Hey Jesus! Whadya think about those Galileans who got sacrificed along with their sacrifices? Bad karma, huh? They must have been rotten, miserable, sinful people! Hypocrites, I tell you! Come all the way down to Jerusalem from Galilee to do a little worshiping, and they happen to be there the day that Pilate decides to do a little sacrificing of his own! Chopped ’em right up with their own sacrifices, he did; I telly ya, they must’ve been really bad actors. You know, what goes around, comes around? God has a way of dealing with the bad people, you know what I mean? Even if he has to use someone else to do his dirty work, God’ll get it done. I’m just glad I wasn’t there that day. Mighta got confused with being a Galilean. People tell me I look like one, you know.
Wow. We’ve all heard something like that, haven’t we? We might even have said something like that, although I’ll not look for a show of hands. And the reason that we might have said something like that, is that it really does sound somewhat right and proper. In fact, it almost sounds biblical. And, there are, in fact, some places in the Bible that seem to sound an awful lot like this guy in in the crowd. Psalm 1 is a wonderful example of that . Listen to these words: “The wicked…are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” That’s good hell-fire and brimstone preaching stuff right there, and it certainly does seem an awful lot like it is saying that the wicked have got it coming, and when the wicked get it, we can say boy they had it coming and they got it, and we’ve seen it. Chopped ’em up right along with their sacrifices. Although I’m sure that Jesus would have a slightly different perspective on Psalm 1, and the astute reader of that Psalm will notice right away that there is a wonderful interplay between God’s mercy and God’s justice. I only read the second half of the Psalm, and that’s really not fair. Not to God, at least.
In our passage this morning, Jesus rejects the notion that we have any business at all in making after-the-fact judgments, because that is essentially what they are. We know nothing of these two incidents, outside of Luke’s gospel, but in the first one, it actually appears as though that no one had anything coming to them at all. This is a group of worshipers who have come down from the region of Galilee for the express purpose of worshiping and making sacrifices. They are on what we could assume is a spiritual pilgrimage. It is safe also to assume that these are faithful people intent on worshiping their God. They died, not because they were evil rotten sinners, and not because God was judging them, but because Pilate was having a bad day, and he decided that it would cheer him up a some if he slaughtered a few Jews. The evil person here is Pilate. Pilate does evil things simply because he believes that he has the authority to do so. From time to time in our own world, a mosque or a synagogue or a church suffers violence and death at the hands of a gunman, or a bomber. It happened again, just this week. What is our assessment of these kinds of situations? Surely we would not say that the bomber or the gunman was acting in obedience to God by accomplishing God’s work of judgment. Would we?
But Jesus is not about to let us get away without having to think even more deeply. Just when we think that we have done all the thinking that we need to do, Jesus makes us think some more. And so he brings up an incident of his own. And this one is far more complicated. The slaughter at the sacrifice should have been easy to fathom. Basically it boils down to faithful, worshiping believers who unintentionally stumbled into the path of an evil Roman procurator. They obviously did not have it coming to them, in spite of the initial assumption of someone in the crowd. The one who did have it coming to him, didn’t get it at all. In fact, tradition implies that Pilate eventually converted to Christianity, although there’s hardly a shred of evidence for that. We’ll have to wait and see. Think about that for a minute! It’s huge! What a strange place heaven must be!
And so there’s this tower collapse, in which 18 people are killed. Again, we know nothing about this event outside of Luke’s gospel, but it might be safe to assume that it was an accident rather than an act of terrorism. Was it under construction, or was it an old, unsafe building? We don’t know. Were the people who died faithful Jews, like those who were killed making sacrifice? We have no evidence of that, one way or the other. We just know that the tower came down, for reasons of its own, and 18 people were killed. So, did these 18 people have it coming to them like the folks making sacrifice? Was God judging them? Were they particularly evil people who needed to be taken out of this world before they could cause any more damage or trouble? Jesus has a shocking answer. He says “No” in both cases. And in his “No” is a powerful reminder that attempting to make these kind of judgments is more often than not, a completely futile endeavor. But more importantly, blaming it on God, or on God’s judgment or retribution is never appropriate.
But Jesus’ reply is even more shocking than that. We like to deflect attention away from ourselves by focusing it on others, especially in matters of sinfulness. Compared to many, many others, we are not very sinful at all. Just ask us. We can give you lists upon lists of people, far and near, who are far more sinful than we are. It is our nature to do this. It is our sinful nature to do this. But in his reply, Jesus pokes his finger right into our faces, and suddenly the attention is all on us. Jesus says, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those 18 who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them; do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Alan Dershowitz, the famous, or infamous lawyer, says that nobody wants justice. And he’s absolutely right. We may think that we want justice, but really, we do not. And that is why Jesus encourages us to repent. Jesus’ point is that if we repent, we’ll escape that which we deserve. We won’t get what we’ve got coming to us. We’ll escape justice.
And so to illustrate that truth, he tells us and his listeners a parable. You see there’s this fellow who has a vineyard. This fellow might be a good person. He might be a bad person; Jesus makes no judgment on the fellow’s moral character, other than that we learn that this is a fellow who is very interested in justice. Justice is very important to him, as it is to most people who don’t bother to really think it through. And for some reason, unknown to all of us, this fellow has decided to plant a fig tree in his vineyard. It’s figs among grapes, I think. Now to me, that is kind of odd; it seems as though the fig tree is rather out of place in a vineyard, but apparently, the idea of having a fig tree in a vineyard seemed neither odd nor out of place to the fellow who planted it. And, besides, who are we to judge? If this fellow wants a fig tree in his vineyard he can have a fig tree in his vineyard. If you want canned peas in your cupboard, you can have canned peas in your cupboard.
But for some reason, things have gone wrong. Things are not working out as the fellow had intended. The fig tree is not doing its job. It is sitting there, soaking up the sun and the soil and the rain, but it is not growing any figs; it is not producing any fruit. It has become a waste of space and resources. And being a fellow who is committed to justice, he cannot abide this waste of space and resources, and so he tells the gardener to yank it. Get rid of that thing. I’m tired of looking at it. My patience is used up, my mercy is gone. I’m done with it. Feed it to the fire. It is time for it to perish. Three unfruitful years is evidence enough that nothing good is ever going to come of it.
And this is evidence enough that none of us really wants justice. We don’t want Pilate showing up at our church services, and we don’t want the foundations of life that we’ve built, crumbling beneath our feet. We don’t want to be accused of being a waste of space and resources.
But the gardener can see something that the vineyard owner cannot. The gardener can see beyond the demands that justice makes. The gardener can see potential in the wastrel. And not only can the gardener see potential in the wastrel, the gardener also has a plan. Apparently, the gardener is quite attached to this out of place fig tree. And so the gardener is going to try to wake it up some. The gardener is going to nurture this waste of wood and leaves and soil and sun and rain, and he’s going to care for it, and feed it, and encourage it to produce the fruit for which it was created. He’s going to love it. But he is not unaware of the vineyard owner’s commitment to justice. He is not unaware that the vineyard owner has already pronounced judgment on it and already sentenced it to perish. And knowing this, the gardener petitions for just one more year; one more growing cycle. Let me see what I can do. Let’s see if mercy can have its way. If mercy prevails, all well and good. Wonderful. But if the fig tree resists even the tender and loving care of the gardener, then down it comes, and justice is served. There is always a blessed tension between God’s commitment to justice and his dedication to extending mercy. God’s justice and God’s mercy are always in serious conversation with one another, as the parable so profoundly illustrates.
When we repent, and lay hold of God’s mercy, we will receive justice. It won’t be the kind of justice that comes because of unforgiven sin, it won’t be the justice that we deserve, or that we have coming to us. It will be, instead, the justice that comes because of God’s grace and mercy. That justice is eternal life.