PassageIn the last passage, Jesus warned his listeners to be ready for the end, since we don’t know when it’s going to come. In this passage, which continues on from that one, his listeners ask him about some folks in Galilee, “whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices” (verse 1 (ESV)), which seems to be a reference to an incident in which Pilate had killed some people while they were offering their sacrifices—that is, he mingled their blood with the blood of the sacrifices they were making. Nothing is told about this incident in the Bible, other than this mention, but it seems to be an event that everyone was aware of. His listeners seem to have been looking at this incident as an extreme tragedy—and, judging by Jesus’ reaction to their question, they seem to have been further assuming that, as victims of an extreme tragedy, they must therefore have been extreme sinners. After all, if God allowed such a tragedy to have happened, then surely there must have been a reason!
Jesus, however, doesn’t let them carry on with this idea. He rhetorically asks them if they think those Galileans were worse sinners than everyone else, because they suffered in that way, and then answers his own rhetorical question: no, they weren’t—and unless his listeners repent, they will also likewise perish. He then goes further: apparently there was another tragic situation, in which a tower fell on some people in Jerusalem; Jesus asks his listeners if they think those folks were worse offenders than everyone else in Jerusalem, and again answers his own rhetorical question in the same way: no, and unless his listeners repent, they will also likewise perish (verses 2–5 (ESV)).
Jesus then tells a parable that seems, on the face of it, to be unrelated: A man with a vineyard has a fig tree planted, and waits for it to bear fruit, but it doesn’t. He finally goes to the vinedresser and gives instructions for the tree to be removed; after all, it’s been three years, and it hasn’t produced any fruit, so why should it be using up the ground? The vinedresser asks for one more year for the tree; if it bears fruit then, great, but if not, then fine, it can be cut down. (Interestingly, the parable doesn’t even have a resolution—we’re not told if the owner agrees to the vinedresser’s terms.)
ThoughtsJesus’ audience in this passage held a very common belief, which still exists today: “Bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people. There are times, sure, when bad things might happen to good people, or when bad people seem to be doing alright, but overall, ‘justice’ will come to those who deserve it.” This isn’t a thought we like to dwell on too deeply, since it’s too easy to start doubting it—there are too many counter examples to ignore!—but we really, really want to believe it, so it sort of holds on in our collective conscience. Taken to its extreme, this believe leads us to make conclusions like Jesus’ listeners do here: If something really bad happens to someone, then, ipso facto, they must be really bad people. So what’s Jesus’ response to this? “You’re right,” he says, “sort of—and not in a way that you’ll like!” It’s true, there is justice, and it’s true, people will be punished for their sins, but the problem is that we’re all guilty of sins, we all deserve that punishment. Did the folks who were murdered by Pilate, or the folks upon whom the tower fell, sin worse than everyone else? No—and Jesus’ listeners needed to prepare themselves for the same type of punishment from a righteous God. And we, thousands of years later, also need to prepare ourselves for judgement from a righteous God.
Jesus doesn’t mention it in this passage, but there is hope, however. In fact, it’s the very reason Jesus came to the world in the first place. By dying in my place, and taking upon himself the punishment that I deserve for the sins I’ve committed, Jesus has taken away my guilt. I deserve every bit as much punishment as the Galileans who were murdered by Pilate, and the folks in Jerusalem who were killed by the falling tower, and the folks Jesus was talking to in this passage. However, I won’t receive any of that punishment; Jesus already took it, on my behalf.
Of course I’m not the only one who’s received this Grace from God. Countless Christians before me have been saved, and many more will be saved after me. But God’s patience won’t go on forever; eventually, the world will come to an end, and it will be too late. That’s part of what the parable about the fig tree teaches us: God is being patient, as stated in 2 Peter 3:8–10 (ESV):
But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.Those who have heard the Gospel, but haven’t repented or believed, should not count on God’s patience lasting forever; they may lose their chance.
There is also a sense—probably the stronger sense, really—in which Jesus’ parable about the fig tree is aimed specifically at the Jews: God has been patient with Israel up to this point, but His patience won’t last forever, and He’ll open up His salvation to the Gentiles. And this is what ended up happening: Pretty much immediately after Jesus left, and Christianity started to spread, it started spreading to and through the Gentiles. It wasn’t very long—a blip in time, historically speaking—before Christianity, which had started off as an offshoot of Judaism, became its own thing, and the majority of Christians were not former Jews. However, as a modern day, saved Gentile myself, there isn’t really much of a lesson I draw from that fact—other than the idea that I should never get cocky, or take my salvation for granted.