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The presence of evil in our world is always disturbing. Tragedy surrounds us on every side. Whose fault is it? In the ancient world, unlike the modern, people were slow to attribute evil to the deity's carelessness or noninvolvement. Certainly they believed in evil spiritual forces, but they assumed that tragedy generally reflects God's judgment for sin committed. If tragedy comes, responsibility lies with the person who experiences the tragedy.
This supposition leads Jesus to respond to public comments about a pair of recent Palestinian tragedies, in a passage that is unique to Luke. Jesus takes popular assumptions and turns them into an opportunity for public reflection. Rather than engage in abstract discussion about others, he asks questions about us.
Extrabiblical sources tell us nothing about either of the incidents the crowd raises. The first event involved Pilate: the state had slain some Jews and allowed their blood to be mixed with that of the sacrifices at the temple. We do not know if this was a reaction to an act of rebellion or if it was a pure governmental abuse of power. Only the result is noted. Five candidates for this event have been suggested out of the writings of Josephus, but none of them is an exact fit in timing or detail (Jewish Wars 2.1.3 8-13; 2.9.2-3 169-74; 2.9.4 175-77; 13.16.4 372; Antiquities 18.4.1 85-87). What these extrabiblical texts do show is that such incidents did occur periodically.
It is hard for us to appreciate how significant this event would have been in Jewish circles. Such an attack in a sacred setting was sure to raise religious passions to a high level. Imagine if someone marched into church and started slaying people as they prayed, as happened recently in South Africa. Or recall the 1994 slaying of Muslims at a mosque in a region Israel controlled. The reaction was emotional and widespread.
In Jesus' time this atrocity may have raised nationalistic questions as well. Did Jesus think Rome was right? Was this a judgment for sin? So Jesus asks, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?" Such a question would be natural to a Jewish mind (Strack and Billerbeck 2:193-97). Often in the Old Testament a tragic event is seen as the product of sin—this was the interpretation of Job's friends.
But before the philosopher-theologians in the crowd can get lost in the various possibilities raised by the question, Jesus personalizes it. "I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish." There is a more fundamental issue than "them" and "their sin." Mortality is evidence of the presence of sin in our world (Gen 3). More important than the timing or cause of death is this: only repentance can change death from a tragic end into a bridge to a new kind of life (Lk 3:8; 6:24-26; 10:13; 12:58-59; 15:7). The event shows life's fragility. Disaster looms for the unresponsive.
Now some see Jesus' remarks as national in character, in light of verses 6-9; in other words, Jesus is calling for national repentance. But this seems unlikely, for it requires a very indirect allusion to corporate needs. It is better to see the individual call in verses 1-5 and the national one in verses 6-9. The individual reading has continuity with the debtor imagery of 12:58-59, the general call to repentance through the gospel and the Jewish view that repentance is a part of the eschaton (1 Enoch 98:3, 16; 99:9; 103).
Jesus cites a second event to make the same point. Rather than a political tragedy, this is a natural catastrophe, something akin to a hurricane or tornado: a tower at Siloam collapsed and eighteen died. Siloam was the location of a water reservoir for Jerusalem on the south and east walls of the city (Josephus Antiquities 18.3.2 60; Jewish Wars 2.9.4 175). Here was an event apparently beyond anyone's control. Perhaps the persons who died were worse sinners, or, as the Greek text puts it, "worse debtors" (NIV more guilty). Maybe natural disasters are different.
Jesus' interpretation is exactly as before. Without repentance all die similarly. What is imperative is that each person repent.
The passage is significant because Jesus constantly avoids letting the question get off-track; he keeps people considering their own sinful state. I am reminded of the standard question that comes up in evangelistic contexts, often to shift the subject: "What about the heathen in Africa [or some other remote area]?" This abstract question is often posed to deflect a personal confrontation with our sin and our need for God. In former days when confronted with such a question, I would wax eloquent on the evangelistic possibilities or lack of possibilities for those distant folk in need. Recently, thinking of this Lukan exchange, I have tended to quickly refocus the question by assuring the listener that God is perfectly capable of handling the needs of those distant folk, but the real question for us to discuss is what we will do with God and his call to turn to him.
Also, Jesus is again stressing that the real fact of life we must face is mortality, not the timing of death. More important than determining death's cause or timing is dealing with the fact of death and subsequent judgment. This quickly levels the playing field and calls on each person to consider where God stands in the equation—or better, where one stands before him.
Now a parable expands Jesus' point by raising a national dimension. The fig tree is a common scriptural image. Israel is often compared to some botanical plant, especially a vine; vines were plentiful, and their destruction was a sign of judgment (Hunzinger 1971:755-56; 1 Kings 4:25; Ps 80:9-18; Is 5:1-7; Jer 5:17; Hos 2:12; Mic 7:1). The problem is what to do with a tree that uses up scarce nutrients but yields no fruit. Jesus' words are a clear rebuke to Israel. If the nation is at risk of judgment, then so are its individuals. The owner desires to chop the tree down because it has had the necessary time to bear fruit and has failed to do so. The vineyard keeper asks for one more year to fertilize—just a little more time. Perhaps extra care, a little loosening of the soil and fresh nutrients will do the trick. If after a year the tree still hasn't produced fruit, then . . . The conclusion is obvious: judgment draws near unless there is a change. Unless repentance comes to the nation, the national tree will be judged. But God's willingness to hold off shows his patience (2 Pet 3:9).
Jesus tells both individuals and the nation that the clock is ticking. God is watching over his vineyard. If his plant does not bear fruit, he can find other ways to get fruit. The commentary on this passage is Romans 11, where Paul speaks of grafting in new branches. In this passage it is clear that God did not cut away the vine; instead he did radical botanical surgery on it. Romans 11 also makes it clear that God is not yet done with that surgery. One day Israelite branches will be grafted in again (Rom 11:26).