There are two separate parts to this reading. Luke 13:1-5 and 6-9. Luke is the only Evangelist to record this story. In verses 1-5 some people who were traveling with Jesus told him the story of the slaughter of Galileans by Pilate. The mention of the slaughter of Galileans is an occasion for warning by Jesus about repentance and perishing. Jesus himself introduces the accidental death of 18 people by the falling tower of Siloam. This also leads to a warning on repentance. It is difficult to discover the origin of verses 1-9. Just as verse 1 provided the occasion for warning, so also something provided the occasion for verse 1. What made these followers of Jesus report the slaughter of the Galileans? Earlier in 11:49-51 Jesus had talked about prophets and apostles who were killed, and of “the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary.” The story of Zechariah is recorded in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22. In another story related only by Luke, Pilate sends Jesus to be tried by Herod, because Jesus was a Galilean, and belonged to Herod’s territory. In that story, Luke 23:6-12, it says that Herod and Pilate, before that day, had been at enmity with each other. Why? Was it because Pilate the Roman Governor had slaughtered Galileans in Herod the Jewish tetrarch’s kingdom? In the temple itself, thus defiling it? Can this rivalry, brought to mind by the mention of Zechariah’s murder in the temple, be what motivated by the followers to make this report? I wonder if verses 1-9 which contains a dominical saying may not have once belonged to a source at least as old as Q.
What is the meaning of “whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices?” It is likely that the Galileans were in their temple offering up their sacrifices when they were killed, so their blood was mingled with that of their sacrifices. Paul allows us a vivid imagery of this when he says, “even if I am to be poured as a libation upon the sacrificial offering of your faith.” Phil. 2:17. The eighteen killed at Siloam, if this is by the pool of Siloam, may refer to 18 people who were killed while they were trying to purify themselves. In both cases people died while carrying out their religious obligations. They were doing something that the Law required. Is Jesus’ call to repentance meant as a criticism of the Law? Is he saying that the Law is no guarantee of life? If so, what is he offering instead?
Jesus insists that the Galileans who suffered death were no worse sinners than all other Galileans. Also, the Jerusalemites who died at Siloam were no greater offenders than all other Jerusalemites. In the presence of the Divine all are equally sinful. Paul promoted this idea that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Romans 3:22-23.
Jesus repeats the refrain, “unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” Vs.3, 5. The verb “to perish” is used again in 13:33 and 15:17. See John 3:16 where “perish” is the further extreme of “eternal life.” However, Jesus does not indicate in Luke what would happen if people did repent. Is it enough to imply that those people “would not perish?” Is there implied here a contrast between life and death? Those who repent will live; those who do not will die?
“Perish” is something that is always impending. It beckons all. Though its means are many its aim is one. It lies always in the Psalmist plea “cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” That which perishes is deprived of a future; it cannot arrive at its “end” because it has no capacity for “arriving.” It has exhausted its possibilities; it forms no relationships because it cannot engage what has not yet perished, except for eulogy and gratitude. What perishes passes into isolation and solitude, enters where time does not exist and space that conforms only to its unique dimensions. What perishes remains in a place of languishing.
For the Galileans and Jerusalemites who perished, their only deliverance post mortem is in the hands of the Divine. Without the Divine they are helpless and hopeless. Jesus says that this is what characterizes the human condition, and repentance is the answer.
There is a sense of urgency in his voice when Jesus calls upon all to repent. But repent of what? Metanoia does not simply mean to change one’s mind. Repentance essentially means that I surrender my will to the Divine will because this is what the Divine demands of me. “Not my will but thine!” Yet it is not an act that I can ever undertake on my own. I cannot bring myself to repentance because repentance always is a gift of God, and what is demanded of me is to accept this gift and to acknowledge that I am totally and completely obedient to the Divine for my living and my dying. One remembers the idea of becoming a little child in the presence of the Divine, that is, absolute surrender to the Divine that demonstrates that I am completely helpless in view of both my living and my dying. One remembers also that most sublime theology of Martin Luther in his explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles Creed. “I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and kept me in true faith. In the same way he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church day after day he fully forgives my sins and the sins of all believers. On the last day he will raise me and all the dead and give me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.”
