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Luke 13:1-9 Biblical Commentary:
LUKE 12:49 – 13-35. JUDGMENT TO COME
Immediately prior to our Gospel lesson, Jesus warned that he came not to bring peace, but division (12:49-53). He also warned the crowds that, while they knew how to read the sky for signs of impending weather, they did not know “interpret this time” (12:54-56).
Immediately after our Gospel lesson, a synagogue leader will criticize Jesus for healing on the sabbath, and Jesus will put him to shame (13:10-17). At the end of chapter 13, Jesus will lament the recalcitrance of Jerusalem, “that kills the prophets, and stones those who are sent to her!” (13:31-35).
LUKE 13:1-9. TWO STORIES AND A PARABLE
Luke gives us a pair of stories that call us to repentance (vv. 1-5) and a parable that illustrates the patience and love of God (vv. 6-9). Both stories call for repentance. The story of the Galileans (vv. 1-5) warns of the coming judgment—“unless you repent, you will all perish” (v. 3). The fig-tree parable (vv. 6-9) offers hope that the Lord will defer judgment to another day.
Some scholars see the stories (vv. 1-5) as calling for response by individuals and the parable (vv. 6-9) as calling for response by the nation and its leaders—scribes, Pharisees, and the like (Bock, 239; Bailey, 74).
LUKE 13:1-5. UNLESS YOU REPENT, YOU WILL ALL PERISH
1Now there were some present at the same time who told him about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2Jesus answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered such things? 3 I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way. 4Or those eighteen, on whom the tower in Siloam fell, and killed them; do you think that they were worse offenders than all the men who dwell in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no, but, unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way.”
“Now there were some present at the same time who told him about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices” (v. 1). The news is indeed terrible. Galileans came to the temple to make their sacrifices, and Pilate’s soldiers slaughtered them in that holy place—profaned the altar with human blood—compounded murder with sacrilege. Imagine murder in your church on Sunday morning. Imagine the carpet soaked with human blood mingled with communion wine. Shocking and doubly shocking!
We cannot confirm this event from secular sources, but we do know Pilate to be capable of great brutality. In a letter to Caligula, Agrippa I called Pilate “inflexible, merciless, and obstinate” and accused him of inflicting punishment without trial and many acts of cruelty (Hendriksen, 1007). The incident that led to Pilate’s removal from office had to do with the slaughter by Pilate’s soldiers of Samaritans who had gathered on Mount Gerizim to see if one of their prophets could locate temple vessels that were purported to be buried there. In 36 A.D., Pilate’s superiors ordered Pilate to return to Rome to answer charges that arose from that incident. We know little about the outcome of that inquiry or Pilate’s later life.
“there were some present at the same time who told him about the Galileans” (v. 1). Luke doesn’t tell us who these people are or why they tell Jesus this grim tale. Most likely they are ordinary folk, hoping that Jesus will make sense of a nonsensical situation—that he will help them to understand why these Galileans suffered such a terrible fate. Had they violated some Roman law? Had they offended God?
Whoever they are, these people expect a sympathetic response from Jesus. In any victim-culture (and Israel rightly feels victimized by Rome), stories like this demand some sort of “Ain’t It Awful!” response. Acceptable responses range from “Those damned Romans!” to “Let’s drive them out!”
Jesus, however, responds in a completely unexpected way, saying, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered such things?” (v. 2). He addresses the unspoken assumption that these Galileans sinned grievously, provoking God’s judgment. Indeed, in Israel’s mind, sin and judgment are closely linked. It is oddly comforting to believe that suffering is the result of sin, because it eliminates randomness—explains suffering—offers us a way to avoid the disasters that we see befalling others.
“I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way” (v. 3). Jesus denies that the Galileans suffered because of their sins, but calls his listeners to repent lest they suffer for theirs. What happened to the Galileans is history, and nothing can be done about it. The fate of Jesus’ listeners, however, is still negotiable. Jesus does not condemn them, but instead shows them the way. His purpose is to redeem. While not all tragedy is the result of sin, sin sometimes leads to tragedy. Jesus’ listeners have sinned (as we all have), and he calls them to repent so that they might escape disaster.
This is a courageous response. Ken Bailey says that his Middle Eastern students, studying this passage, are amazed that nobody physically attacked Jesus on the spot. People in a victim-culture become self-righteous and resistant to criticism. By calling for repentance, Jesus appears unsympathetic to the national cause—uncaring about Roman atrocities. In Nazareth, townspeople tried to kill Jesus when he spoke well of Gentiles (4:16-30). The same could easily have happened on this occasion (Bailey,Through Peasant Eyes, 78-79).
“Or those eighteen, on whom the tower in Siloam fell, and killed them; do you think that they were worse offenders than all the men who dwell in Jerusalem?” (v. 4). The pool of Siloam is in Jerusalem (John 8:20; 9:7) and, presumably, the tower of Siloam was near the pool. The issue is the same as in the first instance: Did God target these eighteen because of their sins? Jesus moves the sin/suffering debate from the context of suffering at Roman hands to suffering at God’s hands—from a massacre to an “act of God.”
