I think this is a very unusual passage. Luke 13:1-9 is kind of an unvarnished window (now that’s a horrible mixed metaphor) into Jesus’ ordinary interactions.
Why do I think it is “unvarnished”? Well so much of the Gospel narrative is made up of identifiable types of scenes: the healing, the teaching time, the highly symbolic miracle, the conflict with the Pharisees…
But this passage strikes me as unique.
Luke assumes the scene rather than setting it anew:
At that very time there were some present who told him …” (Luke 13:1 NRSV)
He had spent chapter 12 teaching his disciples and the crowd, with a bit of conversation along the way. Now in 13, “At that time”, a conversation bubbles up, not on the nature of the kingdom or matters of theology, but the news of the day.
…who told him about the Galileans
whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” (Luke 13:1 NRSV)
Some Galileans were murdered at worship – while they were making the required sacrifice apparently.
Strange: It could have been ripped from our own headlines.
- Last week 50 Muslims murdered at prayer by a white supremacist in Christchurch New Zealand.
- Last October 11 Jews murdered at Sabbath services by a white supremacist in my neighborhood in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.
- Back in 2015, 9 Christians murdered at church during a prayer meeting by a white supremacist in Charleston South Carolina.
- Back around A.D. 32, some people from Galilee murdered while making religious sacrifices by Romans.
Alas, Ecclesiastes was right.
So maybe now I have a hint of one reason this little conversation was included in Holy Writ. It needed to be there for just such a time as this.
Luke doesn’t tell us the actual words spoken or identify the speakers. Instead Jesus jumps into the ways people’s thinking goes haywire when they hear about a tragedy like this.
He wants to nip bad theology in the bud. He wants to turn people’s attention to what is theologically and spiritually useful.
1. Jesus objects to blaming the victims
Jesus was quick to make sure they don’t start throwing blame around like internet trolls.
Do you think that because the Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; …” (Luke 13:2-3 NRSV)
Why did Jesus assume they were thinking that?
Well, probably because people do so often try to blame someone.
Certainly the perpetrators of all these murders were ready to blame in advance, to claim that their crimes were justified because the people they killed were somehow a problem:
- Romans killing Jews at worship had all the self-righteous blame of powerful occupying forces.
- And white supremacists deludedly think that somehow African American Christians, elderly Jews, and Muslim refugees are somehow threatening.
Jesus says, and I quote, “No.”
No, do not look for something bad in the people or the culture or the culture or the religion of the victims of violent crime.
No, don’t try, after the fact, to make sense of evil by laying the blame on something you can name in the victims.
And no, don’t let yourself be deluded by evil and go on the attack against those who look different or worship differently from you.
2. Jesus applies the same lesson to natural disasters
Interestingly, although the conversation was about murder at worship, Jesus expands the topic to include natural disasters.
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?” (Luke 13:4 NRSV)
Why do you suppose Jesus brought this other tragedy into the conversation?
History would know nothing of the eighteen victims if Jesus hadn’t mentioned them. Maybe the memorial in his words is reason enough.
But I think there’s more.
- The original question was about human evil. Don’t blame the victims.
- Now Jesus says we ought not blame the victims in cases of natural disaster either.
Were they to blame, Jesus asks?
No, I tell you;…” (Luke 13:5 NRSV)
And why is that important?
Well, look at the news in our day.
Hardly a hurricane or an earthquake comes to destroy a community without some yahoo getting on camera and saying it was God’s judgment on them for tolerating some sin or other that the yahoo particularly dislikes.
Don’t do it. Don’t abide it. Bad things just happen.
Old towers fall down. Sometimes people happen to be standing in the wrong place.
It’s bad enough to die in a hurricane. No need to make it worse by telling the dead it was their fault.
3. Jesus points to what is doable and worth doing
All of that blaming of the victims (whether in advance by perpetrators or after the fact by commentators) gives people something to do while they avoid doing what really needs to be done.
Think of it as Power Procrastination.
But what does need to be done? Jesus is quite clear about it: we need to “repent.”
Regarding the Galileans murdered at worship:
… unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” (Luke 13:3 NRSV)
Regarding the victims of the collapsing tower:
… unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:5 NRSV)
It gives the passage a rhythm, a structure, an emphasis.
Hey, the Lord’s repeating himself.
John whispers back,
Yeah, he must really mean it.
Come on you goofballs,
Nathaniel whispers, the Apostle in whom there was no guile,
it’s poetry. Can’t you spot a Hebrew parallelism when you hear one?
So yes, Jesus is waxing poetic again, and in good Hebrew style. The repetition strengthens the emphasis.
While you aren’t plotting to harm the people you blame, or blaming the victims of some tragedy, the thing to do is repent — so that, as Jesus said, possibly tongue in cheek, worse doesn’t happen to you.
It’s Lent, which is officially a penitential season. That is, it’s a time to repent.
- Repentance isn’t just feeling bad. That’s remorse.
- Repentance isn’t even just doing things differently. That, I suppose, is reform.
- Repentance, in a literal translation of the usual Greek word for it, is changing your mind.
To repent you have to actually come to a new way of thinking — a way more in tune with God’s way of thinking.
That’s actually very hard, very long term work.
One saying of the Desert Fathers and Mothers which I really love but couldn’t locate in print today, tells the story well:
One very old monk in the desert (Arsenius perhaps, but I can’t be sure) was approaching death. All his brother monks gathered around him, full of admiration of his many years of life as a monk — a life they all admired and looked up to as genuinely holy.
They thought maybe he’d be glad to be going to be with Jesus at last. The dying old man just wept and wept.
Was he in pain? What was the problem, they asked.
It’s because I’ve only begun to repent.”
Jesus wanted the people he was talking with to start that kind of journey of repentance.
He wasn’t asking for a once-for-all decision to be a believer or a follower. He wanted them to dig deep for a lifetime, living in faith and obedience as the Holy Spirit did the work of reforming their whole way of thinking and being.
That’s repentance. It’s still a very good idea.
4. Jesus tells a story to show God’s patience.
And as Jesus points out it still is not too late.
It’s almost too late. But it’s not quite too late.
He tells the lovely story of the landowner who planted a fig tree, and kept coming back year after year to pick some figs.
Nothing. Year after year, nothing.
So he told his gardener to dig it up. Get rid of the useless thing. Start over.
But the gardener loved that tree, figs or no figs.
The gardener lobbied for one more year. Dig up the weeds. Make a trench for the water to go down better. Pile on some good old-fashioned organic fertilizer. Wait and see.
So that’s where Jesus seems to say we stand this Lent.
Let’s face it: we’ve been a bit fruitless.
What kind of fruit is needed?
John the Baptist called it
…fruit worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8 and Matthew 3:8)
He’s looking for the kind of life that flows from a mind renewed in the pattern of Jesus. Perhaps, as a starting point, a life of loving our neighbors.
But is Jesus serious about cutting down the tree?
Well in both Matthew 21:18-20 and Mark 11:12-21, shortly before the cross, Jesus passed a fig tree and tried to pick a fig.
- He found no figs.
- He cursed the tree.
- It withered.
The scene is weighty with symbolism — and it points back to this very conversation in Luke 13:1-9.
Sounds serious to me.
Time to put some effort into changing my mind. Maybe from now to the end of my days.
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