Lent 3 C, Year C

Isaiah 55:1-9; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

First the text and technical exegetical and translation notes, followed then by my own commentary and sermon suggestions.   

Luke 13:1-9

Repent or Perish

13 1At that very time[1] there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.[2] 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered[3] in this way they were worse sinners[4] than all other Galileans?[5]

3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent,[6] 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[7] than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent,[8] you will all perish just as they did.”

The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree

6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree[9] 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![10] 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,[11] well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”[12]


Commentary and Sermon Suggestions

As usual, our Gospel reading for this week, Luke 13:1-9, lifts up some very difficult theological issues. But that’s why we preach, isn’t it? That’s why preaching is important. If the ideas were easy, they wouldn’t hire people like you and me to untangle the knots and make sense out of them. J
This week I will only talk about the first half of the Gospel reading. For one thing, the first part, about death and sin and repentance, raises some powerful issues in and of itself, and probably, originally had nothing to do with the second half, about the survival of a fig tree. For another, I'm lazy and spent all week on the first half and will have to wrestle with fig trees another time. 

According to the narrative arc that Luke is following or creating, this is the very last part of a much longer “speech” (or loose collection of sayings), that Jesus delivers after dinner at the home of a Pharisee. It was evidently a fairly large gathering because there were a number of people from the town present. The total speech runs from Chapter 12:1 to 13:9 and covers a number of topics roughly woven together (some more smoothly than others) around a larger theme about being vigilant in the face of crisis. Some of the issues included keeping their faith, and remaining morally and ethically strong, even under difficult conditions.
For example, the speech contains the statement that we shouldn’t spend our lives worrying about what we should wear or eat. So, Jesus says, “Remember the lilies of the fields: they neither toil nor spin, yet even Solomon in all his glory was not arraigned like one of these” (12:27). On another, he says to not give up on your faithfulness just because times are hard. And the story of the servants waiting for their master to come home after his wedding, who got tired waiting and gave up on him. Jesus says, “blessed are those slaves whom the master finds when he comes” (12:37).
Now, in 13:1-9, he comes to something of a climax in his talk. It is a call to repent and change our ways, a “change of heart and life manifest in fruitful lives” (NIB). As I’ve mentioned in the commentary above, Luke mentions repentance more often than any other book in the Bible. In fact, close to more often than all of the rest of the New Testament combined.  
So, that evening, presumably after dinner, someone in the crowd raises a question about a recent tragedy concerning some grizzly deaths that had occurred in the temple. Evidently Pilate had punished some Galileans for an unspecified crime (probably involvement in an insurrection plot) by killing them and sprinkling their blood in with the blood of the sacrifice on the altar. Incidentally, we have no other record of this happening, but it is very much in keeping with the gruesome policies of Pilate. Jesus’ response to it indicates that the questioner was probably suggesting that God had caused the deaths as a punishment for their being “worse sinners” than others.

