Luke 13:1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 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? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Luke 13:6 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. 7 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?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Our reading interprets the time of the ministry and of the church as the time of opportunity. There are three moments in this Gospel passage.
Pilate’s intervention in the Temple
The collapse of the tower at Siloam
The parable of the fig tree
The first two belong together; the third is somewhat independent but is a response, nevertheless, to the first two. This sequence consists partly of material special to Luke and partly of material possibly found in Matthew and Mark, but considerably reworked.
Kind of writing
The conversation about disasters is technically a chreia, i.e. an anecdote from the life of Jesus, with a point. The point made is then explored and expanded in the unique parable that follows. The topic common to both is the right use of time, the “now” of salvation. In Luke-Acts, both metanoia (conversion, 7-3-10+14 = Mt-Mk-Lk+Acts) and nun (now, 4-3-14+25) are typical themes.
Old Testament background
(i) Disaster was often taken to be a punishment for sin. It is largely based on Deut 28-30. Texts from Job and Ezekiel can serve as illustrations. ‘Can mortals be righteous before God? Can human beings be pure before their Maker? (Job 4:17) When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. (Ezek 18:26) (ii) Repentance at the word of a prophet is also found frequently in the OT. For Luke, Jesus, like the prophets of old, is put to death for his proclamation. (iii) The fig tee and the vine are signs of God’s blessing in the Old Testament. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. (Mic 4:3–4) Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield. (Joel 2:22)
New Testament Foreground
(i) Two peculiar stories in Mark and Matthew seem to be linked to ours today. On the following day, when they came from Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. (Mark 11:12–14) In the morning, when Jesus returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. (Matt 21:18–19) This prophetic gesture is not found in Luke. In its place, it seems, we have the present parable. However, he uses the story differently, not to illustrate judgment but rather as an expression of mercy. God gives us all an “extension.” (ii) A similar invitation to repent is found in the letter to the church in Smyrna: Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place, unless you repent. (Rev 2:5)
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! (2 Cor 6:1–2)
Verse 1 This story about Pilate, apparently sending in the troops to people at prayer, reflects (a) the Temple as a flash point of tension and (b) the well-documented violence of Pilate, who was eventually removed by the Romans because it was too much even for them. Very likely, Jesus, as a Galilean, is being asked to comment on what happened to fellow Galileans. Jesus turns these two disaster stories into prophetic warnings, as a prophet himself. The challenge with each event is that time has run out. The mention of Pilate makes a link with the death of Jesus, whose life will be also cut short, paradoxically. Verse 2 A rhetorical question with the implied answer “no, they were not.” Jesus rejects any simplistic link between sin and disaster. Verse 3 At first glance, we might be able to conclude that if they had repented this would not have happened to them, but that is not the point. Rather life can end suddenly, so use the time now. In Luke, the word to perish or to be lost (19-10-27+2) doesn’t mean simply to die, but to lose eternal life. This refrain will be repeated in the story of the tower of Siloam. Verses 4-5 Again, we have a rhetorical question, with the same expected answer. The incident was not uncommon but is otherwise unreported. Siloam gets another NT mention in John 9, for the feast of Succoth. The link between these two incidents and the parable is implied but real: if this is how things are, what should we do? Verse 6 A fig tree in a vineyard (which can sound odd) combines two symbolic plants from the world of the OT. The vineyard is used widely as a symbol of God’s relationship with his people (Lk 20:9-19). The fig comes up again in 21:29, part of an invitation to recognise the times (just as here, really). Verse 7 In Mark, Jesus looks for the fruit out of season whereas here the farmer comes regularly and apparently in season. The key difference with Mark is that in Luke the fig really is given time, as well as irrigation and sustenance. Verse 8 The message is, “give it one more chance.” The means of renewal / fruitfulness are illustrated: digging around and manure. Verse 9 After this final chance, there will then be an assessment; this judgement, however, is not arbitrary as it depends on how we have responded personally. The parable remains open-ended. Cf. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. (Luke 15:32)
Pointers for prayer
1. Jesus rejects the idea that personal misfortune is God’s punishment for sin. Yet a serious illness or accident can serve as a wake-up call about how we live our lives. How have such experiences given you a greater appreciation of the value of your life and relationships, and of the time, and opportunities at your disposal? 2. “I’ll wait till tomorrow to do that”. Have you ever said that and then found the chance is gone the next day? In the story we are called to recognise God at work in our lives and respond to Him. NOW is the opportune moment. When have you been glad you did not put off action to the following day? 3. Perhaps there have been times when you saw yourself like the tree in the parable—useless, merely a waste of space. Think of friends who came to you at such a time, people who saw your potential and were prepared to give you another chance, people who also dug the soil around you and gave you the helps you needed to grow. Perhaps in your turn you have been able to do this for others.
God of salvation, we stand before you on holy ground, for your name is glorified and your mercy revealed wherever your mighty deeds are remembered. Since you are holy and forbearing, turn us from every rash and shallow judgment to seek the ways of repentance. We ask this through Christ, our deliverance and our hope, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, holy and mighty God for ever and ever. Amen.
Thought for the day and prayer
We are all aware of the fleeting nature of time and we all have experience of the missed opportunity, the moment of grace—however secular—overlooked. At the same time, we know that our God is the God of second chances and that it is never truly over. Like Augustine, we hear the insistent murmur, “if not now, when?” That future moment of grace will be just like this one, ordinary, nothing special, fleeting and yet the only moment that exists, the “now” of our everyday. Prayer Patient and insistent God, knock again on the door our hearts. We are never really ready—a sign perhaps of our everyday need of you. Help us undertake again to dig around and manure, so that under your grace, we may bear fruit, fruit that will last. Amen.