At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Translation: There were some present in that time telling him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus answered, he said to them, "Do you think that these Galileans were bigger sinners than all the Galileans because they had suffered this? Nay, I say to you, but if you do not repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them--do you think they were bigger debtors than all the people living in Jerusalem? Nay, I say to you, but if you do not repent, you will all perish in the same way."
And he spoke this parable: "A certain one had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and he found none, and he said to the gardener, "Behold! These three years I come seeking fruit in this fig tree and find none. Dig it out. Why destroy the ground?" But he answered, he said to them, "Lord, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and throw manure. And if it makes fruit in the future, well and good. But if not, you will dig it (out)."
Background and situation: This week's lection concludes a section that began in 12:1. In the section just previous to the start of our lection (12:54-59), Jesus had talked about interpreting the signs of the times (54-56) and urged debtors to finagle their way out of going to jail (57-59). (Our passage has no parallels. It is Special Luke.)
In chapter 12, Jesus calls both the crowd and the pharisees "hypocrites" (12:1, 12:56). Then, in 56-57, he credits the crowd for being able to "interpret" (twice) the events of the world, then asks, "Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?" (12:57). In our lection this week, Jesus twice asks the question, "Do you think?" (dokeite).
Let it be noted: From 12:54 to 13:9, Jesus mentioned the crowd's ability to interpret, called upon them to make up their own minds, and then twice asked for their opinion.
It appears Jesus is trying to peel the crowds away from the pharisees by encouraging them to think for themselves. (Jesus will encourage repentance in these few verses, also twice, which indicates that repentance includes not only changed behavior but a changed mind as well.)
Rejecting Deuteronomistic theology: The reading begins with "some present" who tell Jesus about Pontius Pilate staging some kind of raid during which people from Galilee were apparently killed. No other historical sources mention this incident, although it would not have been out of character for Pilate to have done such a thing. There are other known instances of Pilate's brutality. (Josephus had compiled a long list.)
The word "Galileans" appears three times. These "Galileans" would have been pilgrims in Jerusalem. Luke wants to make sure we know that Pilate mistreated Galileans, and that an air of violence pervades Jerusalem.
We might expect Jesus to voice some solidarity with those who had been victims. The region had been rife with violence for decades, and would erupt in outright war in AD 66. The "some" who report this incident probably expect that Jesus would attack the perpetrators of the violence.
If he does so, however, Jesus would be directly criticizing an action of Rome, a tactic Jesus generally avoids. He comes at the "system" from a different angle. Better to attack the weakest point in the power structure than to attack the strongest point. In first century Israel, the weakest point would have been the Temple and the religious leadership. The strongest point would have been the Roman army.
Jesus responds by asking: "Do you think that these Galileans were bigger sinners than all the Galileans (hamartoloi para pantas tous Galilaious) because they had suffered this?" We do not know if they thought this or not, but it wouldn't have been surprising in the least if they did. Many people think the same today. If something bad happens to someone, they must have deserved it in some way.
This is Deuteronomistic theology, which operated on the principle that if Israel did right, things would go well, and if Israel did not do right, tragedy would ensue. That was true on a national level, and also on a personal level. Bad things don't happen to good people. Bad things only happen to bad people.
In the later Old Testament, the book of Job begs to differ. In the New Testament, and in our lection, Jesus does as well. No, those Galileans who suffered were not bigger sinners than other Galileans.
Jesus supplies his own example: "Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them--do you think they were bigger debtors than all the people living in Jerusalem?" Again, there is no extra-canonical account of this accident, but it was not altogether unusual for high structures to collapse. The phrasing of Jesus' question indicates that the incident was familiar with the audience.
Jesus' example, however, contains a twist. In the first instance--Pilate's random violence--Jesus undermines the idea that the people who suffered were "sinners" (hamartoloi) and thus deserved it. In the second instance--the falling tower--Jesus undermines the idea that bad things happen to people who are in debt (opheiletai).
Granted, most translations have something else here. KJV has "sinners" again. NRSV has "worse offenders." NIV has "worse sinners." The "default position" on opheiletes, however, would be "debtors." The word appears seven times in the New Testament. In six of them, the word is rendered "debtors." This is the only exception. Why?
In both instances, Jesus calls for repentance on the part of the crowd. Repentance--metanoete--does not mean getting caught at something and then having a change of heart, usually accompanied by copious tears. It means "turning and moving in a new direction."
Jesus calls people away from thinking of suffering as punishment for sin or punishment for debt. Think for yourselves! Change your minds! "Why don't you judge for yourselves what is right?" (12:57)
Parable of the fig tree: In the parable of the fig tree (13:6-9), both the fig tree and the vineyard were symbols of Israel. (See Isaiah 5:1-7 and Hosea 9:10.)
The owner of the vineyard came to the fig tree looking for fruit, but found none. The owner then delivers a mini-rant to the gardener about the unproductiveness of the fig tree. "For three lo-o-o-ng years, I've been trying to find figs on this fig tree, and I'm fed up! Cut this sorry tree down! It's just taking up space!"
The owner of the vineyard is, of course, God. He's mainly in the vineyard business, but apparently thought it might be interesting to have a fig tree among the grape vines. The fig tree, however, fails to produce fruit. (The fig tree took three years to grow up and produce fruit. The fruit of the fourth year was given to God (Lev 19:23). This particular tree failed to produce for three years after that.)
Earlier in Luke, John the Baptist had said to "bring forth fruits worthy of repentance" (3:6) and "every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down" (3:9). Under God's rules--"produce or else"--his unproductive fig tree certainly qualifies for demolition. (The custom of that time and place, incidentally, was to "dig out" not "cut down," which is why John talks of the ax being at the "root" of the trees (3:9))
The gardener replies, "Lord, let it alone"--kyrie aphes auten. Aphes also means "forgive." It is a word Jesus will use from the cross--"Father, forgive them (aphes autois, 23:34).
In other words, the gardener (Christ?) says, "Lord, forgive that dumb fig tree. Turn it over to me for awhile. I'll tend to it and see it we can coax some fruit out of the thing. If it works, great! If not, you will have to be the one to dig it out. I won't be digging it out myself because I'm in the saving business, not the digging out business."
The tension is between judgment and mercy. Judgment calls for digging it out. Mercy calls for aphes, leaving it alone, forgiving it, which just might work. Joel Green:
Not incidentally, the parable also holds for the possibility of fruit-bearing in spite of a history of sterility--or, in human terms, the possibility of change leading to faith expressed in obedience to God's purpose. If it announces a warning of judgment, then, it also dramatizes hope. (p. 515)
God is, of course, quite correct. It's God's vineyard, and God doesn't want unproductive fig trees taking up space. When it comes to running a vineyard, you have to figure that God knows what he's doing.
But Christ protests. Turn it over to me. Let me try some forgiveness on that tree. Who knows? It might work. If it doesn't, I'll forgive it again from the cross. In no case, however, will I ever go back on the forgiveness I have pronounced on the world.
Image: The Vine Dresser and the Fig Tree, James Tissot