Sunday’s Gospel passage divides into two parts, verses 1-5 and 6-9, but relate closely to one another.
The first part of the passage refers to two events that were familiar to ancient audiences however, Luke is our only source of information about these tragedies.
The grisly mention of Pilate’s mingling the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices refers to a massacre of a group of Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem. The narrative does not reveal why Pilate slaughtered these people, but the deed nevertheless corresponds with what other historical writings reveal about Pilate’s penchant for brutality. The verse offers an ominous characterization of the Roman governor in advance of his appearance at Jesus’ trial.
Additionally, Jesus refers to a tower in a portion of the wall around Jerusalem when he speaks of “the tower of Siloam.” Apparently, the structure collapsed without warning and crushed eighteen people.
Jesus uses the reports of these two calamities –one an instance of state-sanctioned terror, the other, a random accident, to focus on the brevity and fragility of life. Both tragic events saw people die with little warning and for no apparent reason. Jesus implies that the victims did nothing wrong, nothing that caused their demise.
He then turns attention away from disasters, victims, and “why” questions to address something else. Jesus wants to talk about repentance.
When Jesus says, twice, “unless you repent you will all perish” like the others did, he refers to death in an eschatological sense, a destruction of one’s soul. He emphasizes the suddenness with which this death can come. Just as Pilate’s and the tower’s victims did not have the luxury of choosing the time of their demise, likewise the unrepentant sinner may suddenly find they have delayed too long and lost themselves.
Jesus uses the accounts of the tragedies to stress the suddenness of death and the unpredictability of life. If life’s fragility demands urgency, that same urgency shows that life itself carves out opportunities for us to seize God’s graciousness, as the parable will suggest.
The short parable about a fig tree speaks of imminent judgment and reinforces ideas from the first half of this passage. Also recall John the Baptizer using similar images in Luke 3:9: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Like Jesus’ earlier words in response to the tragedies, the parable warns against false reassurance. A cultivated yet unproductive tree may continue to live even without bearing fruit, only because it has been granted additional time to do what it is supposed to do. Unless it begins to bear fruit, the result will be its just and swift destruction.
The tone of the parable emphasizes that patience and mercy temporarily keep judgment at bay. The role of the gardener offers a crucial characterization of this patience and mercy. The tree has not been left to its own devices. Everything possible is being done to get it to act as it should. Correspondingly, God does not leave his people to their own devices but encourages their repentance and fruitfulness.
In this passage the need for repentance takes a backseat in emphasis to the urgency of Jesus’ call. Tragedy and hardship have their ways of nudging people toward God, but these verses suggest that tragedy and hardship may come so suddenly that they often mark the end, not the beginning, of opportunities to live lives inclined toward God.
Jesus’ words about judgment and repentance are alarming and sobering to be sure, yet they depict human life as a gift, albeit a fragile one. During this Lenten season let us remember that the Christian outlook on repentance arcs toward joy and finds grace experienced within the precariousness and beauty of our fleeting existence, in season and out.
The parable’s power comes through the suspense it generates. Will fruit emerge in time to thwart the ax? What will the gardener use to cultivate and fertilize the tree’s existence? How will this season of second chances play itself out?