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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
Most scholars agree that in the Galilean revolt referred to in Luke 13, Roman soldiers must have surprised Galilean insurgents while the rebels were sacrificing in preparation for their revolt. The Roman soldiers slaughtered the Galileans right then and there, and the religiopolitical elite responded by questioning whether the people revolting had been morally upright. Jesus replied:
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”
He goes on to say:
“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Then Jesus responds to these objectors with a second occurrence everyone was talking about during that time:
“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?”
According to some sources, the tower of Siloam was a tower that Rome used for weapons storage. A group of Zealot insurgents had tried to dig a tunnel under the tower, hoping to seize the weapons stored there and use them in a violent revolt against the Romans. But the tower’s foundation was already decaying, and the Zealots’ tunnel further compromised the integrity of the foundation. The entire construction suddenly collapsed and claimed the lives of several Galileans.
Jesus said again:
“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
In Jesus’ calls for repentance, I don’t hear the evangelical, moralistic idea of repentance so many of us are used to today. I hear a Jewish prophet of the poor calling for a change in society so that the poor and indebted are not further exploited, but could experience the distributive justice called for by the Hebrew prophetic tradition (see the book of Amos).
Luke’s gospel was written long after Jerusalem’s catastrophic crisis in 70 C.E. Yet in that gospel, Jesus warns that if the people did not change their society’s path, inequities would continue to escalate until their society imploded and all would be destroyed together. Because it was written after the fact, Luke’s gospel can connect these dots for its audience.
Jesus then finishes this warning with a story. Please read this story prayerfully, remembering the social and political context in which Jesus told it:
“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. 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?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”’”
The system of exploitation of the masses for the benefit of a few was set on a collision course with annihilation if something didn’t change. What was the fruit the gardener looked for that would ensure it remains?
I believe it was a more distributively just shaping of society, where the rain fell and the sun shone on all equitably (see Matthew 5:45).
What does this mean for us today?
A lot! We’ll discuss that next.