Falling towers and fig trees

Lent 2 – 2010
Luke 13:1-9
Marian Free

In the name of God who desires that we turn our lives around. Amen.

Blood mixed with sacrifices, falling towers and a non fruiting fig tree. At first glance these sayings don’t appear to belong together. The first section, in response to a question, is full of violence and implied judgement and punishment. The second expresses compassion and the possibility of a second chance.

Unless you repent, you will perish as they did. Though Jesus explicitly denies it, our minds we assume that the Galileans were killed by Herod as a punishment for sin and that the tower fell on the eighteen because they had failed to repent. The logical conclusion is that if we fail to repent that we too will experience a similar gruesome fate. Further, the two stories create a picture of a cruel and exacting God who will willfully destroy us if we fail to comply with his will.

The second section of today’s gospel is quite different. Firstly, it is a parable, and secondly it leads to a different conclusion about the nature of God.  A fig tree fails to fruit and the landowner’s response is to uproot (kill) the tree. Thanks to the gardener’s intervention the fig is given another chance to prove itself. Although the parable doesn’t excuse the fig’s shortcomings, it does indicate that it, and therefore us, will be given a second chance. This account is much more compatible with the image of a kind, compassionate and forgiving God.

While the two parts of today’s gospel seem to be making opposing points, a careful study will show that in fact, Luke has placed them together because they reinforce one of Luke’s key themes: “Today is the day of salvation.”

If we look more closely we will see that in the first saying Jesus is not depicting a cruel and vengeful God. In fact, he is not talking about God at all, but about the vagaries of existence which mean that none of us know what the future holds or when our end might come. Jesus is quite explicit –the Galileans were not punished because they were sinful, neither were the eighteen crushed by the tower because of their faults. On the contrary, Jesus insists, in both cases those who were killed were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their sin is no greater than that of anyone else. The issue is not whether or not they have sinned – all have sinned. The issue is whether or not they have repented – that is turned to God. Jesus implies that they have not repented (turned to God) which means that they face an eternity without God – in Jesus’ language, they perish. The consequence of not turning to God is not so much punishment in the present, or punishment for eternity, but rather a complete end, or an endlessness that is devoid of God.

The message of these two events – Herod’s slaying of the Galileans and the fall of the tower is that NOW is the time to turn one’s life around, because no one knows whether they will have the time to do it tomorrow.

When we understand the first part of today’s gospel, the meaning of the second short story becomes clearer and we can see that the two parts are closely related in Luke’s mind. According to the parable, the landowner has been expecting fruit from his tree for three years and still there is none. He is disappointed and angry, but he accepts the recommendation from the gardener to give the tree one more year. The tree might fruit yet. Importantly, the reprieve is not open-ended; it has a time limit – after twelve months the fig will be cut down. Using a different illustration Jesus makes the same point as he did in the first part. Time is limited. now is the time to turn one’s life around. God may be compassionate and forgiving, but our time is finite and we are asked to accept God’s love and forgiveness now and not to put it off till another day.

Contrary to our initial reading of the passage, we now see that both sayings emphasise the fact that in terms of salvation, sin is NOT the primary factor determining what happens in this life or even in the next. Towers fall on the less sinful as well as on the more sinful. Sinfulness is a characteristic of our human nature. Sin is what identifies as being different from God. Sinfulness is what separates us from God. It is the recognition of our sinfulness which is important, the recognition of our sinfulness and turning towards God which makes the difference between perishing and not perishing.

There is a sense of urgency in all this. Time is short and the time to turn to God is always NOW.

According to Luke’s time scale, NOW is the time of salvation, not the time of judgement. To you and I this time of salvation can seem like an eternity. It has been two thousand years – what difference can another day, another year make? It is hard to grasp the sense of urgency besides which it is impossible and even unhealthy to live in a permanent state of expectation about our own death. That is not the point. Whether it is two thousand years or two seconds the point Jesus is making is the unexpected and unpredictable nature of the end. For this reason, it is important to always be ready because the time is always now. The gardener might buy us more time, time is still finite and a decision needs to be made before it is too late. We need to choose to turn towards God or to continue on our way to a godless eternity.

By pairing the two stories in his gospel, Luke confronts the misconception that our sinfulness is punished by unexpected acts of terror.  We will not be punished by having towers fall on us or despotic leaders kill us – those are random acts that could happen to anyone – sinful or not. At the same time, while we do not need to live in constant fear, we cannot afford to be complacent the time of salvation is limited and we must make the best use of that time to turn to God – it is possible to be rooted out of the garden. There is a then a sense of urgency. Turn to God, because we do not know what might happen tomorrow. Turn to God because the day of salvation will come to an end.

Towers, assassinations, fig trees – there is too much at stake to put off till tomorrow what God is asking of us today.

Just what is it that separates us from God and is this Lent the time to put that right?

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