Background “Riffs”
As an aside, here are a couple of “riffs” that you could go off on in your sermon that could flesh out the background of this simple two-sentence story. First would be the possibility of underlying emotions driving this question. For example there could have been a basic prejudice by those in Jerusalem against the lower class Galileans who simply should be considered sinners, prima facie, solely because of their class. An attitude that still lies just under the surface in much of our discourse about race and nationality and gender today. Or you might mention a frequent attitude among controlled peoples that any opposition to the government is out of line and sinful. “Those people. They could have put the lives of the rest of us in jeopardy by that action; they should have just stayed in their place and not tried a protest.” But in either case, the first thing Jesus says is no. I’ll come back to the second half of Jesus’ response in a moment.
A second riff could be to give a little primer on sacrifice as the mode of worship in the first century. It may have been more bloody than our modern methods of worship, but not less significant. In ancient Israel, sacrifices were gifts to God as a thank offering for the bounty that God had given them. And they saw it as a transformation of something temporal (the animal) into something transcendent (the smoke, the spirit from the animal). [13] We retain a lot of the symbolism of sacrifice today, but without the physical actions behind them. It’s not our 21st century mode of worship, but don’t let the bloody aspects of it derail us from looking at Pilate’s even more bloody response and the moral and theological issues that the story raises.
Suggested location of the "Pool of Siloam"
The second story raised that evening came from Jesus himself. It was about a time when a tower in Siloam[14] by the waters fell over on top of people and killed 18 of them. This was probably tower that guarded the aqueduct bringing water to the pool of Siloam, that formed part of the old wall of Jerusalem.[15]
It was a terrible tragedy. Greg Jenks, a New Testament scholar at St Francis Theological College, in Australia, believes that both of these stories may be related. At about the same time that Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem, Pilate began an aqueduct project to bring more water to the city. That’s a good thing, but he was going to pay for it by stealing money from the Temple treasury. So the first group who died could have been enraged Jews who protested the event and paid for it with their lives. And the second group could have been the workers on one of the towers related to the water project.[16] So, Jesus asks, were the people who Pilate killed and had their blood mixed with the Temple sacrifices worse “sinners”? and were those who died it he tower collapse worse “offenders” for what they had done.
He asks both of these questions in a rhetorical way, The implication in both was yes, that is exactly what they were thinking. Yes, they believe that because these poor people died the worst possible death, therefore they must have been the worst possible sinners.

Jesus’ responses to these two stories
The first part of his response to both questions is, of course not. And that answer is very helpful. God is not a killer. Thinking so is nice when you are talking about a Sadaam or Bashar al Assad (brutal dictator of Syria) dying, but the argument gets a little weak when you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Haiti during its earthquakes and floods and cholera epidemic. Or the little boy who died face down on a Greek beach last year and (for about three seconds) caused a worldwide rush of empathy for Syrian refugees. Did they sin more than us, and therefore God destroyed their country? Of course not, and Jesus makes that plain.
But the second part is more difficult. I can understand his saying that you need to have a life of repentance and new meaningfulness, but it at least sounds like he is adding that if you don’t repent you will die just like those Galileans did, or you’ll die the way that they did. It’s the “like they did” part that remains troubling.
I don’t think he means that if you are a sinner, you will die in the same manner that they did. That is, you you’ll have your blood mingled with some kind of Jewish blood-offering in a temple. And I don’t think he means that if you don’t repent, you’re going to die too. That one doesn’t actually make any sense, because of course you’re going to die. Everyone dies. It’s the end of life. It comes. Get over it. It doesn’t mean you’re a sinner if you die. It means you are mortal and your clock ran out. 
But surely he does mean that if you don’t repent then you will die in some way that is similar to those guys. And that’s your biggest take home for a sermon from this passage. If you die and you have not turned your life around (Greek: metanoia) then it could, in fact, be argued that you will die cut off from God and from hope and peace in your bones, the very way that these people (might have) died. I say “might have” because since none of them lived to do interviews about their spiritual life we have to just say, “for the sake of argument, let’s say that none of them had a meaningful connection with God, and if you don’t turn you lives around, then you will die with the same lack of meaning. Jesus is not saying that that unless you repent (turn your life around) you’ll die too, just like they did, because you certainly will eventually die like they did, no matter what your repentance status is. But he is saying that when you die it will be a cut-off, soul-evacuated life—like theirs (probably) was.    

