Fig tree and our finite life
Luke 13: 1-9 Rev. Vincent Gardner
In tonight’s passage Jesus refers to two examples of untimely death, the slaying of Galileans by Pilate and the accident at Siloam, to illustrate the inevitability of death no matter the cause. He then refers to the fig tree to teach the imminence of final judgment and the need for prompt repentance.
The common belief, in Jesus day (and sometimes in ours), was that suffering was a punishment for sin. Suffering was not merely a consequence of sin in general, but a personal punishment by God for personal sin. It seems that an unspecified number of Galileans had been slaughtered by order of Pilate right in the Temple while they were offering sacrifice. According to this line of thinking people had no other recourse than to presume they died that way because they had sinned. Then, what about accidents? Like the one where those building a tower died when it collapsed? They all must have sinned and this was their punishment. Their theory was wrong and so was their application of it to specific circumstances. Their interpretation of the facts needed revision. We might even say it needed reform.
Jesus will teach that suffering and injustice, bad things happening to good people, is a consequence of sin, one’s own, someone else’s or just the sinful human condition, but not a direct punishment from God. He will also teach that we can learn a lesson from such events. Instead of trying to figure out what the victims did to deserve the tragedy, one should focus on one’s own need to change before death comes, however it comes, before it is too late.
In verse one, “At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” There is no other historical reference to this event than the one found here. It seems that Pilate ordered the slaying of Galileans, for unknown reasons, the most likely being sedition, in the Temple while they were offering sacrifice during the Passover celebration. Passover was the only time when the laity slaughtered their own animals. The expression “mingling their blood” need not be taken literally. It probably means that while they were slaying their sacrificial animals, Pilate had them killed.
In verse two, “He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” By no means: Jesus denies that they died because God was punishing them for their sins. He does not explain why they died, just that it was not God’s punishment, but Pilate’s sin that caused it. Evil causes evil, not God. God tolerates it, but does not send it, let alone cause it.
In verse three, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Death comes to all, whether by calamities, accidents, or natural causes. The death of others by whatever manner or means should serve as salutary reminders, even though horrible in themselves that we all will die under some set of circumstances. It is not how we die that is important, but how we live. The manner of life will be the basis … In verse nine, “If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” Despite all the gardener does, the tree has to want to bear fruit. If the tree has no will to be fruitful, all the conditions and conditioning will be to no avail. Jesus is describing repentance. If the will is there on the part of the sinner, Jesus will do the rest. Without that, step one, the process is halted.
If not you can cut it down: This means final judgment, eternal destruction. Jesus teaches by this parable that there is such a thing as “too late,” even with God. Once death comes, as unpredictable as to when as it is predictable as to that it will come, it is too late to change. So, the message is: change now.
When we see on the news or .. read in the newspaper that people have been massacred or that an accident has taken the lives of several, even a great many, people we are inclined to search for causes, explanations, and assign blame. People did the same thing back in Jesus’ day. Of course, they had no nightly news or daily newspapers, but news, being news, has a way of spreading and spreading fast. It seems to have been true then as it is true now that when the number of people killed, killed either by intent or accident, is large the shock of the injustice increases proportionately. The more people involved, the greater is the shock.
The first thing that usually happened after the first shockwave is that people turn rather philosophical and ask rather profound questions regarding the event. We ask why or why God permits or causes such evil. We wonder what is happening to the world and say things like, “When I was younger these things were unheard of,” or “What is the world coming to?” We discuss these happenings with whomever will listen- while waiting for transportation, at work, on breaks, with friends and even strangers “Did you hear about…?” “What do you think about…?” “Isn’t it a shame about…?”We play temporary philosopher and offer our observations about the state of the world, human nature, the evil in people and the uncertainty of the time or manner of death.
The next thing that usually happens is that something else happens to take our mind off the latest news, the latest plane crash, the latest terrorist strike, the latest whatever. We forget about it and move on to something else. Deep down we know such tragedies, be they intentional or accidental, will occur again and again. We deal with these very “un-routine” events rather routinely and they indeed become routine, despite the element of surprise they contain and evoke.
Jesus teaches us to handle such events differently. He knows that all experiences of wonder, including religious experiences that evoke conversion, begin with surprise. However, the surprise need not be pleasant. It can even be ugly and horrible, like a great massacre or accident. Jesus teaches us that even the horrible experiences that happen to others can be opportunities for us to think twice, to think in the light of eternity, and to change our ways and our lives. No matter the circumstances of our deaths, our deaths are inevitable. Then, the question, the only question, is, “What happens next?” The more philosophical questions of why or even how we died become irrelevant. No matter the answer, we are still dead. The answers to those and similar questions do not change our status. The Lord is saying that the pertinent question is not how we died or why we died, but how we lived and why we lived. The deaths of others have meaning in and of themselves, meaning for the person who died and for his or her loved ones. But, the deaths of others have meaning for all of us, for they are prophecies of our own deaths and therefore messages from God. The deaths of others, daily occurrences, let us know that we also will die and that the circumstances of our deaths, be they by disease, by the aging process, by some accident, by the evil intent of others, by whatever means, pale in importance when compared to our lives. It is how we lived, not how we died, that will be the deciding factor in where and how we live for all eternity.
Jesus tells us to view the deaths of others and the tragedies that befall us all as prophecies, as messages from God, regarding our own deaths. If we interpret these experiences in the light of eternity they will motivate us to reform our lives rather than fear our deaths or the manner of our deaths. To simply turn philosophical and wax eloquent on the brevity of life and the uncertainty of the future is to attempt to escape the real message and meaning that God constantly is teaching us through the signs he gives us. Every event is potentially a sign from God, containing both his presence and his message that we can and should change. There is always something within our lives that needs changing. Even the deaths of those not close to us should be interpreted by us not only as proofs of the evil in the world but also as signs of the necessity to reform and reform now.
Everything that happens is not God’s will. God tolerates evil, for a greater long-term good, but he does not will evil or send evil upon humans.
Sin happens all the time and sin, by definition, is not God’s will.
Murders, massacres, and accidents are not God’s will.
If we lose sight of eternity we can be lulled into thinking that we have plenty of time, that we can reform later, and that for now we can do as we please. The Galileans and the Siloam construction workers may have died by malice or chance, but the fig tree will die expressly because of inactivity and unproductiveness. This is the “greater sin.” The parable teaches that we may get a second chance, or a third, or more, but eventually comes the final chance. And we will not know which chance is the final one, so we had better shape up before then, long before then, now. The time to get serious about the future is not in the future, not tomorrow, but today. Amen.