Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 20, 2022
Luke 13:1-9 Commentary
Comments, Questions, and Observations
Why did the bad thing happen? Did they deserve it? This is how the text starts. And just to get it out of the way, Jesus doesn’t answer the why question. When it comes to theodicy, Scripture rarely, if ever, does. Instead, God’s wisdom is to turn our hearts and eyes elsewhere.
Sometimes, God, like he did with Job or with the suffering people in Lamentations, turns our eyes upwards towards him. Sometimes, like he did with Jonah, God turns our eyes towards others. And still other times, like our passage today, God turns our attention inward, upon ourselves.
When the people ask him why the Galilean Jews suffered such an awful death—in the Jerusalem temple while making a sacrifice to God—there are a few details for us to understand what is actually being discussed. Justo González summarizes them in his Luke commentary in the Belief Series. First, the Jews in Jerusalem thought that the Jews from Galilee were less faithful than themselves. In essence, their question is one of religious bias: maybe the Galilean Jews had it coming. Second, by condemning their murders, Jesus would be making a political statement, condemning Pilate for sacrilege. The question isn’t as innocent as it might seem to us… Any way you look at it, there is more than a question swimming in the water, there’s some judgement mixed in for good measure.
Jesus knows their bias, and calls it out, and tells them to worry about themselves. He does this by addressing their example, but then tells them about a seemingly random event of fellow Jerusalem Jews dying in a tower collapse. If it was true that the Galileans who died had it coming, do they think it is true that the ones who died when Siloam fell also deserved it? Our selectivity is dangerous. González provides a really helpful modernization: it would be like Jesus asking, “Do you really think that the people who died when the Twin Towers fell were more sinful than anyone else in New York?” Of course not. In trying to understand the why question, Jesus has told them they are looking for the wrong answer.
With each of these questions, he tries to lead the people to look inward: “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Without saying it directly, Jesus is, according to González, saying, “The surprising thing is not that so many die but that we still live.” Judging whether someone else was sinful enough to feel like their experience of suffering is justified misses the whole point. We are all sinners who are all headed towards death.
We can see this metaphorically and literally. The less repentance of sin there is, the more dangerous the world becomes. The less repentance of sin there is, the more self-inflicted suffering occurs. The more time we spend judging when we look at the suffering of others, the less time we spend actually loving, becoming responsible, and doing something about it.
At the heart of it, those who have asked Jesus about the fate of the Galileans seem to be feeling pretty confident and comfortable. The parable of the fig tree changes all that. Klyne Snodgrass (Stories with Intent), notes that “Luke 12 emphasizes the themes of real vs. false security, focusing on the kingdom rather than possessions, readiness for the return of the Master, and judgement.” We see Jesus apply these lessons in the parable of the fig tree in the vineyard. The Master comes back and judges his unproductive fig tree. The gardener asks to give it special love and attention, even though the tree has had plenty of nurture and time. The gardener says that after he has tried for one more year, if things haven’t gotten better, then the Master can do as he wishes and kill it.
The people who ask Jesus to join them in judging others are the fig tree. They have been given a lot of help and grace to make their faith possible. A lot of love and blessings, a lot of safety and comfort. This is the manure and ditch for special watering and protection, the extra time and attention from the gardener. And yet, they lack fruit and signs of life.
Our wealth and comforts that we so often praise and thank God for… they could quite possibly be signs of how weak our faith actually is. Our inability to imagine going through suffering or death and coming out the other side with our faith—in other words, our admiration for those who have suffered for the sake of Christ or who believe even though they have a lot less earthly riches, could quite possibly be a sign that we have relied on extra special attention from our Lord to keep us alive in the faith.
Our good life could be the signs of fertilizer and digging and not vitality, signs of weakness not blessing. Signs of sin, not repentance. Signs of God’s mercy, not his favour.
Judgement is coming. The Master will come back and decide on the fruit whether there is life or death. The parable is one of the few without a clear conclusion. The open-ended nature reminds those listening that if they do not repent, they too will die. If we do not repent, we too will die. If we do not heed the care and guidance of the one who prunes and makes us grow, we run the risk of being thrown into the burn pile.
There is a long line within the Christian tradition that teaches keeping the Judgement Day ever in our mind. This need not be with fear and trembling, but can simply be a reminder of what Christ has done for us and how we join God’s redemption. The Day of the Lord is the day that the fruit of our lives and faiths will be shown as a witness of the glory of God. Seventeenth-century English Puritans, for instance, used the language of “honour” and joining in the presentation of glory between the Son and the Father to describe what happens to God’s people on Judgement Day. When Jesus presents us to the Father we join in their delighting as they delight in us and delight in their goodness towards us. We can increase the glory of Christ and His Spirit (and our experience of delighting) on that day by bearing the fruit of the Spirit and faith throughout our living days. The more we bear the fruit of the Kingdom now, the more glory and honour we give now and to come, and the more delight we enjoy always.
All of these words describe a much better alternative to judgement. We all live by the grace of God and none of us are more or less deserving than the next guy. The only other thing that is for sure is that we have a loving God who is unbelievably patient and is willing to coax and prod us and our weak faith.
Lent is an opportune time to do this sort of self-introspection and to consider the strength of our faith and the nature of our fruit. It is a good time to remember that death is ever near, metaphorically and literally. It is God’s invitation to reconsider our own judging tendencies in favour of a better, faithful life of fruit.
The conversation in verses 1-5 and the parable in verses 6-9 are connected by the theme of judgement. The surprise is that tables have been turned, and the people who were doing the judging are now the ones being judged. And, in both sections, Jesus refuses to do any actually judging. At most, he is observing and warning.
I recently noticed that one of my houseplants was really struggling. It isn’t a finicky plant as I buy the kind that don’t need much attention to live. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t a good reason for the change. And yet, here I am devoting more time and energy to try to keep it alive than I am for any of my other houseplants. Obviously, I thought of this plant as I read the parable of the fig tree in the vineyard. Will all this special attention and love make a difference? Can this plant live? Time will tell. But, I must say, I don’t enjoy how much head space this plant is taking up. I don’t like looking at it; and I’m more than a little frustrated with it. Maybe just a little I know what Jesus was intimating about the owner of vineyard. Do your job, Plant! Bear your fruit, Human!
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