Third Sunday in Lent
March 24, 2019
Commentary on the Texts
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
There is no Lectionary Commentary for
this reading, but there is available a
This Sunday's passage consists of two units. The first opens with a report to Jesus about Pilate's brutal slaughter of Galileans, after which Jesus mentions the accidental death of eighteen inhabitants of Jerusalem upon whom the tower of Siloam fell. The second is the parable of the unfruitful fig tree.
Luke begins this chapter with a time reference ("at that very time," v. 1) to connect this passage with the material in chapter 12. However, the connection is much more than temporal; it is in fact theological. The theme of the passage at hand is the urgent need of repentance in view of the fact that one does not know when death will come. In the parable of the fig tree repentance is still the theme, except that there it is taken in a different direction, as will be seen below.
The unpredictability of the end and the urgent need for preparedness is a theme clearly carried over from several sections in chapter 12. The parable in 12:13-21 is about the rich fool who is making plans to build bigger barns when in fact his life would be coming to an end that very night. In 12:35-48 Jesus used the metaphor of watchful and slothful slaves to illustrate the necessity of faithful service while the master was absent, because one never knows when he will return. At the very end of chapter 12 the note of urgency is struck again in a word picture in which an accused person is being dragged to court by an accuser. Settle the case quickly while on the way, Jesus said. Otherwise, you will be thrown in prison and will never get out until you have paid the very last penny. The chapter break at this point can be misleading because the theme in chapter 12 continues on in 13:1-9.
There is no other record of the two incidents mentioned in 13:1-5. The report about Pilate's mingling of the blood of some Galileans with their sacrifices fits his profile as a cruel governor, which can be corroborated by similar incidents reported by Josephus the Jewish historian in the first century AD. Apparently these Galileans were in Jerusalem for a feast and while offering their sacrifices Pilate's soldiers massacred them because Pilate may have suspected insurrection against the Roman regime.
Exactly why this was reported to Jesus is not clear. Luke wants us to understand that the report was made to Jesus immediately after he had spoken the brief metaphor about the accused and accuser at the end of chapter 12. If so, it may be that in Luke's mind those who reported the incident to Jesus were responding to the unfairness implied in the previous metaphor. The accuser is most likely a powerful and wealthy man who is unmercifully taking the poorer person to court. Why should a poor person settle accounts with an unscrupulous wealthy man who can throw his weight around because of his wealth and position? The reporters of the Galilean incident may be reminding Jesus of the unfairness of a social and political situation in Palestine where Jewish people are having to suffer under the thumb of a cruel Roman governor who feels nothing but disdain for Jews. Could this be a report from Zealot sympathizers, the militant branch of Judaism that advocated guerrilla warfare against the Romans?
Jesus' reply is shocking. One would expect that Jesus would at least lash out against Pilate and call down curses on such a cruel man. But no such venomous vindictiveness is pronounced against Pilate. Instead, the tables are turned against the reporters: "unless you repent, you will all perish." They themselves are in need of repentance, implying that Jesus is more concerned about hatred and a vengeful spirit evident in the reporters than the injustice of a political regime.
Now, this should not be taken to mean that Jesus was oblivious to the oppressive political situation in Palestine. As seen in last Sunday's Gospel lectionary reading, Herod wanted to kill Jesus because he apparently sensed in his message and activities a certain threat against the political status quo. Jesus' talk of the kingdom of God would eventually be used by the religious leaders in Jerusalem to accuse Jesus of sedition against Caesar. Although at one level the accusation was false in that Jesus never advocated rebellion against the Roman regime, at a deeper level the message of Jesus about the kingdom of God was so radical that it had all sorts of social and political implications.
Another possibility as to why Pilate's massacre of the Galileans was reported to Jesus is the assumption prevalent in that world that there is a correlation between physical suffering and sinfulness. Perhaps the reporters were implying that the Galileans were killed because they were sinners. Certain strands of the Old Testament wisdom traditions seem to assume that suffering and death are the result of sin, whereas righteousness results in life and peace. This is certainly the perspective of Job's friends. In New Testament times, this view is reflected in John 9:2 where Jesus came across a blind man and the disciples asked Jesus whose sin it was that resulted in him being born blind. Jesus rejected that view when he replied, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." So also here in Luke Jesus rejected the assumption that there is a necessary correlation between suffering and sin. The Galileans that were killed were no worse sinners than all other Galileans. "No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did."
Jesus then voluntarily cites another example of misfortune, the accidental death of eighteen Jerusalemites who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them. Although the incident is not attested anywhere else in historical documents, the tower was probably part of the old wall around Jerusalem that was used for defense against enemy attacks. Having cited the unfortunate incident, Jesus again asks the same question and gives the same answer as he did with the massacre of the Galileans.
