Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilatehad mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
8 “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”
Luke 13.1-9 (NIV)
I’ve blogged about Luke 13.1-9 before. I think this passage can use a few more comments, now that the Umbrella Movement in HK and Ferguson protest in Missouri are largely over.
There’s an assumption by many who sound much like those talking to Jesus in Luke 13.1. Jesus’ answer “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?” Jesus’ question probed into their thinking that indeed, those who suffered for their disobedience to the Roman government were indeed morally worse off than all the others. Many would congratulate themselves saying, “We don’t disobey our government.” Some would even feel gleeful in protesters being beaten both here in the US or overseas in HK.
To give a short background to Galilee, it was not primarily a place where peace reigned. Galilee had its own revolutionaries and militia groups of varying political agenda. Jesus taught there in Galilee, but the place was not an ancient classroom. It was a place of radical ideas at time. In fact, the 70 CE revolt in Jerusalem had influence from Galilee militants. The Gospels never talked much about it because this background was very familiar to the audience. Those who are interested can go read Josephus’ account on how Galilee was, given the fact that he was from Galilee himself.
Like many modern civic moralists everywhere, the interlocutors of Jesus here held a very high view of those who lived comfortably simply because they’re more obedient to the Roman government. In fact, obedience to civic authorities seems to be the measurement of one’s moral ethics within the story. When looking at both protests here in the US (mostly race-based) and in HK (mostly based on the search for democracy), Jesus’ interlocutors have parallel to today’s world. Many also assume that being a good citizen of this world is the mark of high morals and good Christian conduct. Jesus spoke against such a moralistic attitude. This was not kingdom ethics, no more than being a good citizen being equated to being a good Christian.
Instead of letting these interlocutors focus on the problems of others, Jesus told them to focus on their own problem by a parable. It’s basically a parable about bearing fruit in Luke 13.6-9. The Greek sentence in Luke 13.9 is enlightening in that the two conditions of bearing fruit and not bearing fruit were expressed differently. Jesus only expressed hypothetically about bearing fruit (in an expression Greek scholars called the third-class condition) but expressed the fruitlessness realistically (in an expression Greek scholars called the first-class condition). Why did Luke record Jesus in this way?
The answer is simple. Jesus didn’t expect most of these civic moralists to bear fruit or do good works such as feeding the poor (a point I already made in my previous blog), but that they would carry on being very happy about their own fruitless self-righteousness. The lesson here by Luke is that once we get into a self-righteous mood about our civic moralism, it’s nearly impossible to bear real fruit. That’s the harsh reality of Jesus’ day, and that may be the harsh reality of our modern faith community. Self satisfaction is almost an incurable disease of the faith community and its manifestation would cause the faith community to be utterly useless like a tree that’s chopped down.