Jesus acknowledges the fragility of life and explains the need to believe now. The parable seems to refer to 3 years of his ministry and the need for the nation of Israel to believe.
Jesus acknowledges the fragility of life and explains the need to believe now. The parable seems to refer to 3 years of his ministry and the need for the nation of Israel to believe.
Welcome to Series 8 and Episode 17 and our theme is the 'Urgency of Deciding to Believe in Jesus'. Our text is Luke 13: 1 - 9.
Introduction and Recap
Those of you who've been following the episodes in Series 8, will know that we started in John's Gospel, looking at a few incidents in Jerusalem, and then for most of the series we have been consistently in Luke's Gospel, following the story of Jesus's life as told by Luke. He has assembled material which describes a particular phase of Jesus' ministry that obviously interested Luke, which is incredibly important for us. It's commonly assumed by many people that most of the Gospel materials just talk about Jesus' work in Galilee where he lived and worked. That's not entirely true. We do know that he spent most of his time in Galilee, probably a three-year period. We've identified three tours of Galilee that he made, taking his disciples with him and giving them increasing responsibility as time went on. We know that vast crowds came. We know some wonderful things that happened there. There is a lot of material from that period and it's very rich and wonderful that we can learn from. Luke particularly draws our attention to the fact that after Jesus left Galilee and very specifically decided the time had come in his Father's plan, that he should travel south - leave the Galilean ministry, leave the popularity there, leave all his connections there - his friendships, his family in and around Nazareth and all the people who knew him in Capernaum - his base for his ministry. When Jesus decided to leave all that, a whole new period of ministry turned up, in which he was travelling light. He wasn't sure where he was going to be staying day by day. He wasn't necessarily in friendly territory; there was an unpredictable response from the people that he was meeting in Samaria in the centre of the country, and in Judea in the south. Particularly in Samaria, we know that there were hostile responses from some villages and communities, which are actually recorded in Luke's Gospel.
The interesting thing about this period, which is one of uncertainty, one of anticipation, one of excitement, one of developments in the story, is how many different themes all come together. Luke doesn't make a huge effort to tell us exactly where Jesus is going or where he is in the country, obviously travelling around quite a lot. Luke does point out that 72 are sent out all around the country in pairs to preach the message, to spread the news about the Kingdom of God coming through Jesus. It's a very exciting, dynamic and uncertain time. What we do know is, there were still very large crowds following Jesus. We also know that opposition was rising and we studied that in Luke's account in chapters 11 and 12, in the previous episodes. You'll have noticed, if you have followed through, that opposition is rising; it's getting more intense and I think the feeling of insecurity amongst the religious authorities - the Pharisees and Teachers of the Haw, members of the Sanhedrin, the priestly class, even the High Priest himself - that there's a sense in which their territory is being invaded because as Jesus comes south, with a large crowd of people and all his disciples with him, they might have the feeling that he's moving towards a confrontation with them in their headquarters in Jerusalem. That is, in fact, exactly what Jesus intended, so the energy of his opponents rises up to try and resist him, try and refute him, try and contradict him, try and draw the crowds away from him. It is a very interesting time.
Luke uses all sorts of different material. We've seen quite a number of parables already and there's more to come - some of which are unique to Luke's Gospel - a very rich source of understanding and knowledge for us but there's also a lot of teaching about discipleship and that's been the main theme of chapter 12. As we come to our short and fascinating passage today, I want to remind us, or re-orientate us, towards some of the highlights of Jesus teaching in Luke 12, and hopefully many of you will have followed this through by going through the early episodes. But if you haven't, or if you've forgotten some of the details, I'd love to remind you.
In the first passage of Luke 12: 1 - 12, Jesus strongly encourages his followers to be absolutely true to their calling, to be willing to identify themselves as Christians; to be willing to face persecution and opposition, even the possibility of physical suffering and death, with the incredible benefit that God will bless them in eternity out of all proportion to any possible suffering they may have in this life. He then goes on through the parable of the rich fool and the subsequent teaching, to warn people that materialism should never get hold of their heart, and should never get hold of their inner motivation. They shouldn't be driven by the need for security, money, power and prestige, like the farmer who built his extra large barns because he had such a huge harvest and surely didn't need to work any more; he could just relax - then he suddenly died.
