At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or 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? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did." Then 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. So 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?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I 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.'"
This extract is made up of two parts. There are two sayings provoked by recent events, and then a parable. The overall theme is the issue of repentance, but repentance in the full sense of the term metanoia, a change of mindset, heart and lifestyle.
Firstly, some of those listening to Jesus bring to his attention an incident concerning an unspecified number of Galilean pilgrims who had been killed in the Temple by Pilate's troops when offering sacrifice, probably at Passover. Perhaps his interlocutors were testing Jesus in order to discover his views about the Roman occupation and possible resistance to it. There is no independent corroboration of the incident, but it is accepted that Pilate could be ruthless and brutal and had little respect for the Jewish people, and such a violent way of problem solving was not out of character. Besides, Galileans had a known penchant for revolution. Jesus picks up another possible implication of his hearers' words, namely that the tragedy was the result of their excessive sinfulness. It was commonly accepted in the culture of the day that there was a link between suffering and sinfulness. This is an issue which Jesus meets elsewhere also. Jesus denies this interpretation of what happened in the Temple. Those who are spared cannot be complacent and self-satisfied. They are no less sinful or less in need of repentance than those who have met a sudden, brutal death. Jesus adds his prophetic warning, forcing his hearers to give their attention to themselves and their own situation. They need to repent now, whilst there is time and opportunity, or else they too will perish, perhaps suddenly and violently in a form of national disaster. They need to change their attitudes and views and ways, and turn to God who in Jesus is offering them a new future.
Jesus himself then introduces a parallel incident which has occurred in Jerusalem recently. A tower, maybe a part of the water system, had suddenly collapsed, killing eighteen people. This disaster cannot be understood as an indication that these Judeans were more sinful than the rest of the city's inhabitants. Survivors are in no position to be judgemental or complacent. Everyone needs to repent, or a similar fate awaits them.
The parable follows. The story concerns a landowner and his gardener. The landowner has a vineyard in which grows a fig tree. Apparently, vineyard is tantamount to fruit garden. For three successive years he has come to his vineyard looking for figs from his fig tree and has been disappointed. In frustration he orders his gardener to cut the tree down; it is a waste of space and nutrients. That is the logical and horticulturally sound course of action. The gardener, however, resists the injunction, and pleads for time. He offers to take special care of it himself in the hope that it will finally produce some fruit. If after another year the tree remains without fruit, he won't object to the landowner's act of destruction.
This is a beautiful little parable. It acknowledges that human beings in general and the people of Israel in particular fail at times to bear fruit. It suggests a patient God who still gives his people time to repent and change, a God who is willing to wait. There is still time to change, but Jesus is warning that they need to get round to repenting before it is too late. He wants people to turn to God now. Time is running out.
When we hear calls to repentance during Lent we naturally apply them to ourselves, personally. I must do something about my life. We interpret the warnings of Jesus in terms of personal death and subsequent judgement. And this is important. People do die suddenly, with heart attacks, in car accidents, in natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. We need to be prepared. We need to repent and not put it off. However, there is a danger that we might overlook the wider dimensions of Jesus' demand. He saw his messianic role as summoning Israel, as God's chosen people, to national repentance, national reformation, a return to vocational faithfulness.
To reject the way of Jesus was to choose the path leading directly to conflict with Rome and subsequent catastrophe. In the mounting hostility to his own mission, in the strained relations between Jew and Gentile, in the frequent outbreaks of patriotic frenzy, and in the growing severity with which these outbreaks were suppressed, Jesus read the signs of the times.
There were political and military consequences of failing to heed the call of Jesus to a change of outlook and attitude and way of living. In the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE, it was more than a tower which fell down, as Luke knows well, and more than a handful of Galileans were slaughtered. For us today, Jesus' call to renewal and reform, to metanoia, means more than a particularly fervent act of contrition. Issues of world poverty and injustice, the challenge of climate change, must be part of the picture. Greed, violence, inhumanity, lack of compassion, sexual irresponsibility, along with other factors, lead to destruction. Other towers have collapsed even in our times.
Jesus' parable proclaims the same message in a more gentle tone. If he is the owner of the vineyard, he is prepared to hang on a little longer. If he is the gardener, he is desperate to give us more time to respond to the Father's love and bear fruit, and will continue to strive to make this possible. But there will be an end point. And we need to make an effort. We are responsible for our lives and our world.
Jesus, a Galilean, is journeying to Jerusalem along with other Galilean pilgrims. He will eventually reach the city and the Temple. He will encounter Pilate and his soldiers. He too will experience violent death, but this will make possible true repentance and change of heart and new forms of fruitfulness.