Luke 13:1-9 “Fig Newtons”
Have you ever worshipped in a really dangerous place? Perhaps this was a place you might have wanted to avoid all together? In 1991 a Thai general by the name of Suchinda Kraprayoon held a successful coup to displace the democratically elected prime minister, Chatichai Choonhawaan. We were missionaries living in Chiang Mai, Thailand at the time. So, protests against the military government ensued. There were people shot and/or made to simply disappear. The military government then, as it is always the case, blamed “foreigners” for the civil unrest.
Helen and I would worship in the morning at the Chiang Mai Christian Church. A police vehicle was then always present just outside. Christianity has always been seen as a foreigner’s religion in the country. In the evening we worshipped at an international worship service held at the Christian Payap University. This was an English service. At the worship service, we noted actual military guards with submachine guns were watching everyone from just outside. They claimed that they were there for our protection.
Well, I dare say worshipping while staring down the barrel of a gun is a very different experience. We continued to attend despite the military’s threat. Soon, however, we noticed that many were staying away from the evening church service all together. In fact, people were not going out much anywhere anymore.
I guess we were young and crazy back then, but we kind of enjoyed going out as foreigners in those days. We could always get our favorite table at the restaurant we liked. We always have to look at the bright side, right?
In our scripture for this morning, we hear of an occurrence that took place in the Temple of Jerusalem. Some Galileans, same as Jesus, were there about to make a blood offering. They were perhaps offering a lamb. We are not sure why, but Pontius Pilate, the Roman prelate of Palestine, decided to kill these certain worshippers. Once they were killed, he even took their blood and used it as the sacrifice in the Temple.
This is for the most part unheard of cruelty. Pilate was not even a Jew. He was a Roman. He should not have even been in the Temple. Something brought him there that day. Maybe he expected an uprising. I am not sure. But to note, the fact that his victims were from Galilee is significant in that Jerusalem of Judea looked down upon its northern neighbors. Pilate was using this inbred hatred of Galilee to his advantage. He wanted to make sure the Jews were divided upon one another. Oppressors, such as the Romans of the day, know how to sow discord to keep opponents weak and disorganized. We see this still today. Dictators have not changed their tactics.
Consider now the context in which the original hearers of Luke’s Gospel find themselves. You will recall that last week we read the text right before this one in which Jesus says that he is come to bring “fire to the earth.” We as Christians today understand this metaphor in terms of spiritual baptism and the coming of Christ in the End Times. But, if you were a dictator in the days of the start of the Christian movement, what would you do with the statement that “Jesus starts fires”?
In the year 64 A.D. Emperor Nero of Rome burned his own capital to the ground, killing thousands in the process. History records the cause of this event to be Nero’s desire to rebuild Rome to his liking. Let us call this “forced urban renewal.” Despite the fact that we know today that it was Nero himself that caused this conflagration, in that time, the Christians were blamed for the burning of Rome. It became open hunting season on Christians after that. If anyone questioned why one should hate the Christian movement, all they would have to do is say, “Those followers of Christ burned Rome to the ground.” Not true, but that did not matter.
Jesus asks the question: “Do you think these Galileans were killed because they deserved to be? Because they were sinners?” The crowd at that time would understand this to be a rhetorical question. They knew that those Galileans were killed simply because they were Galileans whose deaths were ordered by an unjust dictator. That is all.
When Helen and I were facing down soldiers in Chiang Mai in order to worship in church, that was because we had proven ourselves to be awful sinners, right? Not at all! It was because we were being collectively judged—unjustly—by folks with an obvious political motive. So it was with the early Christians who were receiving the gospel from Saint Luke.
Jesus makes this even clearer with his mention of another news story of the day. A tower at Siloam had a structural collapse and many were killed. Remember that Jesus had been there healing people. Jesus famously heals a blind man, blind from birth, which we can read about in John 9. This gets Jesus in trouble with the Pharisees, who then officially cast Jesus out. Later a tower falls at Siloam, and apparently Jesus is being blamed somehow for this. Crazy, no?
If you have been watching the news this last week, you will have heard about the European Union’s struggling with refugees coming up from Africa and the Middle East. Italy’s new government has said that it will accept no more refugees. You know that tower in Pisa that leans to one side? The Leaning Tower of Pisa? That must be the refugees’ fault! That is how ridiculous the idea is that Jesus, the Son of God, would have anything to do with the collapse of the tower at Siloam, or that Christians burned Rome, or anything else that is ascribed to Jesus out of Satan’s mouth!
Jesus turns this whole sordid argument around by asking the question, “Well, were those who were killed at the Temple by Pilate and those who perished at Siloam repented before God?” Indeed, the fact that they died is immaterial in a way. Death chases us all. Most certainly we will all die. It may come in an unforeseen accident. It may come swiftly at the hands of an unfair judge or dictator. Knowing this, the real question becomes “Are you ready to meet God?” “Is your heart right with your redeemer?”
Everyone please open your Bibles to Psalm 51. This is a song of repentance. At least a quarter of the Psalms in the Bible are about repentance. It used to be a very common theme in the singing during worship. That is what the Psalms are; they are ancient worship songs. I bring this up because when we look through our own hymnal for hymns of repentance, they are hard to find! Modern praise movement is moving back towards more focus on repentance, thankfully.
Psalm 51:6-9 “Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being. Therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Fill me with joy and gladness; let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice. Hide my face from my sins, and blot out my iniquities.”
Okay, what about the fig tree that Jesus mentions in his parable in our text for this morning? That fig tree is not producing now for three years. Three years just so happens to be the length of Jesus’ earthly ministry. What does that mean. Jesus has been preaching and proclaiming the coming Kingdom of God for three years, yet people are still not repenting before God!
Repentance is the fruit of ministry. Yes, repentance literally means to turns one’s life around towards God. The church brings people to God. We collect the “harvest” for God. In Matthew 9:38 we read Jesus saying: “Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Are we laboring to bring this fruit to God? Are we laboring now that people will repent before Jesus? I will tell you that this Thursday at the West Kauai Ministers’ Association prayer meeting I heard my colleagues affirming that they have been busy “planting seeds,” but that not a lot of fruit has been collected. What is going on? Jesus in his own time in ministry seems to be saying the same thing when in the parable he suggests that maybe the tree needs to be chopped down because it is not bearing fruit. The gardener then suggests throwing more fertilizer on the tree.
I will be honest with you: sometimes in the ministry there is so much manure but still no fruit. To be sure, the tree needs to be fed. The fig tree will not blossom without nutrients. However, the fruit will not come unless the fig wasp touches the blossom and pollinates the tree. Not only is it necessary to have fertilizer, you also have to hear the buzz around the tree. The church has to be heard! God’s word has to be announced. People have to be actually called to repentance! Hear this message. Repent! Get right with God today.
When I first got to Waimea, I went to the Big Save store to buy Fig Newtons. Do you know what? They did not carry them. Well, I made a noise. I went to the manager and asked if it were possible to stock Fig Newtons in Waimea. Why could we not have the fruit of the fig tree in our market? I was asked then if they were to stock Fig Newtons if I would buy them. I said that I would. About six weeks later I saw the manager again and she showed me that they now stocked Fig Newtons. They were right there on the shelf--$8.99 a package. I was used to paying $2.69 on the mainland. I did not buy them. But then, I noticed the price drop as the expiration date came closer. They eventually came down to $3.99, and I bought them (now saving $5).
Yes, things are harder here on this island. Things are more costly. You sometimes have to make buzz. Still, we have to get the fruit for the harvest--otherwise God will not find Fig Newtons on the shelf! What if God comes for the harvest and so few have repented?