Luke 13: 1-9
Rev Ron Ham
Last week Rainer reminded us that this world is God’s world – and it is a good world. Whatever we have done to it by abusing our environment, and this we have done often recklessly, God has not retreated from that first comment made about the world: ‘God saw that it was good.’ We affirmed this by moving around this property and the street and car parks nearby to collect rubbish – to sweeten our environment.
This experience was important to people who come to church because we can become narrow in our focus. Last week’s focus reminded us that God is not only in the church but also in the world, and we who claim to love God and intend to do God’s will should move in the world with special sensitivity.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s great hymn has a verse, in which he says hopefully, after reflecting on the dreadful possibilities lying before him in his prison,
If once again in this mixed world you give us
The joy we had, the brightness of your sun;
We shall recall what we have learned through suffering
And dedicate ourselves to you alone.
This mixed world he calls it. For him it was a world of violence and racism and terror, but he knew also that it could be a world of beauty and love and challenge, because his boyhood was in a large, loving family in one of the most beautiful parts of the world.
And this passage we have read this morning from the Gospel of Luke reflects this mixed world. The first incident mentioned is that some people listening to Jesus told him “of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” Galilee was where the Zealots were based. They were a revolutionary group in Judaism determined to drive out the Romans. This comment about Pilate’s slaughter of Galileans may refer to his brutal response to their activities.
Jesus then referred to the death of eighteen people when a tower in Siloam fell on them and killed them. Pilate had built an aqueduct in Jerusalem with funds from the sacred temple tax, and this tower may have been part of the construction. If it was, then both these incidents, the Galilean slaughter and the tower’s fall, had a political background. If the Pilate slaughter was a deliberate act of killing, this tragedy of the falling tower was an accidental happening, but both incidents were examples of this mixed world in which brutality and accident, live side by side.
With this in mind, let us notice what Jesus said. To the people telling of the slaughter in Galilee, Jesus said, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” And then, referring to the accidental death from the falling tower, Jesus said, “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
We may be tempted to read this in a strictly personal way and say that Jesus was warning the individuals listening to him to repent of their sins so that they would not be judged and punished by some disaster, whether deliberate or accidental. But that does not seem to fit with the sense of the passage. There is a national connection here – in the Galilean incident Pilate was probably putting down rebellion, a rebellion over his Roman foreign power occupying their country. In the Siloam incident there was possibly the reminder that the tower was there in the first place because of Pilate’s exploitation of the temple tax.
This raises the question whether the warning about their repenting and avoiding a similar fate, is a warning to the nation and not first of all to the individual! I think this interpretation is correct because of what follows. At verse 6, Luke says, “Then Jesus told them this parable”: A man had planted a fig tree in his vineyard. The tree had given no fruit in three years, so the owner told the gardener to cut it down. But the gardener suggested to the owner that they give it another year, digging around it and fertilising it for another year. If there was no fruit after a year, cut it down.
Surely this parable of Jesus, which Luke connected to the previous verses by the comment, “Then he told them this parable”, was to help them understand the warning of Jesus that they, the people of Israel, if they did not repent, would ‘likewise perish’. In other parts of scripture, the fig tree image stands for the nation of Israel. The tree of Israel, which had not produced the fruit God expected, should, before this, have been cut down. But God had been digging around this tree and had been fertilising it by sending John the Baptist to call the nation to repentance – to the baptism of repentance – and thus to prepare the way for the Messiah. Jesus was that Messiah. They rejected both John and Jesus.
This warning of Jesus about them ‘likewise perishing’ was a national warning before it was a personal warning. What we now know is that it happened. Around the year 70, many of them did perish; Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. The nation of Israel was a unique people chosen by God to live the law which Jesus, in his lifetime, interpreted so faithfully. They were called to live it by acting justly, by loving tenderly and by walking humbly with God, as one of their prophets had put it. But they did not accept the warning, because they continued their fierce opposition to Jesus right up to his arrival in Jerusalem, and his killing in Jerusalem.
There are some parallels between ‘this mixed world’ in which Jesus lived and died, and the mixed world in which Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived and died – worlds of beauty and ugliness, of loyalty and treachery, of generous love and selfish hatred.
And there are parallels between those worlds and this mixed world in which we live. On the one hand, there is our personal place in the world, and our personal responsibility to live lovingly and justly, walking humbly with God in all our relationships in our home and in our community. Although the section of Luke we have read today refers to national responsibility, we take note of our personal responsibility. That is why we are followers of Jesus Christ. When we fail in this, we are called to repent, to ‘about turn’, and to receive forgiveness, the forgiveness which is at the heart of the gospel.
On the other hand, there is the corporate life of the world of which we are a part, and what happens in the world, particularly in our nation, is partly our responsibility also. We are the nation! Although we live in a secular state, we cannot escape some responsibility for what our nation, or what our local community does and becomes. Nations today can still rise and fall. God does not turn a blind eye to what our nation and other nations are doing.
Rainer reminded us last week of one aspect of life we can influence. We are people who vote; and governments do things in the name of people like us in this mixed world. If elected leaders act unjustly, the people can have that in mind when the next election comes and let it inform the vote. In the meantime, if the people see injustices around them, they have a responsibility to make their objections known between elections. And we who are of the community of the church should be among the first to sense where injustice and exploitation are happening, and we should be among the first to raise our voice.
Of course, that is not the only place where our presence and voice as people of God and as citizens of Australia should be seen and heard. God calls the Church, and we are put of it, to be a light shining in the world, and to be salt cleansing and preserving freshness in life, not just inside these four walls. That puts spring into your step and opens channels of alertness and tides of compassion in us.
I finish on an important positive note in this Luken passage. Notice the contrast. In the first part about the Galilean slaughter and the Siloam disaster, we read – “Unless you repent, you will also likewise perish.” In the second part about the fig tree, we read – “Let it alone for one more year.” The warnings of God and the judgement of God are always to be understood in the context of the incredible patience of God which we commonly call the grace of God. We are the recipients of that grace, and the messengers of it in this mixed world!
Rev. Ron Ham