As we continue, the two further parables in the middle of the chapter start talking about Jesus' Second Coming more explicitly. For example in Luke 12: 40, ‘You also must be ready because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him’. Jesus brings in the theme of the Second Coming. He's helping people to realise that they live in between two critical events - the first coming of Jesus and his return in glory later on, exactly as you and I live right now. We're in between two events and we need to orientate our lives towards both. We need to absorb the implications of the first coming - the salvation that's offered to us, and then we need to prepare for the Second Coming where we will be held to account for the life that we have lived. That's a major theme of the central section of chapter 12.
Jesus ends that chapter with some statements and teaching which we looked at in the last episode, including the well-known statement, ‘Do you think I've come to bring peace on earth, no I tell you but division’ - Luke 12: 51 - warning people that there's no neutrality; there is a division and even families will be divided, something that some people find unthinkable because family solidarity around religion is part of the cultures of many nations in the world. Jesus has said that the Kingdom will actually subvert that - some will follow him and some won't and we have to live with the consequences of that. That's a very profound teaching; it's based on the idea that he is building a family of believers. The family of God is the body of Christ, the temple of God, the household of God, to use Paul's expression in 1 Timothy 3, which is far greater than human kinship, human family and human community. He's calling us to join that family at whatever the cost. He uses the analogy of forecasting the weather which is relatively easy to do in Israel. He said that if you can forecast the weather by looking at the clouds and wind and other signs, then why can't you understand the signs of the times which tell you that I am the Messiah and this is my time and you need to believe in me.
These are some of the themes of the preceding passage in Luke 12. We continue and what's been shared and taught in Luke 12 is relevant to what we gain in this new section. It starts in a very different way. A group of people, as they're travelling along, told the story to Jesus about something very terrible that had happened recently in the city of Jerusalem. This provoked Jesus to bring another very important teaching around the importance of believing in him and following him wholeheartedly. Let's read the first five verses. We'll deal with this passage in two sections Luke 13: 1 - 5
‘Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4Or 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? 5I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”Luke 13:1-5, NIV
We need some contextual understanding to really understand what's going on here. People are talking to Jesus and they're referring to an incident which is not recorded in the New Testament and is not recorded specifically in any other historical document but we can easily understand what this incident is, and it fits very closely together with other historical information we've got. They're talking about some pilgrims from Galilee who have gone to Jerusalem for a religious feast, a bit like Jesus had done on a number of occasions, as for example recorded in the passages in John we looked at the beginning of series 8, described in John 7 through to John 10. We know that Jews visited the three main feasts of the year particularly and at other times. The three main feasts - Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles could last about a week; we know that pilgrims who come from all over the nation of Israel would converge on Jerusalem to celebrate these particular religious festivals and to go to the Temple to make sacrifices. We also know that Jewish people from other nations would also come to Israel. They travelled long distances from many different parts of the Roman Empire, particularly the eastern Mediterranean and also from countries to the east of Israel and the north. They would come and participate with other Jews in these main ceremonies. We know that and we found out a little about that in some of the narrative already. That's a foundational fact.
Galileans living in the northern part of the country had the longest journey to make in all of Israel and Jesus would have made this journey as a pilgrim many times on occasion in his short public ministry - we know of a few occasions - but we can assume that he would have done this as a youngster, a teenager and a young adult and we've actually seen example of him going up to Jerusalem with Joseph and Mary in his adolescent years, as described in Luke 2. We can get the picture of Jerusalem being crowded with pilgrims and they are involved in a number of religious ceremonies which vary from feast to feast and they're also involved in making sacrifices in the Temple, sacrifices of animals, of birds, or of some other type of sacrifices occasionally, according to the regulations of the Law of Moses as understood at the time.
