The gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday is Luke 13:1-9. The first five verses issue a call to repentance. People bring two incidents to Jesus’ attention. First, Pilate has killed some Galileans while they were making sacrifices. Second a tower has fallen on 18 people in Jerusalem.
Both incidents must have happened in Jerusalem because Galilee was not under Rome and Pilate’s direct control. Herod was a puppet king there. Also, sacrifices happened in Jerusalem. So the Galileans must have come to Jerusalem for one of the festivals.
So two tragedies had happened there. One was a result of social and political oppression. The other was an accident. But in both cases some saw the wrath of God behind these occurrences.
Now we bring our agenda easily to this passage. We want to talk about theodicy, why bad things happen to good people. We want to recruit Jesus to say that God doesn’t have anything to do with tragedies. I want to do that.
But it is not in the passage. Jesus does say that these people were not worse than others who survived. Elsewhere he says that God makes the rain fall on the just and the unjust. So Jesus rejects the theology of those friends of Job who want to say that when bad things happen to you, you need to go looking inside for some fault that caused this. Yet Jesus does not deny that the wrath of God was behind these events.
Jesus is a preacher of doom. Yes these things happened in Jerusalem, but worse things are going to happen to the whole city. Therefore, everybody is in the same situation. Everybody faces doom. Everybody is under the wrath of God. In the face of doom everybody needs to repent. It is not about theodicy or the problem of evil.
Jesus and John the Baptist seem to have had much the same message about this.
But Luke has been pulling material from all sorts of sources, completely out of chronological order, ever since the beginning of chapter 12. Here he skews the story in the direction of grace. He adds a parable in vs. 6-9:
Then Jesus 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 worker who tended the vineyard, ‘For three years now, I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and each time I inspect it I find none. Cut it down! Why should it continue to deplete the soil?’ But the worker answered him, ‘Sir, leave it alone this year too, until I dig around it and put fertilizer on it. Then if it bears fruit next year, very well, but if not, you can cut it down.’” (NET Bible)
I am convinced this parable comes from the early period of Jesus’ ministry when John had a parallel ministry. John had preached that God was about to chop down the tree of Israel. The ax is at the root (Luke 3:9). But Jesus, in this parable, lightens John’s message up a little. God may give the tree more time. But, without repentance, the ax will still eventually fall.
This resonated with Luke who lived a generation later, when the ax had still not fallen.
The message I get from this is that time is grace. We will all die. Judgment and doom will come. The historical Jesus probably expected a historical end even more dramatic than the destruction of the city with its temple and sacrificial priesthood in the year 70. He admitted he did not know the details. But he was right about the judgment we all stand under.
Time is grace. Lent represents a period of time each year when Christians again hear Jesus’ call to repentance. Doom, the death of individuals and the downfall of societies, will still come. But with repentance there opens a portal to a reconciliation that lasts beyond individual death and the collapse of societies. At least that is how I understand the message of Luke and Jesus.