Commentary on Luke 13:1-9
As Jesus speaks to a crowd, some of those gathered seek Jesus’ opinion on current affairs. Jesus as a prophet places the local issue within a cosmic frame that yields a divine imperative for the audience. Rather than focus on a past event and what cannot be controlled, Jesus encourages them to change what they can—their minds.
The event that sparks Jesus’ response is Governor Pilate’s execution of Galileans during some ritual practice. Such an event could have personally affected Jesus on multiple levels. First, he was a Galilean, which means that this violence impacted people from his neighborhood, people whom he could have known and grown up with. Second, Pilate was a direct appointee of the Roman empire who had a track record for being a blood-thirsty, violent ruler. Pilate epitomizes the fear-inducing brutality that Roman provincial subjects, like Jesus, daily experienced directly or indirectly. His presence in this passage, Luke’s earlier mention of him in chapter 3, and his eventual role in Jesus’ execution capture how Luke understands Pilate as Rome’s representative in Judea. Third, the notion that Pilate mingled the Galileans blood with sacrifices insinuates that Pilate violated the Galileans ritual practice.
It is not clear what this incident refers to, because there are no sources outside of Luke that report this event. Nonetheless, we can see here that the agents of empire had no problem transgressing the boundaries of sacred practices for their own purposes. A careful reader knows that Luke’s mention of Pilate, Galileans, and sacrifices are no coincidence. At the end of the gospel, Pilate will mix the blood of Jesus, a Galilean, with Passover sacrifices.
Jesus does not discuss Pilate in his response; he instead talks about his fellow Galileans. He asks if those who were slaughtered were worse sinners than other Galileans because of how they suffered. The logic of his question is funded by the Torah (Deuteronomy 28-20). Also, other popular understandings of divine retribution presumed that punishments, especially catastrophes, were proportionate to the crime or sin. To that logic Jesus emphatically says, “No!” (ouchi).
He refutes that logic for at least two reasons. First, the decisions of Pilate and Rome’s agents are not synonymous with God’s justice. Luke uses Jesus’ discourse here to prepare the audience to properly frame Jesus’ execution at the hands of Romans. Second, bad events occur that are not the result of human iniquity or divine penalty. Jesus demonstrates this by reminding the audience of the eighteen people who were crushed under a tower in Jerusalem. Like those Galileans murdered by Pilate, their unfortunate circumstance does not indicate the degree of their moral depravity. They were victims of a surprising, unforeseen disaster. Jesus uses these unpredictable, unchangeable incidents to prompt his audience to change what they can—their minds.
Jesus tells them to repent (metanoeō)—to change their mind about their current commitments to injustice and unrighteousness. Changing one’s mind in this way leads to a change in conduct. This term is the Greek translation of the Hebrew (shuv); the core meaning of which is “to return” or “to go back” or even “to go home.” Jesus invites the audience to adjust their current course and return to God. If they opt to not return or choose to not change their minds, they risk being ruined (apollumi) in the same way (ōsautōs) as the Galileans and Jerusalemites. Here, “same way” means “suddenly and unprepared.”1 Jesus is not suggesting that repentance will prevent them from a physical, catastrophic death. Rather, he is stating that changing their minds will prepare them for whatever they will experience, including producing fruit.
To illustrate his point, Jesus turns to a parable about a fig tree that has not produced fruit in three years. The significance of fruit bearing is a theme throughout Luke. John the Baptist’s preaching in Luke 3:7-14 describes just, interpersonal dealings as the fruit of repentance. In the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:43-45, Jesus states that a good tree produces good fruit and similarly a good person produces good from the goodness of their heart. In the parable of the sower in Luke 8:4-15, Jesus explains that those with good hearts hear the word of God, hold fast to it, and patiently produce fruit. With this evidence, the fig tree represents the human heart.
In line with Luke’s understanding of how trees’ fruit reflect their nature, the barrenness of the fig tree in Luke 13 is evidence that it is already ruined. The owner (kurios, verse 8) tells the gardener to cut the tree down. The gardener advocates for tending the tree for one more year to determine whether it should be cut down. He proposes more advanced agriculture techniques but concedes to the owner that if the tree does not produce within a year, he will cut it down. Should the tree not produce within the year, its removal will not be a surprise. It will not catch the gardener unprepared. At that point, it would not have produced anything for four years, and it is literally wasting the earth (gē).
Jesus’ message is clear: do not be like the fruitless tree. Rather than focus on the gravity of others’ transgressions, make sure you are producing good. Instead of assigning causality to others misfortune, ensure that you are not ignoring your own missing fruit. Jesus’ words suggest that tending to one’s own life and positively changing one’s own mind is the best strategy to prevent or even persevere through unexpected calamity. If one refuses to do that type of work, they are already ruined.
Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, “Luke,” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary ed. Brian Blount et. al. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007).
Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997).
Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003).
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991).
- Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 211.