A Call to Repentance
1At that time some people who were present there told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.2He said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?3By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!4Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them —do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?5By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
6 And he told them this parable: “There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none,7he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. [So] cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’8He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it;9it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’”
Cure of a Crippled Woman on the Sabbath
Exodus 3:1-8a, Exodus 13-15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-12
Politics and religion have never mixed well. In our Gospel portion this week, Jesus hears a report that Pilate, the official representative of Roman military authority in the province of Syria, is accused of executing Galileans so that their own blood is mixed with their sacrificial offerings. There is no historical record of this event outside of the Gospel but this sort of atrocity (exaggerated or not) fits the character of Pilate. According to the historian Josephus, Pilate was also responsible for the murder of innocent Samaritans worshipping on Mt. Gerizim. In another bloody incident he ordered the murder of several political opponents who challenged his right to rob the Temple treasury to fund an aqueduct project that would bring more water to the Temple area. In each instance Pilate’s orders lead to the death of innocent men. It seems he is at it again.
Those who bring the report to Jesus emphasize specifically that the dead are Galileans. They hope to incite a politically charged response from Jesus. As a Galilean himself, Jesus should be loyal to their cause and harbor ill will toward Pilate and their Roman overlords. After all, Jesus has recently taught that he has been sent to “set the earth on fire,” wishing that “it were already blazing” (Luke 12:49). In that same teaching Jesus says that he has not been sent to bring peace on the earth but rather division (Luke 12:51). Perhaps these recent statements encouraged those who report to Jesus what Pilate has done in Jerusalem.
This is a public challenge. Jesus knows that those making the report are trying to trip him up. Is he a true Galilean? Will he support their cause against Rome? If not, is he a Roman collaborator? Much hangs in the balance before Jesus finally responds with a question of his own and wins the exchange. Jesus reminds the messengers that the Galileans who died were no greater sinners than any others—and adds that they are all going to go to the grave eventually. Repent in the time you have left! Turn around and come back to God!
Jesus reminds them that a large tower had recently collapsed and killed eighteen people by the Pool of Siloam. What caused the tragedy? Probably an earthquake. Israel is situated in a highly seismic area. Those who died when the tower fell were simply in the wrong place and time. Again, Jesus reminds the messengers that if they are alive to hear this report there is still time to repent and come back to the Father.
Jesus uses the parable of the barren fig tree to summarize his teaching. According to Levitical law you are required to wait four years before you consume any fruit of a new tree (Leviticus 19:23-25). In the parable, the landowner has looked for evidence of fruit for three years and finds none. The tree is barren and should be cut down and replaced by another, fruitful tree. Its time is up, judgement must follow. The gardener in the parable, a biblical way to image God (Isaiah 5:1-7), has a better idea. He suggests more care, fertilization, and hope. He asks for more time, just one more year. If the tree does not bear fruit (repent?) then it can be cut down. Jesus uses this parable to connect the deadly wrath of Pilate and the accident at Siloam to his story. The time was up for those who died. Those still alive to hear the parable have time to repent, to return to God and begin to produce fruit so that they can live. A message of the parable is that even the giver of the law is merciful, providing every opportunity for the tree to produce fruit and remain in the orchard.
The parables of Jesus are unique stories created on the spur of the moment. Jesus draws his inspiration from nature or common life and tells an open-ended story that always has a shock element and leaves the listener in some doubt as to his precise meaning. Jesus only teaches in parables when large crowds gather around him and when he will not have time for individual explanation. You and I, like those in the original audience, are required to do the spiritual math for ourselves. The parable teachings of Jesus reveal his genius to the world.
Our mediation this week reminds us that there is still time. Time to live. Time to breathe. And time to repent. The message of the parable is that ultimately that time is limited. The fig tree in the parable had not produced fruit for three years. It was time for it to be cut down. Only the surprise appearance of a merciful gardener saves the tree, granting it one more year to blossom and produce fruit. We are living in that spiritual year now, a time of grace that affords us an opportunity to assess our spiritual life and the fruit that it is producing. We too can repent and return to God who loves us and is always calling us back.
Lent is a season for spiritual self-reflection. What would the gardener of your soul suggest to help you produce more fruit in your life? Do you need more nutrients (the Word)? More water (the Spirit)? More manure? Imagine what that gardener would prescribe for you and in your meditation see the plan through to completion.
Death will call for us all. As Christians our hope is in the Lord and in his victory over the grave. We are all going home. Paul states emphatically that “Death is swallowed up in victory” and wonders, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55).
Thank you, Jesus for conquering the grave and for the promise of the final defeat of death. I pray that my soul will find rest when it finally rests in you. Amen.
As an action response this week, take a few moments to reflect on those who have “gone before us, marked with the sign of faith” and are now with the Lord. The church teaches that love conquers death and the grave. The faithful who have died with Christ are now alive with the Lord and in communion with us on this side of eternity. They have gone home, and we are on the way.
Can you recall the circumstances of their passing? Was it peaceful? Full of grace? Do you recall the emotions you felt at their passing? Who did you know that died well? What about that passing spoke to you? How was God present in that moment? These are suitable considerations in this season of Lent. Take time this week to consider these questions and pray for a good death when your time comes, a death that will remind those around you of your hope and trust in the Lord.