Thursday, July 12, 2012

“Unless You Repent, You Will All Perish,” the Parable of the Spared Fig Tree, and the problem of evil in Luke 13:1-9

In this passage, Jesus provides a response to the problem of evil—“if God is just, why is there so much senseless suffering in the world?” But the response he provides is not an intellectually satisfying answer to the “why?” question about God. Instead, it is a provocative answer that points back at the questioner. The response is, “trust God and work on yourself!” Look at the sin in your own life, repent, and bring forth fruit worthy of repentance.

Jesus uses the word “repent,” in the strong sense, twice in responding to a question about apparently senseless, violent death in Luke 13:1-5:

1 Now there were some present at the same time who told him about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered such things? 3 I tell you, no, but unless you repent (metanoēte), you will all perish in the same way. 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 men who dwell in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no, but, unless you repent (metanoēte), you will all perish in the same way.”

This passage reports Jesus’ response to what was, apparently, a report of a current event reported by some members of the crowd that had gathered around him. No commentator I have consulted has been able to identify any specific event recorded in other sources that involved murder of worshipers in the Temple by order of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate during the likely time of Jesus’ ministry. There were recorded instances of murder in the Temple prior to Jesus’ ministry, some commentators suggesting the Galileans in view here may have been the followers of Judas of Galilee, a rebel who met his end at the hands of the Romans (though not Pilate, who was not yet in office) in 6 A.D. (See Acts 5:37). However, all commentators appear to agree that ordering the murder of a group of Galileans in the Temple, while offering sacrifices, on the vaguest suspicion of sedition, is consistent with what is known of Pilate’s character. Thus, most commentators state that, although there is no other record of this particular incident outside the New Testament, it likely occurred. This leaves the question of why these interlocutors brought the incident to Jesus’ attention.

There are at least two possibilities. The incident may have been brought to Jesus attention for political motives, by his enemies, in an attempt to induce him to denounce Pilate and Roman rule (something they attempted frequently). On the other hand, the incident may also have been raised to embarrass Jesus by presenting him the essentially unanswerable question of the reason for individual human suffering in a context in which he would be forced to say that worshippers—people doing the right thing—died in such a horrible way because of the extremity of their sins. Surely Jesus would have to say one of these things or the other—either the deaths were an example of the injustice of Pilate and Roman rule, or they were an example of God’s justice because the deceased Galileans were great sinners.

But Jesus avoided this trap by pointing at the sins of those who brought the story to his attention. From the Galileans’ violent and apparently unjust deaths, no conclusions may be drawn about how bad their sins were compared to those of others. They were sinners, and the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23). But those who raised the issue were also sinners, and also due to receive the wages of their sin. So comparing sins and asking whose sins are “worse” makes no sense in this context. Jesus therefore denied that the Galileans who were killed with their sacrifices were greater sinners than Galileans who survived that day. The real message of the incident, and of Jesus’ teaching about it, is that the only hope is repentance. “Unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way”—that is, senselessly, meaninglessly, as the reward of your sins. Because the sins of the Galileans, and of Jesus’ hearers, is directly in view in this story, it is clear that the “repentance” of which Jesus speaks is a turning from sin.

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Jesus then amplified his point by recounting the story of a group of people in Jerusalem who died suddenly and apparently randomly in an accident, when the Tower of Siloam—which was apparently a tower on the city wall near the Pool of Siloam—fell on them. No other ancient source records this particular accident. Jesus apparently refers to it to move the discussion away from meaningless deaths that have a political cause to meaningless deaths that have no apparent cause other than perhaps the wrath of God. Several commentators, in fact, point out that a tower is a place people would go to feel safe! So, in this instance, what these 18 people trusted to bring them safety unexpectedly killed them instead.

However, Jesus’ point about the fatalities at the Tower of Siloam is the same point he made about the Galileans Pilate killed in the Temple. The accident at the Tower of Siloam didn’t kill these people because they were the worst sinners in Jerusalem. It killed them merely because they were sinners, like everyone else in Jerusalem and like all of Jesus’ audience. We need not look beyond sin, beyond our own sinfulness, for an explanation of death, whether it comes “normally” or in some particularly gruesome way. The only hope lies in repentance. “Unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way”—meaninglessly, senselessly.

Jesus then illustrated his point, and shifted the focus more securely to the lives of those raising the question, by telling a parable:

6 He spoke this parable. “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it, and found none. 7 He said to the vine dresser, ‘Behold, these three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and found none. Cut it down. Why does it waste the soil?’ 8 He answered, ‘Lord, leave it alone this year also, until I dig around it, and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit, fine; but if not, after that, you can cut it down.’”

Luke 13:6-9 (WEB).

The point of this parable, in the context of the question implicitly raised in verse 1 and answered in verses 2 through 5, is that, far from being arbitrary and vengeful, God is patient. The tree here may represent either the individual questioning God, or the nation Israel—there are commentators on both sides of this question. However, I think it most consistent with the sense of verses 1 through 5 to understand the tree here as an individual before God. This usage would also be consistent with John the Baptist’s usage of the metaphor of the “trees” in his warning to the crowd in Matthew 3:7-10 and Luke 3:7-10. In that warning, explained more fully in a previous posting on John the Baptist’s message of repentance, John warns the people that “the axe lies at the root of the trees” and “every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down.” (Matt. 3:9 & 10). This is entirely consistent with Jesus’ illustration in the passage here before us—in which the owner wants to cut down the fig tree. (Luke 13:7). Indeed, the owner wants to cut down the fig tree in this passage for the same reason John said the axe was already at the root of the trees—this tree, like the trees in John’s metaphor, is unfruitful. (Compare verse 7 with Matt. 3:8). Because the point of Jesus’ parable is that God is merciful and patient with us, the gardener requests, and the master grants, the tree one more year, during which time the tree is to be fertilized and given every opportunity to produce fruit. For the tree in Jesus’ parable, the repentance spoken of in verses 3 and 5 of the larger passage is to be shown by fruit bearing.

Jesus’ parable in Luke 13 doesn’t identify the “fruit,” showing repentance, which will have to be seen on the tree if it is to be spared. That was not the point of the parable. However, John the Baptist had already identified the required fruit, the “fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3:8), in his preaching using the metaphor of the trees. In John’s preaching, that “fruit” was clearly changes ethical behavior, beginning to treat each other with love and true justice, renouncing greed. (See Luke 3:10-13). The fruit of repentance involves a radical change in behavior.