|Luke 13:1-9, 31-35|
Seems like you can’t pick up a newspaper or watch the evening news without reading about some new tragedy somewhere. Terrorism, wars, floods and famine; millions of people becoming refugees—it makes you wonder. What’s going on? Is this God’s judgment? What does God want from us anyway?
Our passage today deals with exactly these questions.
The text begins with some people telling Jesus about a tragedy that was filling the news in that day. Pilate, the Roman governor, had massacred some Galileans. What made it worse, he killed while they were offering their sacrifices in the temple (vs. 1).
We don’t know anything about this event outside of the Biblical account. It is not mentioned in any other source. But, what we know about Pilate makes it believable. He had been sent to Judea specifically to put down rebellion. The Roman Emperor had told him to get things under control or it would be his own head. So, Pilate was highly motivated. History tells us that Pilate had brutally put down no fewer than sixty uprisings during his tenure. Maybe he thought the Galileans were fomenting a rebellion. It wouldn’t be out of character; Galileans were notoriously rebellious.
We don’t know why these people brought this to Jesus’ attention. Maybe they hoped Jesus would condemn Pilate for his brutality. Maybe they thought Jesus would condemn the Galileans for their rebelliousness. Jesus does neither.
Instead, he goes off in an entirely unexpected direction, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?” Then he brings up another recent tragedy. A tower in Jerusalem had fallen, killing eighteen people. “Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?”
We see here two causes of tragedy: human evil and natural disaster or mischance—what we sometimes refer to as “An act of God”. The question at hand is: Is tragedy a sign of God’s judgment? And Jesus answer in both cases is: No.
We live in a complex world where things happen all the time. Bad people do bad things to other people. Earthquakes, floods, tornadoes wreak destruction. And you cannot draw a clear line of correlation between sin and tragedy. Stuff happens to good people and bad people. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).
It is true that sin brings consequences—if you drive drunk, you might get a ticket; or worse—but you cannot make the correlation that because someone has experienced tragedy in their life that they must be suffering because of sin in their life. If you doubt that, read the book of Job.
But that doesn’t mean that tragedy and disaster are without purpose. One purpose that tragedy serves, Jesus says, is to remind us of the uncertainty of life and the need to be prepared.
Jesus says it twice, “But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (vss. 3, 5). I take this to be a warning: “You don’t know when tragedy may strike. You’d better be ready now” rather than a threat: “If you don’t straighten up, God will fry you”.
Life is uncertain. Trouble and tragedy can come to any of us at any time without warning, we need to be ready to meet it. We prepare by repentance—literally, changing our minds—turning away from ourselves and toward God.
It means turning away from our ways of doing things and doing things God’s way. Jesus’ warning had a very specific meaning for his audience. Remember Pilate? Jesus is warning the Jewish nation that if they continued in their rebellious ways the Romans would come and squash them like a bug. If they continued seeking an earthly kingdom while rejecting the kingdom of God, the result would be the destruction of the Jewish nation.
Then, Jesus tells a story in verses 6-9 about a fig tree. A farmer has a fig tree and he comes every year for three years seeking fruit only to be disappointed. So, he decides to cut the tree down. After all, why should a barren fig tree continue to use up valuable resources. But, his gardener intervenes, “Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down” (vss. 8-9).
This parable is an illustration of the truth of 1 Peter 3:9: The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
In the Bible, the fig tree is often a metaphor for God’s people. What God expects from his people is fruit—the fruit of repentance. That is what John the Baptist told those who asked him what they should do, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). God comes to us seeking fruit—the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) and when he doesn’t find it . . . he patiently provides what we need in our lives to produce fruit—time and nourishment.
But, note—there is an end to God’s forbearance.
In verse 31, some Pharisees come to Jesus with some scary information. Herod, the king, is out to kill him. Ever since chapter 9, Jesus has been headed to Jerusalem (9:51). These Pharisees warn him not to go there because Herod wants him dead.
We don’t know the motive of these Pharisees for bringing Jesus this information. Maybe they were hoping that he would disappear and then, they’d be rid of him. Maybe they were hoping he’d go someplace where they could deal with him later. Maybe they were sincerely concerned about his safety; we know that some Pharisees were on Jesus’ side and some—Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea—became his followers.
Regardless of their motives, Jesus is not dissuaded from his purpose. He calls Herod a fox. In those days calling a person a fox meant what we think of today—wilily, cunning, clever—but it also meant something insignificant. Remember the story from Nehemiah, when the people were rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, their enemies made fun of them by saying that even a fox jumping up on the wall would bring it down.
Herod is insignificant. God’s plan is for Jesus to go to Jerusalem and die and no plotting of men will stop god’s purpose. Herod may think he is important, but it is God, not Herod who will determine when Jesus will die.
This is important for us to know today. Those people in the world who seem so powerful are nothing in God’s sight. No plans of men can stand against the purpose of God. Even those who are acting in rebellion against God (the Jewish leaders, etc.), are only serving to fulfill his plan.
The thought of what awaits him in Jerusalem prompts Jesus to lament of the city:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (vss. 34-35).
We can cause God to grieve. This flies in the face of much classic Christian theology which has more to do with Plato and Aristotle than the apostle Paul. God is called “the unmoved Mover”. The idea is that nothing we do can affect God. So, that our actions could cause God to grieve is unthinkable.
But, this is not biblical. You don’t have to read much of the Bible to see that God is anything but unmoved. Our actions prompt his anger, love and grief. And here we see the longing of God for his people and his grief when they stubbornly refuse to respond.
Jesus, God in the flesh, is thinking back over the centuries of his dealings with his people. Time and time again he came to them through kings and prophets to invite them to gather to him. Time and time again they refused, persecuting and even killing some of his messengers. Until at last he sent his own Son. Jesus knows that they will reject and kill him too, and he weeps over the consequences.
“Look, your house is left to you desolate” – in AD 70 the Roman general, Titus marched into Jerusalem to end a revolt. He destroyed the temple, their “house”. In AD 120, after another uprising, the Romans leveled the city and drove the people into exile. The Jewish nation ceased to exist until 1948.
God comes to us seeking fruit in our lives, and not just once, he comes again and again. When he doesn’t find it, he gives us more of what we need – more time and nourishment, and he grieves when we stubbornly resist him. He calls us to come to him. How will we respond?