The point is clear. Tragedies occur, whether intentionally by oppressive governors such as Pilate or accidentally by imperfections in the kind of world we live in. In neither case must one conclude that tragedies are necessarily an indication of divine judgment against sinners. Rather, in view of the uncertainty of life and the unpredictability of the future one must be warned to examine one's own life and repent.
It is particularly important for Luke to make this point here because in a short while Jesus himself would be put to death by Pilate. Some would accuse Jesus of being an impostor and a deceiver, perverting the nation and stirring up the people (Luke 23:1-5). Can a person who is put to death by crucifixion be the Son of God? Can one who is executed by the state be righteous after all?
In the second unit, the parable of the fig tree, the vineyard owner had already decided to have the gardener cut the tree down, but the gardener convinced him to wait another year. The gardener would dig around it and put manure on it. "If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down." The urgency of repentance in view of imminent judgment is still the motif here, but now it is tempered with a gracious extension of time to give people another chance to repent and become fruitful.
The fig tree was often used as a metaphor for Israel or Judah (Jer. 8:13; Hosea 9:10; Micah 7:1). Matthew and Mark include the cursing of the fig tree in the same literary context as the so-called cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem. Luke diverges from Matthew and Mark by taking out the cursing of the fig tree from the later context of the cleansing of the temple and placing the parable of the unfruitful fig tree in the present context. The fact that Matthew and Mark have placed the cursing and withering of the fig tree in the same context as the cleansing of the temple indicates that the two stories must be taken together and read in such a way that the fig tree becomes a commentary on the future fate of the temple. In fact Mark (ch. 11) places the cleansing of the temple in between the cursing of the fig tree and the withering, which is a typical Markan technique of sandwiching one story within another for interpretive purposes. This means then that for Mark what Jesus does at the temple is not a mere cleansing but a pronouncement of judgment that is acted out, just like the judgment pronounced on the fig tree and its subsequent withering.
We can understand a bit better why Luke decides not to follow Mark at that point. In Mark, as well as in Matthew, the fig tree does not have a chance; it is cursed and it dies. Luke wants to modify that and show through this parable that even though ultimately there would be judgment on Israel, God was still granting her one final opportunity for repentance. In Acts Luke is going to show that through the preaching of the apostles God was offering Israel another chance. Thus in his Pentecost sermon Peter calls the people of Jerusalem to repentance. This is also the reason why Paul in his missionary journeys in Acts always starts his preaching at a Jewish synagogue whenever he arrives at a new place. While that may be the way it happened historically, in the context of Luke-Acts it takes on a significant theological meaning in that God was now offering Israel through the preaching of Paul one last chance to repent (see Acts 13:46; 18:5-6; 28:25-28).
According to Luke, Jesus continued to warn people of the coming judgment and to call them to repentance just as John the Baptist had done. However, there is a difference. John said, "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." Jesus in the parable of the fig tree wants to allow another year before the ax is lifted. There may be two possible ways to interpret this. The first has already been outlined in the previous paragraph. God is delaying judgment on Israel and allowing another opportunity for repentance through the witness of the church and the apostles. Scholars have often spoken of the delay of the parousia in Luke-Acts, that is, Christ's return has been delayed in order to allow the gospel to be preached and an opportunity given to people to repent before the coming of Christ and the final judgment.
Another approach to the parable may be found in the Gospel of Luke itself without considering Acts. John the Baptist has warned people of the imminence of the final judgment and expected the end to come soon. Then John was imprisoned and Jesus began his ministry. John heard what Jesus was doing and sent messengers to ask him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" John was apparently expecting Jesus to act as the messiah who would bring judgment on the wicked and rescue the righteous. Yet nothing of the sort was happening. Instead, Jesus was healing diseases, casting out evil spirits, and giving sight to the blind (7:18-23). Is this the sort of thing that the messiah would do? The parable of the unfruitful fig tree may be taken to mean that the judgment of God has been delayed through the gracious work of the messiah.
In preaching from this passage one could go in two different directions corresponding with the two units. The first unit affords the preacher an excellent opportunity to correct a distorted view of God prevalent in today's culture. How often the death of a loved one is thought to be the act of God, who for some reason is held responsible? "Why did God let this happen to me? Why did God take my son from me?" It is true of course that sometimes God does act in judgment. However, our passage today argues against the view that tragedies in the world are routinely to be interpreted as a manifestation of the wrath of God or as the will of God.
