Commentary on Luke 13:1-9
Over the years, I have heard a number of sermons on this passage that have missed the exegetical boat because they focused entirely on the question of the relationship between sin and suffering (Luke 13:2-5).
Preachers love to point out that Jesus denies that sin immediately caused the deaths of the Galileans and those at the tower of Siloam. To be sure, the relationship between sin and suffering is important, but it is secondary to the driving concern of Luke 13:1-9: to call people to repentance. By placing this passage in Lent, the lectionary views repentance as part of the church’s preparation for the Day of Resurrection.
Luke wrote the Gospel and Acts from a largely apocalyptic perspective. For apocalyptic theologians, the present (old) age is so broken that God must replace it with a new age (the Realm of God) in order to be faithful to God’s promises. Apocalyptic thinkers expect God to end the old and begin the new with a dramatic apocalypse. Writers in the Jesus tradition modify this scheme by seeing Jesus announcing the coming of the Realm and realizing it in a partial way until God will finally and fully manifest it at the second coming. The apocalypse will be accompanied by God’s final judgment when some are welcomed into the Realm and others are consigned to punishment.
Scholars rightly observe that Luke believes that God has delayed the second coming. One of Luke’s purposes in writing is to help the congregation maintain faith, life and witness during the delay. The delay gives people the opportunity to repent.
John the Baptist announces a key way in which people can prepare for the coming of the Realm: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8; see also 3:3). Some Christians think of repentance as feeling sorry for one’s personal sin.
While such perception can be a part of repentance, in the Bible repentance is much larger and often contains a corporate element. Indeed, repentance refers to individuals and communities turning away from things that violate God’s purposes (such as idolatry, injustice, and exploitation) and turning towards faithful living centered in worship of the most-high God and in the practice of justice, mutual commitment, and other values of living in covenant.
By using John the Baptist to introduce the ministry of Jesus, Luke signals that repentance is an essential step in the journey of the community towards the Realm of God. Jesus himself emphasizes this notion and gives it a full expression in Luke 13:1-9.
Luke 12:1-59 sets the stage for today’s text. The long interaction between Jesus and the disciples in 12:1-59 revolves around the theme of being ready for the apocalypse. Jesus admonishes the disciples to acknowledge Jesus (12:8-12), to be responsible stewards (12:13-21), to live in confidence in the provision of God (12:22-34), to be ready (12:35-40), to be faithful (12:41-48), to endure the social disruption of the last days (12:49-53), and to recognize the signs that the apocalypse is ahead (12:54-56). Jesus uses the example of settling a legal case before the case gets to court to encourage the disciples to take actions necessary to be part of the Realm. If they do not, they will pay the apocalyptic price (12:57-59).
At that moment, some people call Jesus’ attention to the Galileans whom Pilate had murdered (Luke 13:1). Their implied question is: Were those Galileans so much worse sinners than other Galileans that they were beyond the possibility of preparing for the Realm in the way Jesus had described in Luke 12:1-56? Jesus gives a straight forward answer: “No.” They were not killed because of their sin. They were brutally murdered by the Romans.
But Jesus uses the deaths of the Galileans to make a point. To expand slightly: Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did when the apocalypse occurs. In Luke-Acts, to repent is to turn away from the assumptions, attitudes and actions of the old age and to live towards the values and practices of the Realm of God as taught by Jesus and as embodied in the life of the church (the eschatological community) in Acts.
Luke follows the incident with the Galileans with a similar incident about the tower of Siloam killing eighteen people when it collapsed on them. They were no worse offenders than others in Jerusalem. But those who do not repent will perish as they did.
The purpose of the stories of the Galileans and those who died at Siloam is to stress the importance of repentance as a decisive step on the journey to the Realm. That action is necessary prelude to the life described in Luke 12:1-59. Without repentance and faithful witness, punishment awaits.
The parable of Luke 13:6-9 presses upon the listeners the importance of repenting soon. An owner planted a fig tree and, after three years, came looking for the fruit. Finding none, the owner commanded the gardener to cut it down because it was wasting the soil. The gardener, however, asks for another year to give the gardener time to prepare the soil. At the end of the year, if the tree does not bear fruit, it will be cut down.
The listeners in Luke’s community are in the position of the tree. The time has come for them to bear the fruit of repentance. God could already have ended the present age. However, God is giving them a little more time. While the second coming is delayed, the apocalypse and the moment of judgment are still ahead.
We can clearly see the importance of repentance in Acts 2:37-38. After Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, the crowd asks, “What should we do?” Peter replies, “Repent, and be baptized … and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This theme recurs repeatedly in the Gospel and the Acts: Luke 3:3, 8; 5:32; 15:7, 10; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22; 5:31; 11:18; 13:24: 17:30; 19:4; 20:21; 26:20. As noted, repentance is the first step towards the Realm of God
Repentance is always in season. Yet, when people are in the somber, introspective days of Lent, the preacher has a particularly natural opportunity to invite listeners to conduct critical inventories of specific things for which to repent in their individual lives, households, congregation, and wider world. Once identified, the congregation can take the next steps: repent, and then bear the fruits of repentance.