Metanoia is not an accomplishment. It is nothing less than the self-giving of God to human beings. By claiming this gift, taking into myself the Divine, I am made other that what I have been. This is what Paul means by “be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Romans 12:2.The human being is the eschatological horizon, the cosmic center where human and Divine embrace in a dance of redemption that is acted out nowhere else in creation. Repentance shows the Divine encountering itself, grasping its own image, setting free and sending forth a new creation. Repentance reveals itself as the ground of the new creation. On Ash Wednesday I was reminded, “dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Repentance is the gift of the Divine reclaiming me as Holy Ground. Wherever I stand, I am Holy Ground. Repentance is the Divine self-revelation as it makes itself known in the renewal of creation. This means ultimately that repentance is revelation.
Jesus says, “unless you repent you will perish.” And that must mean unless you accept the Divine offer (grace) to be the Holy Ground in which the Divine grounds itself and shines forth you are nothing but useless ground. About the Fig Tree it is said, “why should it use up ground?” Vs.7. More on this later. What repentance reveals is God-for-us in the God-with-us. Repentance as revelation says that something shines forth through us in the same way as the Burning Bush shines upon what surrounds it, and what shines forth from us is light illuminating the path ahead. Christian life is always an apostolic journey. Apostolicity is the reservoir of grace in its redemptive fullness. You don’t put your light under a bushel basket; you don’t turn back to bury your dead; you don’t put your hand on the plow and look back. In Genesis 1:3 God says, “Let there be light” and there was light. This was the Original Light that showed the creation as it was coming to be. This was the Light before all lights (Genesis 1:16). So, too, the Light illuminates the new creation as it is coming to be. Repentance blocks your access to the past as surely as does the expulsion from Eden. Genesis 3:22-24. Cherubim and swords are not persuaded by repentance. Repentance is the opening up of what is new, and what now makes its appearance is the new creation. Behold, I make all things new! Repentance is the Divine Light that falls upon us and allows us to be seen as we are. Metanoia must mean that unless you bring forth the Divine light you will not be seen, and not being seen means to live in a land of deep darkness, that is, perishing. Repentance makes the Divine presence real and abiding. What prevents perishing is Divine compassion.
Unlike the other Synoptists, Luke does not say, “repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus speaks rather of repentance for its own sake. That is why I want to believe that these stories come from a very old tradition, a tradition that still does not know of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ as the act of redemption.
The second part of the reading is also illuminating. What does the parable of the Fig Tree have to do with what I have said so far? This is a very special tree and I will not to jump to the conclusion that it is a symbol for Israel, Jerusalem or the Church. I will not allegorize this tree. Mt. 21 and Mk.11 have the story of the cursing of a fig tree. But that is not this tree. This is just your average, normal fig tree just like the useless apple and peach trees in my yard. In Lk.21:29-30 a fig tree can reveal something about the seasons. In 6:43-45 the fig tree is productive. Our fig tree is special in its very own way.
Luke does not seem to know about the cursing of a fig tree. In our fig tree story the owner “came seeking fruit on it and found none.” What is at issue here is the fertility of the tree, its fecundity. A fig tree, any fruit tree, is recurringly generative. It reveals a cycle of life and death, of living and dying. (I would have liked to pursue an analysis of this in light of Lutheran philologist Nietzsche’s the eternal return of the same and the will to power in their synthesis of hope directing human existence, but that is for another day). The productivity of the tree is inexhaustible. Its fertility is demonstrated by its capacity to produce fruit. When the owner discovers that the fertility of his fig tree is defective, he says, “cut it down!” Let it perish! He has this in common with Pilate and the Siloam tower: let it perish. Whatever does not actualize its being does not deserve to live. Let it perish.
But the fig tree will not perish. Unlike the listeners of Jesus the fig tree cannot be called upon to repent to avoid perishing. The tree can do absolutely nothing to save itself. It is completely dependent upon the gardener and upon where it is planted. (Psalm 1:3). However, the fig tree which is defective as regards its fertility and fecundity still retains its power to reveal something about the Divine. It will reveal the compassion of the Divine especially for the one who has absolutely nothing to give. One remembers the Beatitudes: the poor in spirit; those who mourn; the meek; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; and all others in need of God’s grace. Instead of cutting it down, the owner extends its life for another period of time, that is, he gives it a future.
The tree is a means of enlightenment in our Christian tradition. We have taken from it the knowledge of good and evil. “And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Genesis 2:9. Humanity was expelled for eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thereby becoming as divine. But the expulsion was not a punishment; it was a prohibition, “lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.” Genesis 3:22. Humanity was denied access to eternal life! (See John 3:16). That is what the cherubim and the sword protect. Life is now lived beyond the seventh day. We have moved from myth to history. And having been given a future, the human being is now the point of conjunction for history and eschatology.
