Let me start by saying that I find Luke 13:1-9 problematic. What we’ll hear this Sunday—what we hear whenever it is preached on—is that repentance is the theme of the passage. Which, I’ll agree, Luke has shaped it to be for this intent. But I can’t help but wonder if there are other things going on in the passage which go unnoticed and which might be begging for deeper reflection.
To get at least the minimal context for Luke 13:1-9, we need to start way back 12:1, because 13:1-9 is simply the final part of a much longer discourse that encompasses all of chapter 12. A few things of note in the discourse:
- The intended audience to whom Jesus is speaking seems to fluctuate between the general (the crowd) and the specific (his disciples, opponents), without it being clear immediately to whom his words are directed.
- Jesus’ words throughout chapter 12, even when he is offering reassurance, are difficult and blunt, encompassing persecution, loss of possessions, warnings, judgment, division, death, and conflict.
- The setting for the discourse is largely unspecified; broadly it is taking place on the “journey toward Jerusalem.”
The first characters introduced in v. 1 are “some people” who tell Jesus a story about some “Galileans” who were killed by Pilate while on the Temple grounds preparing their sacrifices for worship. The identity of “some people” is not otherwise specified but we can get some clues as to who they are and what their intentions are through their own words and then Jesus’ response to them in v. 2. The fact that they are speaking of “Galileans” probably signifies that they are NOT Galileans. The harshness of Jesus’ response toward them should signal to us that their disposition in sharing the story is not a positive one; Jesus pulls back the curtain on what is behind the seemingly innocuous story—their assertion that the viciousness and suddenness of the deaths of these Galileans speaks to their deep sinfulness. There is a current throughout Scripture and Israelite religion that associates suffering with personal sinfulness (think Job or the story in John’s gospel about the man born blind). But rather than answer the question, Jesus redirects their concern with the sinfulness of others to their own sinfulness in v. 3: “But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” Rather than engage in an argument about the relative sinfulness of the actions of others, Jesus seems to be suggesting to his questioners (as well as all those present and us as readers) that what we ought to be concerned about is our own sinfulness and get about the work of acknowledging and dealing with that. And lest his questioners get any kick out of pointing out the fallenness of Jesus’ fellow Galileans, in v. 4-5 he reminds them of the disaster that caused the deaths of 18 Jerusalemites (maybe because his questioners are also Jerusalemites?), before quickly also redirecting his listeners from the failures of others to their own need for repentance.
I think Luke also is giving us a little background on Pilate and foreshadowing of what is to come. I’m sure it wasn’t lost on Jesus or the crowds that Pilate is presented here as killing Galileans; maybe even part of the reason for telling this particular story to Jesus is to remind him what he has to look forward to as a Galilean. But the story also makes sure we are aware of the brutality of Pilate, his disregard for the religion and culture of the people over whom he rules (killing the Galileans in the Temple as they are preparing to offer sacrifice), and his predisposition to employing extreme violence to solve issues. We shouldn’t therefore mistake his reluctance to crucify Jesus later in Luke’s gospel as a commentary on what kind of man Pilate was, or an apologetic seeking to “wash the hands” of the Romans for their complicity in Jesus’ death. Pilate’s reluctance isn’t about Pilate; it’s about Jesus and his innocence. And for all his claims about finding Jesus innocent, Pilate goes right along with the execution after all is said and done.
Luke then employs a parable about a fig tree, a landowner and a gardener, choosing it for the purpose of demonstrating the theme of the previous exchange—repentance. What we typically take from this parable is the warning that like this tree which does not bear fruit, our repentance must be followed by “bearing good fruit,” lest the landowner (God?) decide to cut us down. We can see how Luke connects the passage to Jesus’ call for repentance. In chapter three, Luke has John the Baptist preaching repentance and using the metaphor that those coming to him for baptism must “produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance” otherwise they will be “cut down and thrown into the fire.” John the Baptist is all over Luke 13:1-9!
But let’s look at what the parable might have signified separate from Luke’s theme of repentance and bearing good fruit.
We have a man who owns an orchard, i.e. a landowner, and an absentee landowner at that (the meaning of coming for three years looking for fruit is that he comes only at harvest time, from somewhere else). We can also glean that he is not the one who takes care of the orchard or this particular fig tree. He has hired help, a gardener/vinedresser, for that—the second character in the story. What is also evident is that the main concern of the landowner is the bottom line: this tree produces no fruit, it puts no money in his pocket, it is simply “wasting space” as he explains in other words.
Those in the crowd would have found this absentee landowner to be a familiar figure; many of them would have possibly been employed by someone just like him, working to tend his orchard and seeing all of their work go to benefit his bank account.
But the gardener is another story, and it is perhaps the gardener whom we should see as the example for us to follow in the story. At the landowner’s threat to cut down the fig tree, the gardener offers instead to give it extra care, extra attention, despite knowing that whatever his efforts, the landowner will exercise his right to cut down the tree should he see fit. So the gardener buys the tree a reprieve. His concern is not the bottom line, but the tree itself, alive despite its apparent “uselessness” in the market economy. Like someone said in our study last night, the gardener who tends all of the trees in the orchard goes to extra lengths to care for this one tree—not unlike another Lucan character, the shepherd who seeks out the one lost sheep. And perhaps too, the gardener remembers other stories about how those who were “barren” (Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, et al) and past their time to bear fruit, did just that after an intervention from God. Maybe this parable is about the faith of the gardener, who shows us that there are more important things than the bottom line, and that, as one biblical scholar suggested, we’re called to “just keep manuring; what else is there for us to do?”