Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 06/14/95
Luke 13:1 Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? 3 I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." 6 And he began telling them this parable: "A certain man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard. And he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. 7 And he said to the vineyard keeper, 'Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?' 8 And he answered and said, 'Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer. 9 And if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.'"
Imagine that you are conducting services on the West Bank in Israel. Your congregation is a group of Palestinian Christians, and your biggest pastoral challenge is the atmosphere of hatred and distrust that exists between them and their Jewish neighbors. This atmosphere of hatred is fueled by an endless supply of atrocity stories on both sides--some true, some exaggerated and embellished, some made up, but all believed selectively. That is, each side believes all and only those stories in which it is the victim and the other side is the perpetrator of the vilest atrocities. You've just preached on the signs of the times, when suddenly there is an interruption. "I'll give you a sign," somebody shouts. "The Jewish army came right into a Palestinian church and machine-gunned the congregation during Communion. They mingled their blood with the Communion wine right as they were receiving it! Now, what do you say to that?" [Dr. Williams spits this out with intense anger and a distorted face. Into the stunned silence which follows, he says:] Now you understand the dynamics of this conversation Luke reports. Until we understand those dynamics, we are not in a position to understand either what Jesus says in response, or the kind of person who would say it.
The key to understanding this passage is to understand the dynamics of the "atrocity story," and to understand that, you have to put yourself in the place of the people who tell stories like that. The situation in first century Palestine was strangely similar to the one that exists today. Then it was the Romans who were the occupying army and the Jews who, oppressed in their own view, responded with what today we would call terrorism, terrorism which eventually led to the destruction of their society in AD 70. Please understand that I am making no political statement about who is right or wrong in today's struggle; I certainly do not have the wisdom to find a solution to it. I just want you to understand the situation that existed in this passage and to see how it parallels our own day. So the first thing we must reckon with is the fact that this story about the Galileans is in fact an atrocity story that came out of just the same kind of conflict and tensions as the ones we are familiar with.
Now, there is a very particular etiquette that applies to the atrocity story, and ignoring it can have serious, er, social consequences. The proper response to an atrocity story is to identify with the teller and the victims and condemn the perpetrators in the strongest possible terms. The person who tells it is angry, and his feelings run deep. He is probably a relative of one of the victims. The last thing you want to do in that particular moment is to say, "Yeah, well, I suppose we'd better put our own house in order." "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish!" To call Jesus' response "inflammatory" would be mild. Kenneth Bailey, who teaches at the Near Eastern School of Theology in Beirut and knows middle eastern culture as well as any Westerner can, says that when his Lebanese students read this story they cannot understand how Jesus avoided being killed on the spot! Then he proceeds to make it even worse by bringing up the story of the tower (vs. 4). This tower was probably part of Pilate's aqueduct. So what's wrong with bringing water into Jerusalem? The project had been paid for by what the Jews considered a misappropriation of Temple funds. They considered this an outrage. It was blasphemy. And therefore the men who worked on the project were considered collaborators and traitors, and their death when the tower collapsed as the judgment of God. So Jesus is not exactly helping his cause here. He is not exactly ingratiating himself with his audience!
What he is doing is putting the victims of these atrocities on the same level as the Roman soldiers who perpetrated the Galilean massacre. This would be equivalent to telling a holocaust survivor that Eli Wiesenthal the Nazi hunter has the same need of repentance as Adolf Hitler; it would be like telling a patriotic Israeli that Lt. Jani, the hero who died saving the victims in the raid on Entebbe, was on the same spiritual level, had the same need of repentance, as Yasser Arafat. Or try telling a Palestinian radical to his face that his brother, the suicide bomber, is not a hero and martyr in Paradise at all but is on the same footing before God as the Israeli soldiers who bulldozed his house. Do you begin to understand the reaction of Bailey's students? Truly you would be taking your life in your hands! This may be the most radical statement of universal depravity and the need for repentance--yes, that means you and me, too--in Scripture. And it speaks volumes on how important Jesus thought that doctrine was. Did I mention it applies to you and me?
It also speaks volumes about our Lord's character. How did he avoid being killed on the spot? This wipes away all those wimpy portraits of the "gentle Jesus meek and mild" that infest our Sunday School literature. Jesus was the kind of man who would say such things. He was the kind of man who could say such things--and then stare down the crowd and walk away! This makes John Wayne look like a snivellling sissy. Now, that was a man! That is the Lord we worship! That is the Lord we serve! That is the Lord we follow! No wonder so many of his disciples in history have been willing to lay their lives on the line for him.