There are two things going on here.
The first, I think, is the deeper meaning that you shouldn’t throw blame around when you see suffering. That’s not only rude and in poor taste, it’s also a wrong use of the event. Instead use it as an occasion to change your own life. 
When you see a car accident, don’t say, “whew! Those stupid bozos. I’m sure glad I’m not like those guys.” A better response would be to feel shaken and torn inside and think to yourself, “how awful that was. It makes me realize how fragile and temporary life is. I should take life more seriously and meaningfully.” The most important “learning” that we should find in a death (if indeed there is one, and sometimes I’m not sure), is not that the person who died deserved to die, or that God “Took him home.” It’s silly and unproductive to think that God picks and chooses who to kill off according to the level of sinfulness in the deceased, or from some dark divine plan that only God understands.
When I preach on this story, I often use a real story of an exchange I heard at the collation following a funeral years ago. A lot of well-intentioned people were milling around saying it was sad, and all, that old John died, but y’know, he was a rounder back when he was a kid, and God probably gave him that diabetes and gangrene that took him, as a punishment for all that.” After two or three of these exchanges, an old Methodist on-the-wagon alcoholic, who knew a thing or two about “rounders” and sin, glowered at them over the punch bowl and said, that if God strikes down people for the sins of their youth, then every single man and woman in this town would be walking around with a limp.”
I love that story. As Paul says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Whenever we blame someone’s death on their sin, or on God’s capricious taking them home, or because it was “their time,” we tread in dangerous, almost evil waters.
There are only two potentially “good” responses to death (note the cautionary use of quotes and italics, because any good response can be abused if we try hard enough). One would be to ask how can I become a better person in light of the death of this loved one? Or “How can I celebrate this person’s life by creating a better life?” The second is like it. “How can I create a world in which there is a smaller number of children washing up on the shores of Greece or Spain or Britain, or emergency rooms or jails or homeless shelters in the US?”
So, it’s most likely that when Jesus says that without repentance, you will die as they did, he was saying something like, “unless you repent and turn your life around you will die—not in the manner they did, but in the spiritual state that they did. That is, not that repentance will keep you from dying at all (which it clearly will not), and repentance will keep you from dying with a tower falling on your head (which would be silly), but from dying lost, alienated, and separated from God. Unless you change and return to God, you will die cut off from God as (presumably) those people did. So, repentance is not related to their death, it’s related to their life. Their sin (of separation) had nothing to do with their deaths. It had to do with their lives.

Conclusion, summary and difficult issues
Someone in the crowd raised this issue because he or she believed that there was a direct correlation between sin and suffering. These people suffered horrible deaths. Does that mean that they must have been terrible people? It is the question found in Job, Psalm 37 and 73 and others. John 9:2. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?”
We (you and me) occasionally raise that question too. And occasionally there appears to be a link between the two. But on the whole, hunting down that link is a bad direction to go in. The clarity of the down side is far worse than the ambiguity of the up side. If we say that God punishes those who are sinners and rewards those who are saints, then we get dangerously close to saying that the people who died in the 9-11 tragedy (or in the bombing in Paris last year, the mass killings of the Uber driver last week, or the fire in the club in Rhode Island...or whatever) were somehow more guilty than the rest of us. And if we say that God rewards those who are good, then we slide overly close to saying that Donald Trump (or others) was financially successful because he was somehow more morally good than the rest of us. I don’t know about you, but I’m not prepared to say that. How about Martin Shkreli, the hedge fund manager, who bought up the rights to Daraprim, an important and inexpensive life-saving drug, and then jacked up the price 5,000 percent, actually putting at risk the lives of thousands of people?
Jesus brushes aside that theology and recasts the issue: If you don’t change your ways, and live a life of repentance and trust in God, then you are going to approach death with a life that has no meaningful connections to life eternal, a meaningless life. Without a life of repentance, all of the rest of life is empty and lost. I think that’s a more fruitful direction in which to go, and I think it was what Jesus was getting at: don’t dwell on whether God did this awful act; dwell on pondering what we are going to be like in light of it? Who am I going to be in light of it? How is it going to change me?
Occasionally we see people who are wonderful people and successful and healthy and we can think we see a direct relation between their moral life and their checkbook or health. And occasionally we’ll see a real scumbag who died young or badly with some degree of justice. However, we all can also remember examples of truly decent people who died long, protracted, awful, unjust deaths. So don’t ascribe the hand of God in those. It just isn’t there. What Jesus calls us to is the quality of life, the relation with God life. Not a financially or medically rewarding life. Don’t ask a theological question about the ethics or morals of people who died in an accident, ask how that accident can bring us to change our relationship with God and with our world. This is the theological question that makes the most sense. You all are going to die anyway, just like the people whose blood Pilate mingled with the blood at the altar and who died under the crushing collapsing building. You don’t have a choice in that. But you do have a choice in how you live your life before you get there.




