Hard Truths

(A Lection Reflection on Luke 13:1-9)

Many years ago, I heard an important truth: Do not turn a parable into an allegory. I suspect that I violated that rule in an earlier essay I wrote on the Fig Tree and the Gardener, so today I want to take a slightly different tack.

Before I start, let me confess: I have started this Reflection five times, and thrown them all away. Why? Because there are some hard truths here, some things to wrestle with. What I want to do is look at these hard things together, acknowledge them, then try to understand and apply them.

First there is the opening of the chapter. Jesus has been challenging his listeners to a life of true spirituality (Luke 12) while mixing in warnings about judgment. Those listeners felt Jesus was hitting too close to home for comfort, so they tried to change the subject by asking him what he thought about the death of some Galileans killed by Pilate.

Jesus would have none of it. First he knocked down the common rationalization “bad things happen to people because of their sin,” then he directed the spotlight back on the listeners by telling them that unless they repented, they would die just like those Galileans. To make his point even more emphatically, he moves to others killed by a freak accident, and repeats his admonition “unless you repent, you will likewise perish.”

For some of us, this is a hard Jesus that we don’t care for. “Repent or perish” — that’s the sort of fire-and-brimstone preaching we’ve been trying to get past for years. Isn’t our God a God of Love? Don’t we reject this approach?

I use a site called BlueLetterBible.org to do word studies, mainly because they have a clickable version of Strong’s concordance you can turn on and off. If we look at “perish” there, we see that it can mean “be put to death” — but can also mean “put out of the way” or “render useless” or “be lost.” Hmmm.

Even more interesting, in verse 4, Jesus describes the death of the eighteen killed by the falling tower with a word that clearly means physical death – but then uses the “perish” word again in verse 5.

So what happens if we don’t repent? What happens if we don’t turn from this world’s approach to life and living, and commit to God’s way? I think we can all agree: ultimately you die in some or many of the ways included in the meaning of “perish” or “lost.”

It is not that God kills you. It is the sin-condition of this world, of this age, of this way of approaching life, that kills you.

“If you do not turn from your current way of living and looking at life, and turn to God’s way of living and looking at life, you will eventually die in one or many ways.”

Now for the second hard thing — the fig tree. This is a parable, not an allegory, so it has a single truth: produce fruit or you will be cut down. But there’s a problem.

If you know anything about figs, you know that they typically don’t produce fruit until their fourth or fifth year. Yet, here is the owner, ready to cut down the tree because it is year three and there is no fruit.

Jesus’s listeners surely knew this. They must have wondered what kind of owner is so impatient. But Jesus has the gardener tell the owner “let me dig around the roots, and give it some fertilizer, and if it still doesn’t bear fruit, then we can cut it down.”

So, what does this mean? That God is impatient and vengeful, just waiting to cut us down if we don’t produce fruit, even before we are ready? Or is Jesus trying to make a different point?

I think Jesus is saying that at some point, we have to live lives that match our beliefs. That at some point, our actions have to match our claims. That at some point, our answer of “not yet” will no longer work.

Many commentators want to use this passage to talk about Israel, and the fig tree as a symbol of Israel, and this passage as a commentary by Jesus on the nation’s response to God. But whatever you do with that approach, I think it is also abundantly clear:

If we live lives that are oblivious to God and God’s calling and God’s way of life, then we will eventually die. And if we say we have repented, but years and years go by with existence but no fruit, we probably need to go back to the repentance piece and see why.

Still hard. Still important.

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