“I tell you, no, but, unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way” (v. 5). This is the same response that Jesus gave to the first story. Jesus denies that the eighteen were worse offenders than others, but uses the opportunity to call his listeners to repentance. Again, his purpose is not condemnation but redemption. The call to repentance shows that it is not too late for his listeners. Salvation is still possible.
By the time Luke writes this Gospel, Rome will have destroyed Jerusalem. For Luke, there is a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the city’s sin and its fate.
Repentance is a major emphasis in this Gospel (3:3; 3:8; 5:32; 13:3, 5; 15:7; 16:30; 17:3; 24:47). It is not a nagging call, but instead offers an implicit promise of salvation. If they don’t repent, they will perish, but if they do repent, God will forgive—will save them.
We need to live lives of repentance, because we never know when a tyrant will rise up against us—or a wall will fall on us—or our plane will crash—or we will fall off the roof—or a truck will crush our automobile—or a spasm will stop our heart. Neither the Galileans who were killed by Pilate nor the eighteen who were crushed by the wall had the opportunity to repent. Their end came swiftly—without warning. So it may be for us. Repentance helps us in life and in death—helps us to live as forgiven people—helps us to face death without fear.
Pastors often encounter people who have suffered tragedy that they imagine to be caused by their guilt. This text calls us to balance two opposing ideas:
• On the one hand, tragedy sometimes strikes randomly as it did in the case of the Galileans and the eighteen Jerusalemites. In such cases, it has nothing to do with guilt. The tornado that destroys a nightclub also destroys a church—kills both the town drunk and a Sunday school teacher. However, our repentance stands us in good stead when we experience unavoidable tragedy. It prepares us to live victoriously in the face of tragedy, and it also prepares us for death.
• On the other hand, sin sometimes leads to tragedy. Drunk drivers kill innocent people. Abusive people injure their spouses and children. Not all tragedy is the result of sin, but some is. Perhaps the best way to visualize this is a small circle inside a large circle. The large circle is all tragedy. The small circle is tragedy caused by our sin. We cannot prevent random tragedy—that which lies outside the small circle—but Christ calls us to repent so that we might avoid the self-imposed tragedy of the small circle.
The pastor’s difficult task is discernment—when to reassure people that they have not caused their own suffering and when to emphasize the need for repentance.
LUKE 13:6-9. THE PARABLE OF THE BARREN FIG TREE
6He spoke this parable. “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it, and found none. 7He said to the vine dresser, ‘Behold, these three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and found none. Cut it down. Why does it waste the soil?’ 8He answered, ‘Lord, leave it alone this year also, until I dig around it, and fertilize it. 9If it bears fruit, fine; but if not, after that, you can cut it down.'”
We shouldn’t confuse this parable with the cursing of the fig tree in Mark 11:12-14. The two stories have little in common other than a barren fig tree.
“A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it, and found none” (v. 6). A vineyard is a common metaphor for the people of Israel, and the fruit to be expected from the Israel is Godly living. Jesus’ listeners would understand this connection as Jesus tells this parable.
“Behold, these three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and found none” (v. 7a). Leviticus 19:23-24 forbids the eating of fruit from a newly planted tree for three years, and requires that the fruit of the fourth year be “for giving praise to Yahweh.” It is only in the fifth year that the owner can benefit from the harvest. We don’t know whether this is the third year of the tree’s life or the third year that the owner could have harvested (the seventh year of the tree’s life). In either case, the owner believes that this tree has had time to demonstrate whether it will be fruitful or not.
“Cut it down. Why does it waste the soil?” (v. 7b). The owner has waited long enough. Judgment Day has come! Israel’s history provides numerous instances where God used an axe to prune their sins. They know both the sweet taste of God’s providence and the bitter taste of God’s judgment.
The gardener replied, “Lord, leave it alone this year also, until I dig around it, and fertilize it. If it bears fruit, fine; but if not, after that, you can cut it down” (vv. 8-9). The plea is to leave the axe in the shed long enough to give the tree just one more season—one more chance. Yes, three years is a long time, plenty of time for the tree to bear fruit. However, the owner has three years invested. One more year will not break the bank. The payoff could be a fruitful tree in only one year—a significant gain for one year’s patience. That is the argument, but we have the sense that the gardener is motivated less by the pocketbook than by the heart. The gardener planted the tree—watered it—fertilized it—watched it grow. He does not want to lose it.
The gardener, if the landowner agrees to leave the tree another year, will not leave the tree’s salvation to chance. He will loosen the soil to insure that water finds its way to the roots. He will fertilize the tree with manure. If the tree is redeemed, it will be work of the gardener that saves it. This is Good News! Our judgment will take place under the watchful eyes of a redeemer whose purpose is to save rather than to condemn.
The story ends without telling us whether the owner accepts the gardener’s offer, but Jesus leaves us with the notion that he does. Any reprieve, however, will be only temporary. If Israel does not repent, the gardener will have no choice next year but to obey the owner. The axe will come out of the shed—no further negotiation will be possible.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Bock, Darrell L., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Luke, Vol. 3 (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1994)
Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
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Stein, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Luke (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
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