I have already mentioned that this passage understood in terms of these dynamics may be the most radical statement of the universality of sin in all of Scripture--it is Romans chapter two in dramatic terms--and that Jesus thought the point was worth risking his life for. And therefore we had better not miss the point. Before a righteous and just and holy God, the heroes of our stories need repentance no less than the villains. I am not saying that there is no difference between the heroes and the villains or that it does not matter which role you take when your part in the story comes; it does. But they are all sinners in need of God's grace, his unmerited favor. They all stand in the same place at the foot of the Cross. And that is the place where we had better take our stand too. Unless we all repent, we shall all likewise perish. Being a hero rather than a villain gives you no exemption from this principle.
"Repentance" is the Greek METANOIA. It literally means to change your mind. It is a change of mind leading to a change of behavior. But it does not mean just turning over a new leaf. Not any change of mind is biblical repentance. This is not just deciding to do better. You will probably fail, and even if you succeed it will not merit salvation. Biblical repentance means a change of mind about your own innocence and God's righteousness, your own ability and God's grace. Most of all it is a change of mind about who Jesus is. Is he a myth devised by the early church? Is he a great human teacher and moral example? Neither a myth nor a teacher nor an example is what we need. When we change our mind about Jesus and accept him as the divine Son of God in human flesh, as our Savior from sin through his death and resurrection, as Lord of all and Lord of our lives, then we are ready to receive God's pardon for our sins and his power to change our lives. That change of mind is the only basis on which we can make the change of mind that turns us from sin to God. That and nothing less is the change of mind, the repentance, that we need. And unless we all repent, we shall all likewise perish.
Jesus illustrates repentance with the parable of the unproductive fig tree. "A certain man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard. And he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any." John the Baptist had told his converts to bear fruit worthy of repentance. It refers to a change of life that manifests the reality of the change of mind that occurs when we accept Christ as Lord, receiving God's pardon and unleashing his power to bring us from darkness into light. The parable balances two important points. The first is the necessity of real repentance as shown by its fruit. Those who do not manifest that fruit will be cut off, for thereby they prove that their repentance was not real. But the second is the patience of God with those who are not bearing the fruit they ought to be. To miss the first point leads to presumption; to miss the second leads to despair. The parable tries to make sure we don't miss either one.
To understand what is happening with this tree, we must go to Lev. 19:23-25, which gives the law for planting trees. "And when you enter the land and plant all kinds of trees for food, then you shall count their fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden to you; it shall not be eaten. But in the fourth year all of its fruit shall be holy, an offering of praise to the Lord. And in the fifth year you are to eat of its fruit, that its yield may increase for you. I am the Lord your God."
In other words, the first year in which the owner came looking for any fruit would be the fourth year of the tree's life. Any fruit found that year would have been taken to the Tabernacle and offered as a firstfruits offering of praise to the Lord. He has come for three years without finding any fruit, and now comes again. This fig tree is eight years old, and it still has not made its offering of praise to God! So the owner has already been more than patient. Yet still the vineyard worker begs for one more chance. Let him cultivate and manure the tree for one more year. And then if it produces fruit, fine; if not, they will cut it down. (I love the KJV translation of the rationale: "Why cumbereth it the ground?").
The message is plain. Bring forth the fruit of repentance! God is more patient with us than we deserve, but there is a day of reckoning coming. Even now his gardener is digging and fertilizing--this sermon is, we might say, part of the fertilizer (ahem). Will we respond with true repentance, a real reckoning with who Jesus is that leads to a changed life, or are we just playing games? We need to repent--yes, you and I, even if we are heroes in the reckoning of men. Let us reckon with that need and be inspired by the courage of the Christ to respond to the requirement of repentance with fruit rather than presumption, while it is still called today.
Let us open our hearts to the Gospel, let us sink our roots deep in Scripture, let us unfold our leaves to the light of the Lord, and bring forth the fruit of repentance to the glory of God and our own eternal joy. The Father is patient beyond our comprehension or our desert, but a day of reckoning is coming. Let us respond to that patience, to the love and the lordliness of his Son, before it is too late. For unless we all repent, we shall all likewise perish.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams