And some came at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifice.
In his answer to this reported tragedy, Jesus appears to assume that these bringers of bad news are asking a question about who is to blame for human suffering. Is suffering a sign of sin, or of some moral failing? Is there some secret due proportion between affliction and misfortune, on the one hand, and responsibility on the other? Was this suffering of the Galileans meant to balance some moral account and so restore the harmony of the universe?
Of course we know the answer to the question: the rain falls upon the just and the unjust alike; blind men are blind on account neither of their own sins nor those of their parents. The trouble is we may know the answer better than we understand the question. Why Galileans? And why Pilate? This isn’t just any story of suffering. It is either an atrocity report – it features the highest official of the Roman occupying forces in Judea and some Galileans, possibly freedom fighters of some kind who have been causing trouble in Jerusalem, or innocent men mistaken for such, – or it may be a slur against Galileans. On the one hand, Galileans don’t belong in Pilate’s jurisdiction, not if they have political motives; they belong under Herod’s administration in northern Palestine. Pilate probably had a list of Galilean radicals being kept under some rudimentary kind of surveillance. Passover must have been a nightmare. On the other hand, however, they are not held in high regard among the Judeans either and especially not if they are exporting violence to the south. For causing resentment there is nothing quite like taking on the neighbourhood bully in someone else’s backyard. They are as mistrusted and despised by the Jews of Jerusalem as an Irishman might have been in London during the troubles in Northern Ireland.
Given the various prejudices present among his listeners, it is easy to see that the report represents a minefield. Jesus is a Galilean. Will he rise up with a cry of revenge on his lips risking that those who counsel cooperation with Rome will report him to Pilate and that others will find his words an enticement to revolutionary violence? Assume, on the contrary, that he accepts the notion, not unknown then or now, that suffering is a sign of personal iniquity or turpitude; or that some Galileans are political miscreants and that none can be trusted; or, again, that a few dead Galilean peasants are not, viewed from the spiritual heights of the Jerusalem hierarchy, such a great loss, then Jesus must surely lose another part of his audience. On this account, the Galileans would have got what they deserved either as personal sinners or as political agitators or just because they were, well, not one of the ‘us’. As in most situations of political unrest where the leaders of foreign occupation forces are in competition with each other, as Herod and Pilate were, and where captive populations are riven internally with ethnic prejudice, many honest men and women found themselves faced with impossible choices requiring a wisdom they could not invent and a courage they could not imagine.
Luke thinks that this story, not told elsewhere in the gospels, is worth pondering, and it may be for the way in which its spiritual profundity matches the political exigencies.
First, then, for those of his listeners who heard this as an atrocity report, Jesus says:
Do you think that those Galileans
Worse sinners they were
Than all the other Galileans
because they suffered thus?
I tell you, No!
But unless you repent
You will all likewise perish.
No, they were not worse sinners than all the rest. But their sin or folly or stupidity has nothing to do with this conversation, nor their innocence or heroism, if that is what it was. They aren’t here and you are, Jesus says in effect. Pilate isn’t here and you are. So, yes, grant that this was an atrocity, grant that Rome, whether provoked or not, is ultimately to blame for this, nevertheless there is moral blindness also among you. Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
Jesus refuses to reinforce their moral outrage, not because he is sympathetic to Rome, but because he can see where this is leading – the destruction of Jerusalem – and because he knows that the self-righteousness of the morally justified, politically oppressed is an internal danger that must be confronted. He must later have said it with pity and foreboding. Jerusalem, O Jerusalem how often would I have gathered your children…. Your house is forsaken. Persecution breeds hatred, even among the innocent. As anger robs the brain of its oxygen supply, so political hatred destroys the vision of whole peoples and cultures, it lasts for decades, centuries even, it forgets how to forgive, it knows only what it wishes to exist no more and gives it a name, a hundred different ethnic or religious names for the one name: enemy. My enemy, the alien, the stranger, those who have killed my family or burned my village or taken all that we once possessed – I shall never forgive them and I shall never forget.
