Commentary on Luke 13:1-9, 31-35
Collective lament is an appropriate and necessary response of a people or nation burdened with a history of social injustice, poverty, oppression, murder, and the privileging of lies over truth that bleed into its present.
Truth-telling as a component of collective or individual lament precedes and is required for healing and progress toward a just, equal, and equitable society and nation. In the parable of the prodigal son, when the son returned home, his first words were “Father, I have sinned, and am not worthy to be called your son” (Luke 19:21).
In his lament over Jerusalem, Jesus tells the truth about Jerusalem’s history of killing prophets and stoning Yahweh’s messengers (19:34), as well as the violence Pilate committed against them (13:1). Jesus laments on his journey toward Jerusalem (9:51). Once in Jerusalem, chief priests and other Jewish leaders accuse Jesus before Pilate of sedition against the emperor and the Jewish people; he is a Galilean trouble-maker who claims to be “king of the Jews,” they say (23:1-6).
Pilate and Herod become buddies with a common cause against the Jewish leaders. They are not friends of the Jewish people or of justice; their power over Jesus’ life is leveraged against the Jewish leaders, at first. Pilate was known for his brutality and contempt for Jewish rituals; he did not want to do Jesus or the instigators any favors. Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate declares that Jesus is innocent of what the Jewish leaders accuse him. But since the mob that accompanies them vehemently insists that Jesus be charged, Pilate releases Barabbas and crucifies Jesus (23:7-25). Civil and religious authorities, together, sanction Jesus’ execution. Driven by lies, hate, and power, the two collude to destroy a perceived threat and/or to satiate a delusional and gullible constituency; we saw this on January 6, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol!
Jesus mentions death or murder throughout Luke 13:1-9, 31-35: the murder of some Galileans, the death of eighteen people as a result of the fall of the tower of Siloam, and the death of a barren fig tree. It is no accident that this litany of death and lament is evoked as Jesus journeys toward his own death in Jerusalem. Jesus’ call for Jerusalem to repent is about past sins, including sins against the prophets, and as a pre-emptive plea concerning his own death. Jesus is also a Galilean, belongs to the prophetic tradition, and will join the nation’s ancestral memorial of prophets that Jerusalem killed (13:34). Despite Herod’s plot to kill Jesus; Jesus will enter Jerusalem, but not before his ministry is complete (13:31-33). He must die in Jerusalem like other prophets before him, including Stephen (Acts 7:37-60).
Jesus’ framing, use, and interpretation of the parable of the barren fig tree is harsh. He is calling Jerusalem to repent, but a people or a nation must admit and be conscious of its wrongdoing in order to change its commitments, policies, and practices. Just because Jerusalem (its leaders) has not experienced the state sanctioned violence to which Pilate subjected the Galileans does not mean the Galileans or those killed when the tower of Siloam fell are sinners. Revolutionaries are murdered. Innocent persons have been and continue to be crucified, murdered, or die because the state fails to maintain its infrastructure or slum lords make money. Many persons and leaders commit evil with impunity under unjust judicial systems and corrupt authorities; this avoidance of justice is not a sign of innocence, goodness, or divine approval.
This passage is also difficult because Jesus doesn’t call out Pilate for his cruelties. But Jerusalem will meet a fate similar to the Galileans and the eighteen unless they repent. Of what must they repent? Why does Jesus not condemn the violence of the state? Why is it that Jesus appears to characterize all of Jerusalem as sinful? Jesus’ words of condemnation seem to condone the state violence and oppose resistance to oppressive state power. But is that really the case?
Jesus clarifies his point with a parable. A landowner, perhaps representing God, planted a fig tree in his vineyard. The fig tree took root and grew, but it did not bear fruit. The owner was patient with the tree: for three years he visited the vineyard to see if the fig tree would bear fruit. After three years, the owner decided that the tree would not bear fruit and so ordered the gardener to cut it down. It took up space, preventing the owner from planting something more fruitful in its place. But the gardener asked for more time, another year, to fertilize and irrigate the tree. If after a year, the fig tree did not bear fruit, the gardener would fell it. The vineyard and fig tree are common metaphors for Israel (Jeremiah 8:13; Hosea 9:10; Micah 7:1).
Violence inflicted on a collective or nation from external forces usually provokes lament. Yet when the violence is inflicted by internal forces and authorities, lament is slow to come, especially when masses of people have been convinced that the violence is necessary or when the perpetrators are convinced that they are doing God’s will and acting in the best interest of the nation. Those in power benefit from the internal violence against the marginalized and poor, so drown out the cries of the oppressed with lies that promote fear of change and equality. The consciousness of the nation must be awakened.
Trees that don’t produce edible, nourishing fruit are useless; why else does one plant a fruit tree except for good fruit? Jerusalem’s leaders who are expected to act and speak for the collective have not produced good fruit; they have not shown themselves to be righteous or just. It is easier to point out how others have committed violence against us than to accept and condemn the violence we commit against each other through structural and systemic violence and corrupt leaders. Eventually, the entire vineyard will suffer and persons who count on us producing good fruit will suffer, our global neighbors.
God anointed Jerusalem and its leaders to be good and just towards its citizens and neighbors, to embody and be bearers of good news—a living wage, affordable livable housing, the incarcerated are rehabilitated and freed, the blind and otherwise dis-eased have access to quality affordable healthcare and clean water and sanitation, and all forms of oppression are eliminated (4:16-19). As the US Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman challenged us on Inauguration Day 2021, we must both see the light and muster the courage to be the light. Otherwise, we are good for nothing good.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Holy One of mighty power,
Your word is powerfully dangerous. Your word casts out demons. Your word heals incurable diseases. Your word devours empires. Your word transforms the fabric of the universe. Help us to stand in awe and fear of what your word is capable of doing. Give us courage to speak your word and wisdom to hear it, for the sake of the one whose very whisper can demolish sin, Jesus Christ. Amen.
There is a balm, William Dawson