When a teenager is randomly killed in a drive-by shooting or a child is killed by a drunk driver, one cannot fault a parent for asking, "Why did God let this happen to me?" or, "Where was God?" Parents going through the pain of losing a child are permitted to ask any question they feel like asking. When they ask such questions they are not looking for information. They are trying to come to grips with their pain and the meaning of life. Even the psalmists asked such questions, and their questions are part of our biblical canon in the form of lament psalms. When people are going through tragedy and ask such questions, they are probably not looking for a carefully thought out, rational answers. The questions are emotional and existential outbursts of pain and hurt. What they need is for someone to offer them a shoulder to cry on and arms to embrace.
However, when we are in a reflective and deliberative frame of mind, that may be the time to tackle the tough questions of theodicy, the problem of suffering. The answer that Jesus gives in this passage is that those who suffer calamities are not worse sinners than anyone else. When others suffer a tragedy, it should serve as a reminder to all of us that the reason we were spared is not because God loves us more than them. We are all sinners and in need of repentance.
How easy it is to be smug and regard ourselves righteous and point an accusing finger at someone else. In Luke 18:9-14 Jesus tells a parable to some "who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt." In this parable a Pharisee and a tax collector go up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee stands by himself and thanks God that he is not "like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." The tax collector, on the other hand, stands far off, would not even lift up his head to heaven, but beats his breast and says, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" Jesus says that it is the tax collector who went home justified rather than the Pharisee. Yet when we listen to this story, we immediately say to ourselves, "I'm not like the Pharisee! I'm so much better!"
We here in Oklahoma, or Texas, or wherever, are not like those folks in New York, or Washington, or San Francisco, or Los Angeles. We are the Bible Belt. We are decent folk. We are religious. We read the Bible. We go to church. God is good to us because we do all the right things. Earthquakes and El Niño storms in California are God's judgment on that sinful state! When will they wake up? The question we should ask is, When will we wake up from our smug self-righteousness? As the African-American spiritual puts it, "Not my brother, not my sister, but it's me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer."
The words of Jesus in Luke 13, "unless you repent, you will all perish," were not spoken to pagan infidels or a crowd of murderers but to people who were good, religious folk who led decent lives in accord with the law of God. Why would such people have any need for repentance? Repentance is not just for the murderer and the adulterer. Repentance is not something to be done once and then given up. Repentance is an ongoing attitude as expressed in the Lord's Prayer in Luke 11:4 to be prayed by the disciples, "And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us."
The parable of the unfruitful fig tree offers another preaching path that complements the first part of the lectionary passage. Repentance here can be understood as God's gracious offer of extended opportunities for us to respond to the demands of the kingdom of God and allow that to reshape our lives. If John the Baptist was a hell, fire, and brimstone type of preacher with an urgent message of an imminent judgment, Jesus tempered that austere message with a message about a compassionate God who lets an unfruitful fig tree stand another year. The God of judgment is also the God of grace. Jesus hurls scathing rebukes at religious hypocrisy and at the same time reaches out in compassion and touches hopeless people that had been marginalized for a variety of reasons. He pronounces woes on the rich, the well-fed, the laughing, and offers hope and blessing to those who are poor, hungry and weeping (Luke 6:20-26). Judgment is coming, but the door of mercy is still open. The possibility of change is still available. Will the fig tree become fruitful in another year? God waits and longs for that happen.
Throughout Christian history there have been numerous apocalyptic movements that have predicted the end of the world and have set a date for the Second Coming and the final judgment. Such movements have invariably seen the world as a hopeless place and expected that God would destroy the world and save those who were insiders. Evangelists have appealed to crowds to repent because there was not much time left. Some of the sayings of Jesus in Luke certainly affirm that the end is near. "There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:27). There are of course several ways to interpret this saying. But the point is clear that this is a critical time and decisions must be made.
Nevertheless, in the Gospel of Luke we also have the parable of the unfruitful fig tree and several other sayings of Jesus which indicate that God is delaying the end in order to extend the opportunity of repentance. So when Luke speaks of the expectation of the coming of Christ and final judgment, his perspective is not that of a feverish apocalypticist. Luke is also aware of the grace of God that allows another year, or another century, or another millennium to pass without drawing the curtain on the drama of history. As we approach the end of another millennium and apocalyptic voices proliferate, we need to hear another voice, that of Jesus speaking through Luke, that strikes a note of grace and forbearance on God's part and therefore leaves the future open.
When the disciples in Acts 1 gazed into heaven as Jesus ascended into the clouds of glory, the angels asked them why they are standing there and gazing into the sky, implying that they and the church empowered by the Holy Spirit have work to do. There is a gospel to be preached. The work of Jesus will continue in the world for some time. How long, one cannot say. The end may come unexpectedly. But for now God has graciously allowed a certain delay of the ultimate end. The unfruitful fig tree may yet become fruitful. The world may yet be transformed by the gospel.
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