At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way 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 eighteen 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 just as they did.’
Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’ (NRSV)
There is something confronting about violent and unexpected death. It raises questions of justice. It raises questions of life and security. If you believe in an all-powerful being it also raises significant questions about God.
Those recounting these horror stories seem to be asking the age-old question raised by the randomness of these, and similar, events: Why?
They wonder if these apparently meaningless deaths are actually loaded with meaning: Do they reflect on the character of the people concerned? Was this an act of divine judgment? Surely these citizens of Israel must have been worse than that of the rest of us.
Jesus repeated reply is an emphatic: ‘No, I tell you’. There was nothing uniquely evil about these people.
But Jesus still sees parallels between these victims and those before him. Each account of disaster and its accompanying query causes Jesus to issue his own warning: ‘…but unless you repent, you will perish as they did.’ They too are in danger.
Jesus’ parable continues the exchange. It too is about repentance and judgment – but also argues for an extended period of grace.
The landowner’s call regarding his fruitless tree seems harsh: ‘Cut it down!’ He sees no future and is disappointed to – again – find no olives.
But the one charged with this tree’s care argues for more time and resources. Only then should a decision be both made and carried out by the owner. As the gardener says: ‘…you can cut it down.’
It is a challenging story – and not only because of the subject matter: Who does this vineyard owner represent? Who is this gardener?
The most natural interpretation would, I suggest, have God as the landowner and Jesus as the gardener. But then we have an unresolved argument within the Godhead with one having run out of patience and the other asking for more. It sits awkwardly.
But arguing with God is not without precedent.
Jacob was re-named Israel – meaning ‘strives or wrestles with God’ – after his all-night fight with the one who dislodged his hip. It became this nation’s name – a badge of honour. And then there is the New Testament naming of Jesus as the ‘mediator between God and man’ (1 timothy 2:5. See also Hebrews 9:15 and 12:24). What is a mediator except one who argues a case between two parties?
Could this courageous display be Jesus simply doing what God hoped Israel would do – be a mediator fearlessly arguing – even wrestling – with God on behalf of grace?
I am left wanting more. There is so much untold: What happens in the end? Does the owner allow an extra year? Does he commit the needed resources? Does the requested time and care produce the long-desired fruit? Is the axe simply brought out and room made for another? We do not know.
But what we do know is that we are called to be a fruitful people of repentance who trust wholeheartedly in Jesus our heavenly advocate.