1There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2And he answered them, Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?
Political intrigue. National upheaval and mourning. The news had spread like an angry wildfire. Pilate, the procurator of Judea, had punished subjects of Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee. A heathen governor had polluted the Temple of God with human blood. Because the news was in the hearts and on the lips of everyone, there were some who use it to ask Jesus the biggest of questions in the face of tragedy. Why?
The questioners implied that so sudden a death in the midst of so sacred a place must be regarded as a special proof of the wrath of God upon those so slain. People often mistakenly attach supposed special punishments for particular sins. Human nature is quick to attach special punishment of God to exceptional suffering. But that begs us to ask the same question … why? Why is this so often our first thought? Do we really judge that God takes pleasure or satisfaction in punishing people?
So Jesus corrects this notion. 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. The “no!” is very strong. All instances of suffering should cause us to repent rather than sit in judgment. God wants man’s reaction to be repentance, not judgment. As we heard in the Epistle reading: 10:6Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 7Do not be idolaters as some of them were. And again, 12Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.
The slain Galileans were no sinners in any extraordinary measure, above all other Galileans, since they had suffered these things. To make the point Jesus cites a second current incident but it differs in this that the agent was not a human being but God Himself who permitted it to happen. 4Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?
Whether it is recalcitrant sinners who provoked the authorities, or mere sin-debters who had not lived the good life, had not dutifully given unto God all that rightly belongs to Him still it was wrong to suppose that these were guilty above all the people that lived at Jerusalem at the time or among us here today. 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Very emphatically Jesus says, in either case: Not at all! I tell you, all the Jews, and also you hearers, are equally guilty, and a like fate might befall any man woman or child at any time. So unless we repent, we all might perish and be destroyed in the same way.
The Lord here gives a rule according to which we may judge and measure the misfortunes and sufferings of others. The suffering of the world is the result of sin. In the case of the unbelievers the suffering is nothing but punishment, with a view – with the hope, however, of leading them to repentance. In the case of believers, suffering of every kind is chastisement at the hands of the Father, who punishes in time that we may be spared in eternity. God doesn’t punish His beloved children, but at times He will give them over to the consequences of their sins as a valuable teaching opportunity. Sometimes bad things happen even to His beloved children so they can serve as a witness to repentance and faith in the time of tragedy. Serve as examples to the unbelievers around them of how to face the inevitable hardships of this sin-broken life.
But then even that is not always for us to know. Simply to face what come in repentance and faith. And above all, one thing must never be done, and that is to argue from the severity of the suffering, drawing conclusions as to the greatness of the guilt. As God Himself tells us in the Old Testament reading: 33:11Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?
This Diving patience and long-suffering is exemplified in the parable Jesus goes on to tell the questioning news-hounds in our text: 6A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7And he said to the vinedresser, Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground? 8And he answered him, Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.
The unfruitful fig-tree is the Jewish people. During the entire time of the Old Testament the Lord had vainly looked for fruit commensurate with the amount of labour and the cost which He had put into the vineyard of His Church. Israel had received such a rich measure of grace, but had not reacted in kind.
The fourth year, for which the love of the vinedresser, Jesus, pleaded, was the time of mercy which had dawned with the ministry of John, had burst into full brightness with the preaching of Jesus, and would continue thus during the ministry of the apostles. Here the vinedresser wanted to dig about and fertilize the fig-tree with the evidences of His most searching love, of His holiest zeal, and finally, through His servants, by the preaching of His suffering and death, of His resurrection and sitting at the right hand of Power. Unless you repent you too will perish! But in repentance there is abundant fruit and never-ending blessing.
It may as well be our story too. The Temple, the tower, the vineyard – there is a lesson here for all times, for God deals with all men in a similar way. His justice is tempered with patience; He waits long before He condemns. Indeed, He will wait our entire life-time in His mercy. Further, the mercy and love on the part of Jesus succeeds often in extending the time of grace for a people. Giving them more time and more opportunities to take stock and repent. Second chances – and thirds – every single day of this sin-filled life.
But finally the most loving patience must come to an end and justice be carried out. Indeed, it already was carried out on the cross for all mankind. But because of that there are only two alternative possibilities. Either repentance will take place and cling to that long-suffering Saviour crucified, died, and resurrected for our forgiveness … or it will not. This is the promise and the warning of Lent.