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What matters to Jesus is not what you were, but what you become.
There were present at that season some who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. Jesus answered and said to them, "Do you suppose these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things?
"I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?
"I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, 'Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?'
"But he answered and said to him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.'"
Luke 13:1-9 NKJV, condensed
Fruits of Repentance
The teachings of Jesus can feel heavy as time after time we hear the gravity of his message and witness the awesome challenges he laid at the feet of his disciples. One typically human response is to try and point the finger away from ourselves and onto something else. Enough already. Let's change the subject and put someone else in the hot seat for awhile.
So an anonymous voice in the crowd broke the silence. "Jesus, what do you think about Pilate, our noble Roman governor, butchering those Galilean Jews while they were worshipping in the Temple! Wasn't that an awful crime!"
To be struck down while offering sacrifices would have been similar to being murdered in the confessional. Or getting shot by a crazed gunman while repenting of sins during a time of silent meditation before worship. Jesus, ain't it awful when something like that happens?
Jesus saw where the conversation was headed and refused to go there. Contrary to expectations, he didn't berate Pilate and the evilness of his deed. In fact, Jesus didn't condemn anyone, or offer any explanation for why these things happen. He just asked, "Do you suppose those dead Galileans were worse sinners than other Galileans?"
Without waiting for a reply, Jesus answered his own question. "No, they weren't. But unless you repent and change the way you think and behave, you will all likewise perish." So much for trying to change and re-direct the subject.
When the people of Judea to the south talked about the Galileans from the northern territories, it was like living in Pennsylvania and talking about those folks in far off Maine. So Jesus brought the topic of conversation right into their own neighborhood with another illustration. What about the eighteen people who were crushed when a tower fell on them in our capital city of Jerusalem! Were the casualties of that misfortune more sinful than all other people in Jerusalem? Again the answer was no, and unless we repent, turn away from our sins and set our face toward God, we will all likewise perish.
Yes, life is fragile; danger is everywhere. Anyone can get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, or make a critical mistake. Catastrophes, whether precipitated by human error, sin, or natural causes, are not the arbitrary acts of a punishing God. If they were a matter of sinfulness, we would all be dead. The surprise is not how many people die in such instances, but that so many more live to see another day. Whenever a disaster strikes, Jesus said, think of your own survival as God giving you another chance to be the person God intended you to be.
Consider this decision-making process in the orchard. There's a tree which does not bear fruit, and the owner wants to cut it down. He reasons, "Why waste space, labor and resources on an unprofitable tree?" Thankfully, there's a merciful, full-of-hope caretaker on the premises who thinks the tree might benefit from more time. He is willing to give the fruitless tree some extra attention, dig around it a bit and be generous with the manure. Who knows, by this time next year things may look better. We might yet coax a harvest from this specimen. And if not, yes, give it the axe.
Jesus' refrain fits this parable, too. "You will all likewise perish, unless you repent and bear fruit worthy of a child of God!" Although it's tempting to stop and discuss why bad things happen, that's not the direction Jesus was going. We cannot get off the hook by pointing our fingers at someone else or wringing our hands in despair. It's not about the sins of the other guy, or even our own past sins. It's about our lack of fruit, and what we need to start doing.
The repentance which Jesus demanded was more than once and done contrition, more than remorse and wallowing in the misery of a guilty conscience. It's the joyful act of accepting by faith the forgiveness and new life of God. When we make that one hundred eighty degree turn, the important thing is not what we used to be, but what we still can be in Jesus. We become a new creation--a tree that bears fruit as well as pretty leaves.
We have an example of the "fruit of repentance" in this passage. We can be for others what the caretaker was to the unproductive tree. Merciful, hopeful, patient and diligent, he interceded on behalf of the failing tree and labored to transform death into life, worthlessness into usefulness, barrenness into full productivity. Today is the season of grace. God's mercies are fresh and new every morning. And we are to like our Father in heaven.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: What tragedy would you like to ask Jesus about?
When you are concerned about the news of the day, what do you do and with whom do you share your concerns? How do you make sense out of things which make no sense?
Have you ever survived something which could have killed you?What is the closest you ever came to dying? Describe your survival experience and how it has impacted your life.
In the case of the slaughtered Galileans, we could blame Pilate. But who was to blame for the crumbling tower which killed eighteen people! Compare and contrast these two different tragedies. Do either of these incidents remind you of stories in the news today?Jesus had the perfect opportunity in this text to explain to us why bad things happen to innocent victims, but he didn't do it. I wonder why?
Jesus didn't comment on either catastrophe. Instead he emphasized repentance. What does the word "repent" mean to you? Name some things which good people need to confess. Which is more important--what you stop doing or what you start doing? What are some fruits of your repentance?Could tragedy possibly be a wake-up call from God? Explain your answer.
Calamities are not God's way of passing judgment on sinners, neither are they a time for us to condemn or criticize the victims. Why is finger-pointing inappropriate in devastating situations?Jesus offered a more helpful alternative. Each time you are still alive after a tragedy occurs, think of it as God giving you another chance to repent and live a "fruitful" life. Do you respond positively to this teaching of Jesus? Will you do what Jesus said? How could this message change the way you live?
Discuss the words, attitude and role of the "keeper of the vineyard." Why do you like or dislike this caretaker? Does the caretaker represent anyone in particular? How do you fulfill the role of caretaker to people in "your orchard"?
In what ways has God been digging around your roots and adding fertilizer? If your life were an apple in God's hand, describe the appearance of that apple.