At the beginning of our gospel reading, we find Jesus in a very familiar place – painted into a corner. Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, has been teaching people about the importance of repentance and faithful living. Into that conversation, some in the crowd offer an intriguing little nugget. “What about those Galileans, Jesus, the ones that Pilate killed in the temple before mixing their blood with their sacrifices? Did they deserve that?”
I see two ways of interpreting this question. On one hand, they seem to bait Jesus into making divisive political statement. If Jesus decries Pilate, condemning his actions, he will be accused of attempting to rebel against Roman rule. However, if he downplays the crime and its victims, the Jewish people would be incensed at his insensitivity. If this is truly their intent, they put a lot of credence in the shrewdness of their question.
On the other hand, though, they are asking Jesus to settle definitively the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people. It is a perfectly natural question to ask and quite impossible to answer. Why was one trailer park destroyed by the tornado while the park next door was untouched? Why were some people killed in the Paris attacks while others survived? Why does one person get cancer while another does not? Ultimately, they want Jesus to tell them if people indeed suffer because of their sinfulness.
Regardless of what is motivating this question, Jesus confounds the questioners. He does not answer the question the way they want him to respond. He does not wade into political intrigue. He does not blame Pilate or the victims. Neither does he sustain the belief that a lack of faithfulness leads to divine retribution. If you lie in church, the ceiling is not going to come crashing down on top of you. Rather, he turns the question back on those who put him to the test. He jumps out of the corner by leveling the playing field – painting the questioners into their own corner. “Do you think the Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Do you think the victims of the tower collapse were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Jesus tells them that these victims are no worse than anyone else is. Evil is a reality. Suffering is a reality. Pain, suffering, tragedy, and death are not a direct result of the sinfulness of these individuals. If Jesus ended there, we would hear a collective sigh of relief from the crowd. “Whew.”
Yet Jesus does not end there. He takes it a step further: “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” I imagine some guy named Fred in the crowd listening to Jesus, his head suddenly snapping up as he thought, “Wait. What? Isn’t Jesus doubling back on his answer? I thought he just said God is not punishing us for our sins by inflicting personal tragedies on us. But unless we repent, we will perish in the same way? This sounds very confusing to me.”
Of course, Fred is correct. This sounds confusing. Again, we must remember that Jesus is redirecting the question. The questioners have been thinking about the issue all wrong. Jesus is challenging them – challenging us – to be surprised; not surprised that so many suffer and die, but surprised that we still live. If the violent and tragic deaths described in this passage were because of our sin, then we would all be dead. Yet, by the grace of God, we live. In the cosmic sense, we have been granted a reprieve, a little extra time. Death is a reality. It will come to us all sooner or later. Life is precious. Life is short. It matters to God what we do with the time we have. Jesus wants his followers to think about how they are going to live before they die.
Jesus illustrates his point by telling the crowd a parable about a fig tree, a landowner, and a gardener. Close your eyes for a moment while I try to help you paint a picture of this scene. Imagine a vineyard. Gnarled, twisted vines rise up from their roots in the ground. Younger, tender branches fork away from the vine, wrapping around a trellis. Large velvety green leaves and springy tendrils drape over the branches. Those leaves provide shade for bunches of sweet grapes that dangle over the ground. In the center of the vineyard stands a large, stately looking tree. Its branches are full of vibrant green leaves. Now imagine that workers have harvested the grapes. Those same workers have pruned the branches off the vines, and all that remains are the old, gnarled, twisted stumps of the vines. As you look over your vineyard, you see the desolation of harvest time. Your vineyard, once lush and green, looks like a brown wasteland studded with old, gnarled stumps. Yet still, in the middle of all this barrenness, stands that large stately tree, as vibrant and green as it ever was. Open your eyes.
Jesus is talking about this season in this parable. The workers have harvested the grapes and pruned the branches from the vines. Now is the time the tree in the center of the vineyard should produce figs, yet there are none. For three years, this tree has grown in the midst of the vineyard, and it has never produced a single piece of fruit. The landowner rightly sees this tree as a waste of the soil. He wants it cut down.
Yet the gardener intervenes. He tries to persuade the landowner to give the tree one more chance. He offers to take special care of this tree for a year, digging around it, giving it extra fertilizer. To a person walking by your vineyard, they might be tempted to think that this tree was especially blessed. In the midst of the barren desolation of the gnarled stumps, stands this glorious tree that is receiving special care and attention – extra time from the gardener and extra resources. What a valuable tree this must be! Those vines must have been very bad, and that tree must have been very good. This casual observation is best summed up in what has become known as the prosperity gospel – a good life is rewarded with good things. God blesses faithfulness with riches, nice cars, nice homes, power, influence, and an easy life. However, the gardener is blessing this tree with abundance precisely because it is not bearing fruit. Jesus’ parable flips the prosperity gospel on its head. Maybe blessings and abundance are not rewards for faithfulness after all; maybe some people need the blessings and abundance in order to bear fruit. In other words, all those riches, nice cars, nice homes, power, and influence are really just manure. Jesus seems to be saying that without these things, without the added time to get it right, some of us would make lousy fruit trees that do nothing more than waste the soil. And if this tree does not get on bearing fruit, it will be cut down. One commentator wrote of this parable, “If the privilege of being God’s people does not lead to productivity, it leads to judgment… Conversion involves both a break from sin and production of fruit, that is, life lived in obedience to the will of God” (Snodgrass 264).
Life is a gift, and every second is priceless. This parable, along with the stories of those murdered in the temple and killed by the tower, illustrate that our time can end abruptly. Jesus implores us to make our seconds count. He wants us to repent – now – and to use every moment to squeeze out every possible piece of fruit. If we are up to our eyeballs in manure, then we had better use every ounce of it to grow the kingdom of God. God is merciful, and we may get another season, but then again we may not. Notice that Jesus ends the parable without telling the crowd whether the landowner agreed to the gardener’s plan. Maybe the tree will get another season, maybe not. Let us use whatever time and whatever resources we have now, right now, to bring glory to God.