1Just then, some people came to tell Yeshua about the men from the Galil whom Pilate had slaughtered even while they were slaughtering animals for sacrifice. 2 His answer to them was, “Do you think that just because they died so horribly, these folks from the Galil were worse sinners than all the others from the Galil? 3 No, I tell you. Rather, unless you turn to God from your sins, you will all die as they did!
4 “Or what about those eighteen people who died when the tower at Shiloach fell on them? Do you think they were worse offenders than all the other people living in Yerushalayim? 5 No, I tell you. Rather, unless you turn from your sins, you will all die similarly.”
6 Then Yeshua gave this illustration: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came looking for fruit but didn’t find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘Here, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for three years now without finding any. Cut it down — why let it go on using up the soil?’ 8 But he answered, ‘Sir, leave it alone one more year. I’ll dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; if not, you will have it cut down then.’”
This passage has caused commentators a lot of problems, for on the face of it, Jesus seems to use random incicients of violent death to threaten his unrepentant fellow Jews with God’s punishment. Yes, there is the vineyard manager who argues that the fruitless tree should have one last chance, but the threat of being cut down remains.
Remembering that Jesus has been talking about his own ministry as forcing people to choose between him and the religious establishment, we can see this passage as a progression from the necessity of choice to the consequences of choice. Here that choice is presented as the offer of a complete change of heart ( Greek, metanoia). Refusing God’s offer through Jesus, whether deliberately or by sitting on the fence, puts people in danger of God’s annihilating judgement.
If that is what Luke meant, there are two problems:
- The way God is depicted as dealing with the unrepentant.
- The way Jesus is reported as dealing with the deaths of unfortunate people he knew nothing about.
Some commentators point out that the underlying assumption is that sudden death is terrible because it cuts off the possibility of repentance. There is some evidence that Jewish tradition advised repentance before death, but it comes from a later era, and may not apply to the time of Jesus. In any case, it would be a particularly arrogant person who would assume that those unfortunate victims had not repented. Dealing with that objection another commentator says it shows that Jesus was “not wishy-washy.” Well, no, just brutal if that’s what he was saying.
My own guess is that commentators suffer from thinking of God and his mercy/ judgement in a abstract manner, as an attitude of forgiveness or mercy which he/ she adopts towards people. The gospel writers, and probably Jesus too, saw these qualities made real precisely in God’s chosen prophets, teachers, and pre-eminently in his son Jesus. The mercy of God is not an emotion but rather the change of heart which comes from trusting Jesus, just as the judgement of God is the hardening of heart which comes from not trusting Jesus.
With that in mind I think that Jesus’ view of the victims was sorrow that they hadn’t had a chance to hear his gospel and change their hearts. Then he reminds his hearers that they still have that chance and ought to make good use of it. He was not judging the unfortunate dead, specifically not; they have been cut off from his ministry of God’s goodness, but are in the hands of the father who doesn’t miss the fall of a sparrow. For the crowd listening to Jesus, however, indeed for the Jewish people as a whole, God had offered his mercy through his Torah and his prophets, but they had not received it and their lives are unfruitful. Maybe it’s time for God to forget them and transfer his affection elsewhere? But no, Jesus, the one who is managing God’s crops, asks for a stay of execution. He means that while he is amongst them God will be patient. They can listen and change their hearts, but if they don’t, they will have condemned themselves as people who saw the light but preferred the darkness; and death by evil or accident may prevent them having another chance. The message is clear: here is God’s offer of life ; change your heart and trust the good news. NOW.
In the biblical tradition, God is out and out historical. God is what God does. God may have a life other than his historical life but the bible is not interested in it. For the New Testament authors, God’s action is seen in Jesus and his followers. There are occasional references to God’s action elsewhere, almost all in the writings of St. Paul, but they are deduced from his actions in Jesus. Yes, Christianity has developed a universalising theology which enables it to incorporate very different religious traditions as partial revelations of its ultimate truth, but the Jesus of the gospels insists on the uniqueness of what he is doing in God’s name.