Whether the Tower of Babel, Jacob’s Ladder or the Cross of Christ, verticality defines access to the Divine. The verticality of the tree stands always as a reminder of the promise of access. The tree that seasonally renews itself proclaims resurrection and newness of life. As such the tree always stands before us and ahead of us as a Divine promise. The Cross of Christ does not, and will never, exist in an historical past. It stands always here and now. It stands wherever there is sin and shame, guilt and hate. It stands wherever there is hunger and hurt, pain and suffering. It stands wherever the poor are despised and mercy is denied. It stands with the homeless and the hopeless. It stands wherever a human soul is distressed and a human spirit dashed. It stands wherever justice is ashamed of itself, and righteousness a scandal of conscience. The Cross of Christ stands wherever a child does not have a book and an adult does not have a job. It stands wherever a girl is bullied and a woman is battered. It stands in the midst of boys yearning to be men but dying as children. It stands where leaders cannot even be shamed into action and followers cannot be convinced by grace. The Cross of Christ stands as the promise of the Divine that faith, hope and charity will not forever suffer at the hands of idolatry and avarice.
This is what the fig tree must reveal to us. This is its real fertility and fecundity. To cut down the fig tree is to deny it a future. It will forever be dead, forever without hope. The Divine which has already denied us access to the past will not deny us access to the future. The gardener does not cut down the fig tree. It is allowed to live. And for us that means that access to eternal life is not back to Eden, but forward to the Kingdom of God. This is an act of Divine compassion.
The fig tree is given another opportunity. This is a sign of hope.
(My reflections on hope below are woefully incomplete).
Why is it that “hope that is seen is not hope”? It is said that hope lies at the very bottom of Pandora’s Box, the Box being the totality of human existence. My own understanding is that hope is the foundation of everything in Pandora’s Box. Hope is the foundation of everything human. Without hope nothing comes to be. Without hope there is no “world.” Only to the extent that hope remains undisclosed can it be called hope. If humanity creates its world then hope must lie within humanity; it must be something without which the human will never attain its human-ness. Hope is an existential mode of being that defines and shapes what is human. Hope exists always alongside blood and mind, bones and intellect. Hope is born simultaneously with the human being. It cannot be a later addition or accumulation for then it would somehow exist outside of and apart from the human being. Blood and bones are visible, mind and intellect are not. Is hope of the same being as mind and intellect? Hope lies within the human being. It cannot be seen. It cannot be located in any particular place. It must be pervasive with the dimensions of the human being.
Hope is undisclosed and pervasive. It is the foundation of all that is undisclosed and pervasive. This indicates that the essential being of hope is presence. I hope because I am here. Hope is always here; it is always now. Hope is time announcing the arrival of the human. The human being is time disclosing itself as creation and dissolution; that which comes to be, temporalizes itself, and ceases to be. Hope cannot attach itself to what is external to it. Everything that is external to it is temporal and ceases to be. Because the human being is time actualizing itself the human being is historical. As historical the human being transcends the now and lays claim to a “then.” Consequently, the human being is oriented toward the future. Hope is therefore the foundation on which the future is created. “Hoping-for” is the inner meaning of transcendence. “Hoping-for” transports me into that which is not yet present. It brings the future into the “now” so I can grasp it. “Hoping-for” is the homecoming of the future. With its arrival the human being is delivered from the terror of the present, i.e., anxiety in the face of death, what Kierkegaard calls “fear and trembling, the sickness unto death.”
What access do I have to this hope? Because hope is undisclosed I cannot know it unless it makes itself known to me. Hope must reveal itself for it to be known. It must let me know that it is there and it must indicate the manner in which I can grasp it. Hope unveils itself in narrative. It alone can tell its story. Hope only and always is a narrative that announces the human being, tells its story and thereby opens up a future that will always be undisclosed until upon its arrival it reveals my destiny as that which holds me in my beginning that is eternally present. I have never ceased being born. (I think that is the theme of all of Octavio Paz’s poetry. Sunstone ends where it begins! Also important: Return and A Tree Within).
When Jesus makes an intervention into the lives of his listeners, warning them to repent lest they perish, he is making the same intervention as the gardener. Jesus and the gardener have intervened to allow life to go on, to flourish for another season. This is an act of the compassion of the Divine.
Luke 13:1-9 reveals that the Divine shows compassion for both humans and nature. The Divine has compassion for the whole creation, which is none other than the New Creation.