Lent 3: 28 February Luke 13:1-9
This rather stark passage with its dire warnings about repentance deals with popular theology which is still very much alive today. We do not have independent information about the event concerning Pilate. Josephus reports a massacre at Mt Gerizim of Samaritans in similar circumstances, but this is about Galileans.
‘When authorities act harshly towards people, the people must deserve it’ - that is one theology being addressed. Even if the authorities are bad, such suffering must mean you are also bad. Otherwise God would rescue you. God always rescues the just. There is no lack of biblical passages to justify such a theology. The righteous prosper. Those who do not prosper are unrighteous.
Another version of this approach to life and God quarantines government authorities from guilt. It, too, can call on biblical passages about authorities being ordained by God. It is clearly not the approach of Jesus. Jesus recognised Herod as a ‘fox’, a small but dangerous predator. We saw that last week. The authorities are not always right. That may be obvious to us, but for many people it is very disturbing if the people in power, in the community or in the church, are thought not to be reliable. It is not so many generations back that oaths of loyalty to the state or the flag bound and blinded people.
It may be a kind of ‘atheology’ on Jesus’ part when he wants his hearers to see Pilate’s massacre as Pilate’s massacre and not something Pilate did under God’s authority. Even very traditional, respectable and respectful citizens come to the point where they have to recognise bastardry for what it is and stop attributing everything to God. Or was Jesus saying that this was God’s judgement through Pilate and that you can all expect the same in the end if you do not repent. It may be. Or may be it was saying: judgement will come on you if you do not repent; never mind what happened to them in terms of judgement? There is another way of looking at it, but first we should look at the next bit of theology to be deconstructed.
Towers fall, buildings fall down, earthquakes shatter, storms hit, disease strikes - another popular theology assumes that these are also programmed by God, ‘acts of God’, as insurance policies may call them. It is a theology which reaches far and wide and takes many forms. ‘God is punishing me because I am sick’ - not uncommon and not helped when the sickness has drained the energy to think of alternatives and compounds itself. ‘They are always having problems; if only they would turn to the Lord.’ It is rarely so crude. It transfigures into prejudices: the unemployed just need to pull themselves together. People in poverty are there because there is something wrong with them.
Isn’t religion meant to give a theological explanation for the way things are? Indeed, one way to peace, as some people understand it, is to have sufficient explanations of such (apparent) anomalies, that one can rest up. There is a serenity in being able to affirm: it was meant to be. ‘What great faith!’ - is one of its rewards. ‘Things go well for the good; things go poorly for the bad.’ This is order and security. It is also a vehicle for control. It is also a lie.
Jesus’ own story contradicts these theologies: the cross came to the righteous one. But notice how difficult that has been to sustain. The anomaly is rescued back for the old theology by the resurrection - ‘but he ended up a winner!’ Suffering is step one; reward is step two. There is an alternative approach: to see the resurrection not as the reversal, but as the affirmation of the crucifixion: this love and vulnerability is God’s way. It was not an exception to God’s way, an interim stunt that had to be reversed. This is life and, paradoxically, only by affirming it do we find life.
There may be something very pragmatic and political about both illustrations which Jesus uses in the passage: unless the nation changes its ways, it will come to disaster at the hands of the Romans. Luke’s hearers would doubtless be interpreting the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 70 CE in that light. Some might even have argued that the disaster might have been averted had they heeded Jesus’ message of peace; a simplistic reflection which nevertheless contains some truth.
The image of the fig tree appears in Mark when Jesus enters Jerusalem and the temple (11:12-20). It is cursed for not bearing fruit. Jesus expels the moneychangers and sellers of sacrificial animals from the temple. The next day the fig tree has shrivelled up. The symbolism is thinly disguised. Jerusalem’s temple establishment stands under judgement. Luke omits the incident, but brings this parable, which has a similar effect, though without such direct reference to the temple which Luke elsewhere holds in high esteem. Luke’s parable here has a good deal of patience: give the tree another chance!
Threat of judgement, of punishment, works as a motivation for some people, but has major weaknesses. People act out of fear not out of understanding and volition. Traditions of judgement may help us address issues of accountability. They can also teach us to look at consequences. We might want to sit down with the owner of the vineyard and suggest better care for the fig tree. But there are times when firm action is required, discipline is called for, people or organisations need to be removed, replaced, because they no longer bear the fruit which is intended. In this context Luke will probably have been thinking about the failure of spiritual leadership. The following incident may well illustrate the level of concern: when religion stifles wholeness. Then drastic action is called for. The dangers are when this turns to hate. The judged need judgement - and they need love. This may give more voice to the heart of Jesus’ teaching on compassion than surfaces in this passage, but a canonical perspective helps put a crossbar on the waving finger.
Epistle: Lent 3: 28 February 1 Corinthians 10:1-13