Commentary on Luke 13:1-9, 31-35
Jesus is teaching.
Apparently, groups of people wander in and out of the audience, so that the various instructions and commentaries need to be sorted out as for Jesus’ disciples or a larger crowd of onlookers. His immediate audience is a crowd of interested and curious folks who may or may not be committed to Jesus’ ministry and his goals. They are, however, folks trying to deal with the reality of their life as an occupied people governed in the interests of Rome’s imperial project. They have been dealing with how to navigate the probably corrupt and certainly biased legal system (12:57-59).
Some in the group inquire about an issue in their recent experience: what does Jesus think about it (13:1)? We do not know the specifics of Pilate’s slaughter of some Galileans. The sad truth is that Pilate’s regime was violent and arbitrary in its treatment of people entrusted to his governance, and most specific incidents left no traces in the public imperial records. (Before we act horrified and surprised, we should listen for echoes in the many societies ruled by tyrants in our own day. This account sounds true, because we have heard it so many times that of course we can believe it.)
This group of onlookers asks Jesus’ help in sorting out the age-old question of how to understand human suffering. Is it punishment for wrongs committed (13:2)? The subtext of such questions always comes back to the person asking them, and it carries two purposes. First, please reassure us that we are not as “bad” as those who suffered. They deserved what they got, but we don’t, right? The second and related agenda is for Jesus to tell us what we need to do to be sure we don’t suffer this way.
Jesus’ response was also two-fold. First, there was a commentary on arbitrary power. These folks who were martyred while they were carrying out their religious duties were certainly no worse than those not caught in that horrible moment. In fact, their expression of piety might mark them as more righteous than others. (One cannot help thinking of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was gunned down by government thugs in the middle of his celebration of the Eucharist in the little chapel of a hospital on the outskirts of the capital.) That reflection ends with a warning, namely, if the people in the audience do not “repent” or literally “turn their lives around” (metanoien), they will suffer the same fate (13:2-3).
Jesus follows their question with another reference from the daily newspaper, as it were (which also cannot be verified in public documents) of either a horrible accident or the result of shoddy construction practices in the building of a tower as part of the city wall (13:4). The same question about the reasons for suffering underlies that story, and it ends with an echo of the warning of the need to repent (13:5) that concluded the account of Pilate’s action.
While the two examples suggest an urban audience, the parable that is the conclusion to Jesus’ teaching returns us to the countryside and the practices involved in growing figs. Jesus is addressing a landowner (presumably a person of some wealth) who has a gardener in his employ. The parable draws on a self-evident truth, namely that if the tree is to become productive, some care needs to be given it, and its effectiveness takes time, just as the fruits of metanoia are not immediate. That time, however, is limited, after which the tree can no longer be allowed to continue to leech nutrients from the soil (13:6-9).
The question about merited or unmerited suffering and the parable about the need to get busy with one’s life-changes point us toward a time of reckoning. We are disposed to expect that the same arbitrariness of official systems of what passes for justice will be in evidence then as well. Before we get to that conclusion in 13:31-35, though, Luke has other concerns to share about the misuse of systems of law and justice in human hands.
Insofar as this is called a “narrative lectionary,” a preacher should pay attention to the narrative context that includes the intervening passages. For instance, there is the account of the contrast between Jesus’ action to heal the woman who had been unable to stand up straight for eighteen years, and a reading of the law that deemed that a violation of the Sabbath (13:10-17). Two parables examine the attribution of value to a plant deemed a weed (13:18-19) and to a substance understood to render ritually unclean whoever handles it (13:20-21), despite the actual value of both mustard and yeast in one’s household.
Again at issue is a use of the law that can support Jesus’ embodied proclamation of the reign of God, in contrast to business as usual that impedes it. If the audience has not yet figured out that the process is a difficult one whose outcome is not assured, 13:22-30 talks explicitly about the “narrow door” through which one must pass, and the demanding checking of credentials in which few will be successful. So much for the system of religious law and jurisprudence!
Without a smooth transition, the narrative returns to Jesus’ journey that will be completed in Jerusalem (9:31). Roman administration of the Galilee was entrusted to the violent Pontius Pilate, but in Jerusalem Herod was in charge and plotted Jesus’ death (13:31). Luke refers to him in an insulting way as “a fox” — a pest, more apt to annoy than actually to be a threat.
Jesus’ forecast of his death in Jerusalem (implied to be a product of divine foreknowledge; 13:32-33) could be seen as simply the church’s hindsight after he actually died there, or it could be a sort of “street wisdom” on Jesus’ part, expressing through a universalizing statement (13:33b) his recognition that if he continued in his ministry right under the noses of the main Roman detachment in Jerusalem, he would probably not die of old age.
Despite his dire words, the culmination of this collection of texts portraying the opposition between the values of Jesus and those of the religious and the secular power structures centered in Jerusalem is in a touching and tender picture of Jesus longing to gather the city’s inhabitants “under his wings,” like a mother bird protecting her young (13:34-35). Like the fig tree in the parable that was given one more chance, Jerusalem too would have one last chance to turn/repent/metanoiein, which would be evidenced in their welcome, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”