That's the context, but here we have Pontius Pilate introduced into the story. Many of you will be familiar with Pontius Pilate - he becomes a major character at the end of Jesus' life but here he's introduced very casually into the story. The province of Judea, as opposed to Galilee in the north, was ruled at this time directly by a Roman governor. Where Jesus was living, Galilee, was not ruled directly by the Romans; it was ruled indirectly through a king or a ruler called Herod Antipas, one of the sons of King Herod the Great. He ruled on behalf of the Romans; he had to do quite a few things on their behalf, particularly collecting taxation and keeping the peace. In Judea, where Jerusalem is, there was no local ruler. The ruler was the Roman governor, or Roman procurator. At this time, he was a man called Pontius Pilate. He was a Roman and was appointed directly by the authorities in Rome with the approval of the Emperor. He had responsibility for the province. The Romans were very unpopular in general amongst the Jewish people - lots of tensions and difficulties. They were also very powerful in military terms; they had a tremendously successful army and had troops stationed in all their different provinces around the Mediterranean where they ruled. Pontius Pilate had at his disposal a significant number of soldiers. He didn't live in Jerusalem, although it was the centre of Judea in terms of the Jews. The Romans based their administration, their army and their governorship in a town by the sea called Caesarea Maritima - Caesarea for short - which was built a short time before these events. That's where Pilate had his palace and his headquarters and that's where he liked to be. It was a very Roman town, built in the Roman style with relatively few Jews even living in the town. Every time there was a religious festival - especially the three main festivals in the year - it appears that Pilate would travel to Jerusalem with a considerably large armed escort and would take up residence in Jerusalem for a short period of time, in a fortress right in the city, near the Temple. The reason he did this was to keep control of the general public, keep order and prevent any uprisings or any actions against the Roman authorities by the discontented Jews. It was a heavy-handed military presence there.
Knowing all that, the incident described here makes a lot of sense. Jesus was told about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Pilate had found some Galileans guilty of a crime against the Romans - unspecified, probably some violent crime, or some rebellion of some sort, or maybe an assassination, or something like that. He had executed them. If the Romans executed people, they crucified them on crosses in public - in exactly the same way that they were to crucify Jesus a short time after this event. As these Galileans were making animal sacrifices in the Temple, their blood was also being shed - they'd shed the blood of animals and now they lost their lives. That's the context and people were questioning Jesus about this. This was a commonplace incident and Jesus would have known this sort of thing happening. There's an underlying question here, which Jesus is seeking to answer - when events happen like this, how are we to understand the responsibility of the individuals particularly when it's very likely that they precipitated this action on behalf of the Romans? Something they did provoked the Romans. It's interesting that in this passage, as Jesus teaches, he compares this incident with another incident at the time which again we don't have any record of elsewhere in any literature or elsewhere in the Gospels, which is the falling down of a tower - an accident when a tower fell down and killed 18 people. This would have been a well-known incident at the time, so this was a case of accidental death. We have an interesting contrast here. We have some people who died because they'd done something wrong. That's the implication of the Galileans who Pilate punished. Then we have 18 people who presumably were walking along the street nearby a tower, or living in a nearby house, and then a tower comes crashing down completely unexpectedly, completely by accident and they're killed. They haven't done anything wrong; they haven't been involved in this. They just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This raises an interesting question about human responsibility.
Why do people suffer? This is probably behind the question - why are people suffering? Jesus uses this particular situation to turn it into another type of discussion. He doesn't directly answer what we would describe as the problem of suffering, or the question of pain and suffering in this world. He doesn't answer it very directly. What he does do is point out that life is very fragile. You can destroy your own life; it can be destroyed by accidental circumstances; it can be destroyed by natural events or processes going on in your body that you've got no control of - life is very fragile. Jesus is not drawn into an extended philosophical discussion about the problem of suffering. There are other resources we can use in the Bible to try and put some perspective on that but what he does is to indicate that the thing to learn from tragedy, from human tragedy and unexpected loss of life, is the need right now to not wait one moment before we get a right relationship with God. Should the accident happen to us, or should we cause ourselves to be vulnerable to a premature death or suffering, then we will be saved. We will have that eternal relationship with God. I tell you, though, unless you repent you too will all perish. Jesus points out that it is better to put your trust in God, and Jesus Christ as saviour; and in God's provision, than in the security of our fragile lives because they are incredibly fragile. Many of us will have a profound sense of that fragility from our own experience. We've seen suffering and tragedy in our own families, in our own communities, in our own nations. We've seen civil war; we've seen disease; we've seen violence; we've seen unexpected accidents causing immense human suffering. This is the very nature of the world we live in. Jesus doesn't attempt here to interpret it at a philosophical level. He rather points out that the fragility should indicate to us that we need to put our security in the living God, not in our own strength.