[1] “At that very time” (en autōi tōi kairōi). A frequent idiom of Luke’s. Emphatic about the particular time: “At that very time “at the time itself.” The kjv has “at that season.” There have been a number of guesses as to what “time” he was referring to, but there’s no consensus on them. Fitzmyer says that while “The transition creates the impression of a report about something that has recently happened,” it may just be “a transition composed by Luke to join this episode to the foregoing.
(Joseph A. Fitzmyer S.J., The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, vol. 28A, Anchor Yale Bible [New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008], p. 1006.
[2] “Whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (hoôn to haima Peilatos emixen meta toôn thusioôn autoôn). The verb emixen is first aorist active (not past perfect) of mignumi, a common verb. The net and niv have “mixed.”
[3] “Suffered” (peponthasin). Second perfect active indicative third plural from paschoô, common verb, to experience, suffer. The tense notes that it is “an irrevocable fact” (F.F. Bruce).
[4] “Sinners” (“öåéëÝôáé). From QìáñôÜíù, hamartanō (to miss the mark [and so not share in the prize]), i.e., sinful, missing where we should be in terms of righteousness.
[5] “Worse Sinners than all other…” (hamartoôloi para pantas). Para means “beside,” as in being placed beside the Galileans for comparison, and so beyond or above (with the accusative). Lit. they sinned beyond all the Galileans.
[6]“Unless you repent” (ean meô metanoeôte,ìåôáíïyôå). Have a change of heart, change one’s ways. Lit.: Unless you reform your lives and the way you live…. Present active subjunctive of metanoeoô, to change both one’s mind and conduct, and keep on changing. Calls to repent are much more common in Luke than in other NT writers.
[7] “Offenders” (öåéëÝôáé, opheiletai). Literally, debtors, not sinners as in v. 2, and as the kjv has. See 7:41; 11:4; Matthew 6:12; 18:24-34. One who is under obligation, One who owes something to another. That is, a person indebted, a debtor. Translated as sinner, or offender, because debtors were considered transgressors of the law by virtue of their not paying their debts. From “öåßëù, “öåéëÝù, opheiloô  opheileoô, to owe (pecuniarily); figuratively to be under obligation (ought, must, should); morally to fail in duty.
[8] “Unless you repent” (ean meô metanoeôseôte). First aorist active subjunctive, immediate repentance in contrast to continued repentance, metanoeôte in verse 3, though Westcott and Hort put metanoeôte in the margin here. The interpretation of accidents is a difficult matter, but the moral pointed out by Jesus is obvious. Again, calls to repentance are mentioned more often in Luke than in any other gospel.
[9] “Fig tree” Fig trees in the Hebrew scripture were often symbols for Judah or Israel. Cf. Hos 9:10; Micah 7:1; Jer. 8:13; 24:1-10). 
[10] “Cut it down!” ἔκκοψον [οὖν] {C} “In order to reflect the balance of external evidence for and against the inclusion of οὖν, as well as the absence of any compelling consideration relating to transcriptional and intrinsic probabilities, the Committee felt obliged to retain the word in the text, but to enclose it within square brackets, indicating a measure of doubt that it has a right to stand there.”  Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition.
[11] “If it bears fruit next year” (kan men poieôseôi karpon eis to mellon). Aposiopesis, sudden breaking off for effect (Robertson, Grammar, p. 1203). See it also in Mark 11:32; Acts 23:9. Trench (Parables) tells a story like this of intercession for the fig tree for one year more.
[12] “At the end of this verse there is added in some manuscripts, ‘as he said this, he called out, ‘Let the one who has ears to hear take heed.’” (Fitzmyer, p. 1009).
[13] See for background, William K. Gildershttp, “Sacrifice in Ancient Israel” www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/sacrifice-in-ancient-israel.aspx. Retrieved, 02/27/16
[14] See “The Locations of the Pools of Siloam,” https://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/2011/04/28/the-locations-of-the-pools-of-siloam/
[15] Fitzmyer, p. 1008.
[16] His thoughts on this, and extensive quotes from Josephus’ writings about Pilate’ brutality on the Jews, can be found here: http://gregoryjenks.com/2013/02/24/lent-3c-3-march-20143/.