Or did you think, Jesus says, turning as I suppose to another group among his listeners, that these were merely Galileans, of no account, theologically illiterate, liturgically suspect, hardly real Jews at all whose lives were taken from them as they prayed and their house of worship desecrated; or even that they brought this terrible event on themselves, then shall I tell you the lamentable story of the eighteen people, good citizens of Jerusalem, who died when the tower collapsed on top of them? This report features neither Galileans nor Pilate and there is no political subplot. So do you suppose that they deserved to die? You may not lose much sleep when strangers die, you may think you dwell in safety, or would do if agitators did not keep tempting fate, but in fact your lives too are at risk. You want peace with Rome? You have no use for any Galilean and especially none for their rebels? You say you cannot trust them? You would report them if you could? You, the very same, are going about on your lawful occasions, and are killed by a falling tower, or your husband or child on the job site that fateful day. It isn’t only the rain that falls.
Or those eighteen upon whom the tower fell
Do you think worse debtors they were
than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?
I tell you, No!
But unless you repent
you will all likewise perish.
It is too much. We cannot think. The hope goes out of us. The news is not good and it is always confusing and those who claim to know the answers are dangerous. Situations of political turmoil create moral complexities on a scale incommensurate with normal human life. And some came at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifice. Here is all violence, confusion, contention, all given in this one statement. Here all is hopeless indeed. Who is to blame we cannot say, but unable to say it, we are paralyzed. Who understands Rome and the ways and means of empires? Who knows the solution to sectarian violence or the future of Jerusalem? I hardly know how to cope with the death-dealing accident that inexplicably happens at the end of the street, neither to unwelcome Galileans nor at the hands of Pilate, but to my own neighbours and for no reason. I don’t know at all in fact.
And so I must thank God for the parable that follows.
The vineyard is Israel, the fig tree the leaders of the nation. Unless they repent and bear the fruit of social wisdom and political prudence, then indeed all will perish and Jerusalem shall be lost and the temple destroyed. In the face of this seemingly inevitable conclusion, how do we go on living? The parable is the answer. For in the owner of the vineyard, who has carefully planted the fig tree, and in the vinedresser, who will carefully work to save it, judgment and mercy work together. Behind the chaos of human history and natural catastrophe, gunmen in the house of worship and falling towers, stands the providential order and merciful judgment of God the Father and God the Son. There is a moral order to the universe and so our attempts at rational living make sense. And there is forgiveness and so our renewed attempts also make sense.
But he answering said to him,
‘Master! Forgive it this year also
until I dig around it
and spread on manure.
And if it bears fruit in the future –’
Forgive it this year also. But it has been nine years already – three years for a fig tree to bear fruit at all, another three before the tree produces fruit that meets the standard for liturgical use, and now three years into its maturity and still nothing. Mercy and grace together are here and overflowing: mercy for its failure and the grace of time for amendment of life. Forgive it this year also.
Forgive it this year also and then we shall see what the future shall bring. The Greek text leaves that sentence unfinished, the ‘all well and good’ being supplied by the translators. It is open-ended; like history.
Does it sound odd that a tree should be forgiven? Maybe the word has a special importance for Luke. For this parable is given only in Luke and this also is only in Luke:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”.
It is the first of the seven last words from the cross.
Who is to blame? We are but we don’t know how. But because in the death of Jesus justice and mercy have been reconciled, we know that we have another year and we shall see what the future holds. Because of the cross of Christ and his resurrection from the dead, there will always be another year; another year for the good to come to fruition, for leaders to bear the political fruits of wisdom, for all who ever were or are now in the crowd that overhears this conversation to take up their repentance, this good and necessary thing that will help us clear away prejudice and resentment, personal and collective. Because of the cross of Christ, his digging around the dying roots of our common life, his life given as a restorative to our depleted moral reserves, there is “pardon and remission of all our sins, time for amendment of life, and the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit.” (Compline, The Book of Common Prayer).