners than the rest because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
Have you checked your Facebook feed today? Another church scandal: another case of sexual misconduct, another embezzlement of funds, another abuse of power.
Have you heard? Another dirty politician, another greedy corporation, another brutal dictator.
Has anyone told you yet? The rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, homelessness on the rise, refugees living in squalid camps with little shelter and no food, would-be immigrants trapped between two countries neither of which wants them or is prepared to take them.
Have you looked around? A culture deluded and deceived in such fundamental areas as identity, gender, race, justice, truth: what it means to be genuinely and rightly human, what it means to flourish under God.
I am no prophet, but I don’t have to be to know that the axe is already laid at the root of the trees and that every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I am no prophet, but I don’t have to be to know that we are living in a moment — perhaps a fleeting moment — of grace in which the vinedresser is still digging at the roots of the barren tree, supplying nutrients, waiting to see how the tree will respond.
Jesus’ words to those who brought him news of the Galileans’ slaughter were also his words to all Israel. And they are his words to us here in America, here in Tennessee, here in Knoxville, here at Apostles. They are his words to you and to me. Repent. Change your mind and amend your ways. Consider again what it means to be the people of God, living in the Kingdom of God, in the midst of a fallen world. Consider your loyalties and your allegiances. Discern the truth and eschew falsehood. Renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil, and embrace the Kingdom, the Spirit, and the Lord. Repent, always. The Christian life is the way of continual repentance.
There is one story left in our Gospel text today, a beautiful story of hope and grace. We need that now, don’t we. While there is no explicit mention of repentance in this story — no call to it — the image that lies at its heart is a holy icon of sin, repentance, grace, and freedom.
St. Augustine was perhaps the first to describe sin in this way, and later Martin Luther elaborated on it: incurvatus in se — man curved inward upon himself. Faith turns outward. Repentance turns outward. Worship turns outward. Sin curves a man inward upon himself.
Luke 13:10–13 (ESV): 10 Now [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And behold, there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” 13 And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God.
This woman had been bound by Satan for eighteen years, physically curved inward on herself. Do you think she was a worse sinner than others because she suffered in this way? No; but unless we repent, we, too, are bound by Satan, curved inward on ourselves. Jesus called her and she came. And that is the essence of repentance: coming to Jesus to be freed from bondage, to be freed from whatever curves you inward on yourself.
Jesus laid his hands on this woman and spoke a word of liberation: “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” And immediately she was made straight and glorified God: the formerly barren tree now bearing the fruit of repentance — freedom, grace, worship.
Always, always, there is the temptation to curve inward on ourselves. Always, always there is the tendency to point to those others who are worse sinners than the rest, who are getting just what they deserve. But, thanks be to God, there is now a moment of grace, a moment of reprieve, in which to repent, a moment in which Christ will once again touch us and liberate us from all that curves us inward on ourselves if we will but come to him.