Weekly Bible Reflection
Luke: Signs of the Kingdom
Third Sunday of Lent
Text: Luke 13.1-9 "Time to change"
Begin by using the Bible Study method as outlined
Which is easier – to change the world, or to change ourselves?
A Window on the Text
Some Galileans had been murdered in Jerusalem by Pilate, while worshipping in the Temple. Around the same time, 18 people had been killed by falling masonry there. Tragedies are nothing new – accidents, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods: none of them the fault of those involved – but Jesus’ words remind us that life is short, and we don’t know what might happen tomorrow. Those caught under the tower of Siloam had no more idea that they were going to die, when they woke up that morning, than people we may read about in today’s newspapers who have been in a traffic accident. Maybe the men who clashed with Pilate had more of an inkling that they were in a dangerous situation, as do millions of others who live in parts of the world where there is ethnic, religious or political unrest and violence. But they probably still didn’t expect to die so suddenly.
Disasters happen. What is crucial is how we respond. We have a responsibility to care for each other. We are not just individuals; we are part of communities, from our own families to the people of the world. How interlinked we all are has been shown recently with the response to the earthquake in Haiti in January.
But what has a fig-tree got to do with this? Jesus’ words are a strange contradiction. On one hand, we are urged to repent before we too might perish in tragic circumstances. On the other, we have this strange little tale about the fig-tree in the vineyard. Is that significant? Did people usually plant fig-trees in vineyards? Or is there some first century Palestinian joke here that completely passes us by? Whether there is or not, here is a little fig-tree, about to be destroyed as useless and which then has a last minute reprieve, at least for another year. How does that square with Jesus’ call for “immediate repentance or else you may perish”?
Repentance doesn’t only mean a change of mind, or even change of heart. It means a change of direction, actually responding and doing things differently. Not just putting something in a collecting box for Haiti and then coming to church on Sunday and carrying on as normal. Repentance means really thinking about what God would have us do – and then acting on it. Jesus told us to love God, and love our neighbours as ourselves. Nobody in the whole world grows up planning to become injured in an accident, or to be bereaved by war, disaster, disease or hunger. Jesus challenges us every day to turn our lives around and look at the root causes of these problems and truly look at what we are doing to each other, in our churches, in our work, and in our world. It will be difficult. But God doesn’t give up. Jesus’ little parable may be a puzzle, as are many of his stories. He leaves it to us to ponder on them. Do we see God as the owner of the fig-tree, about to order an axe to be taken to it because it is so useless? Or is God to be seen in the gardener who pleads for one more chance and will try – by every means he can – to galvanise it into action? Which one do you hope he is?
Responding as a community
- How do we respond to the eternal questions about God and suffering? Is there still an assumption that people bring their troubles upon themselves? Or that God is punishing them for some previous misdeeds, as some American fundamentalist preachers said about the people of Haiti after the earthquake? What about some of the responses to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, such as scapegoating and stigmatising?
- Jesus emphatically denied that those crushed by the falling tower were worse sinners than anyone else. But how do we respond to the question of why God doesn’t always intervene when something goes wrong in the world, either by accident or evil intent? What do we think we are doing when we pray for God to change a situation?
- What do we think of the way the media respond to tragic accidents and human suffering? Are they a force for good, making information easily available and inspiring people to respond to disasters quickly – or do they trivialise people’s pain and expect ‘quick-fix’ solutions to complicated situations that will need support long after the reporters and camera crews have moved on to the next thing?
Spend a few moments in silence. Reflect on situations of violence and inhumanity which need to come to an end. Remember that no-one is perfect, and everyone needs God’s forgiveness – especially for the times when we think we are a bit like the suffering pilgrims or the unfortunates under the collapsed tower – but in fact we are all occasionally a bit like the cruel Pontius Pilate.
Say the following prayer together, and then share The Peace.
(From A Procession of Prayers: Meditations and Prayers from around the World. John Carden.)
Christ, whose life in infancy was saved while others died,
help us to be sensitive towards those circumstances in our present world
where many of us live and flourish at the expense of others who die.
Let not the death of innocents around the world rest too easily upon our consciences,
but strengthen in us the resolve to search out all those places
where innocence is at risk at the hands of poverty, disease, ignorance, market forces, exploitation, neglect and human cruelty.
- The fact that the man in the parable ‘had’ the fig-tree planted suggests that he is not a peasant farmer but a landowner from the city who hires landless labourers. If he was an observant son of Israel, the tree could have been in the ground as many as nine years: three for the tree to grow to the point of producing fruit, three when the fruit was forbidden (Lev. 19:23), and three during which the landowner has come expecting fruit. Digging trees out rather than cutting them down was the common practice. In Luke 3:9 John the Baptist also has the axe laid to the root of the tree. Malina & Rohrbaugh: Social-science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.
- The incident in the Temple to which Luke refers is not mentioned elsewhere in the gospel tradition or in other ancient writings. There are other recorded instances in accounts of Josephus of Pilate’s attacks on the Jewish people over whom he ruled. There is no way of telling whether this episode is historical or the result of a Lucan confusion of it with some other incident in first century Palestinian history. Luke’s picture of Pilate in this episode is not contradicted by the brutal person depicted in Josephus’ writings. In any case, this reference to Palestinian history – along with the story of the collapsing tower provided by Jesus himself – gives him a springboard for his pronouncement, no matter how reliable the history may be. Fitzmyer: the Gospel According to Luke