Parable of the Fig Tree
He then goes on to tell a parable because he's going to apply all this, particularly to the nation of Israel at the time. Verse 6 -
‘6Then 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. 7So 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. 9If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”Luke 13:6-9, NIV
As always, Jesus' parables are provocative. They make you think. They've got a main point which we've got to interpret. Almost certainly in this context, the fig tree is a metaphor for the nation of Israel. So much of Jesus' teaching in the preceding couple of chapters has been about the nation of Israel and its moment of decision, which I've been emphasising in virtually every single episode. It's likely he's talking here in the form of a metaphor about the nation of Israel. and what is so interesting about this is that this particular tree is fruitless for three years - a fig tree with no fruit for three years. The man wanted to cut it down. What's the point of having a tree that's fruitless? It's like a dead tree. Let's just dig it up, get rid of it, use the space for another tree -it's a waste of space in the vineyard. That makes perfect sense, doesn't it?. I think I'd feel exactly the same as this man did.
The other person in this conversation makes an interesting point - leave it alone for one more year. The really intriguing thing about this parable is it's likely that Jesus' ministry up to this point has lasted three years - we don't know exactly. Scholars are divided on how we exactly make up the time within the Gospels. We don't have enough information to be absolutely dogmatic but it's a very intriguing thought. If for three years Jesus has been ministering, and the nation generally has been fruitless, because, despite the crowds, there isn't a real surge of discipleship and whole-hearted belief, and there is the religious leadership that's totally opposed to Jesus. It's fruitless in that sense but it's interesting that the request is to leave it for one more year, which would represent the final phase of Jesus' life and the immediate aftermath, as the final opportunity to believe in the days of the Early Church and the day of Pentecost and so on. This parable may be saying ,and I think it probably is saying, that Israel is in what we might call the last chance saloon moment, the last opportunity as a nation to take up the cause of the Messiah and believe wholeheartedly. If it fails to do so, then the nation will be brought into judgement and, like this fig tree, cut down. As I've said on a number of occasions, that's exactly what happened in 70 A.D, within the far end of one generation of the people who were alive at the time of Jesus. Some of these people here would experience the events of A.D. 70 when the Romans destroyed the city and abolished the institutions of the country - Jerusalem was gone, the Temple was destroyed and Judaism was suppressed by the Romans.
I think you'll agree, this is another challenging passage. We've had some very challenging passages all the way through Luke 12, but it continues. Some reflections - a perspective on suffering. Suffering can be caused, and often is caused, by human action - that's obvious. Much of the suffering in the world is human action which destroys yourself, or more likely destroys other people and makes them suffer, or could be caused by accidental circumstances which don't have an obvious cause and certainly not a human cause like the fall of that tower, or like natural disasters. We don't have a full explanation available to us right now about how all these things fit together and Jesus didn't take the opportunity to give a full explanation. Rather he used the fragility of human life to point to the necessity of trusting in God and he warned strongly of the danger of delay, or procrastination, or waiting to make a decision. Just as that's true for individuals, it was also true at the time for the nation of Israel that urgently needed within the next year, so to speak, to make a corporate response affirming Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. This they totally failed to do. The opposite happened as we shall find out when we study Jesus' death and we find that it's the Jewish religious leaders who initiate the process of bringing Jesus to his death. The Gospel of Jesus is always urgent and it always applies to all of us. That includes all of you who are following this episode today. I trust that you feel the force of Jesus' words and I trust you heed his advice and come to him in faith. Don't trust in the fragility of your own life. Trust in the security of his promises and his salvation and his eternal destiny which he wants to share with us. Thanks for reading.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- Is it a good thing to live as if life could suddenly end? Are there things you should put in order now?
- Life is fragile. Do you put off important decisions to do and say things? Why?
- What do you know about how the Romans ruled over the Jewish people? What was Pontius Pilate like as a ruler?