By Herb Montgomery
“At that very time, there were some present that 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 around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”—Jesus (Luke 13.1-9)
In part 3 we are looking at the third of Jesus’ eight final prophecies concerning Jerusalem and the dual fates that lay before her, one stemming from a violent path ending in annihilation and the second stemming from nonviolent, enemy-love ending in life.
What I want you to notice right from the beginning the phrase used by Luke “At that very time…”. As we discussed in part 2, Jesus had just plead with his audience to work toward reconciling with their much-hated adversaries, the Romans, personified by Pilate, their governor.
Jesus’ audience immediately responds with our passage here by saying, “Don’t you realize what Pilate did to the Galileans?” Enemy love is rarely ever responded to initially as positive. Yet nonviolent responses rooted in enemy love are the way of life – whether they appear to be so from the outset or not.
What was the background behind this merciless slaying? The Romans very carefully monitored the congregating of any of its subservient people; especially those with subversive tendencies who might lean towards revolt. The Roman Empire (locally represented by Pilate, Herod and Caiaphas the high priest who was appointed by Rome) through endless economic exploitation (whether through tribute to Rome or the temple tax) had created an environment where the poor kept getting poorer, and the rich continued getting richer.
The exploitation of the resources from the people to maintain the luxury of Rome’s elite (which also included privileged and loyal Jews such as the Sanhedrin in Jesus’ immediate context) created an environment where desperate, and many times violent, revolt would ensue. The Galilean Jews of this latest headline certainly fit this description.
What we begin to see is a context where Jewish peasants in Galilee put their hopes in militaristic violence as the means to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression. Yet it must also be kept in mind that a deeply Jewish belief of that time was that moral uprightness, (obedience to the Torah), would ensure God’s blessing of their revolt. Faithfulness to the Law of Moses guaranteed their uprising would end in success because Yahweh would be on their side! (This was the same paradigm of the earlier Maccabean revolts saga.)
Following this logic, if there were an engagement between Rome and insurgent Jews and Rome won, the reason logically was that there must have been some “sin in the camp,” so to speak. Their failures had nothing to do with the use of violent methods which the God we see in Jesus could not bless (in their minds), but rather the level of religious obedience and purity in regards to the Torah by those who were fighting.
The details of the actual story are not clear, but it appears that the Galileans were offering sacrifices in preparation for their engagement with the Romans. According to scholars, Roman soldiers had surprised these Galilean insurgents while they were engaged in these preparatory sacrifices. The soldiers slaughtered the men right then and there.
The explanation offered by the religio-political party of the Pharisees would have been, based on Deuteronomy 28, “If we obey God will bless us, if we disobey God will curse our efforts.” When there was failure in revolting against Roman oppression, the reason was because those revolting must have been “sinners.” Thus Jesus’ response:
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”
Jesus then goes on to say:
"No, I tell you; but unless you repent [i.e. turn from this path of violence; this eye-for-an-eye retaliation against the enemy is instead love and forgiveness], you will all perish as they did.”
Then Jesus responds to these objectors with a second occurrence everyone was talking about during that time as well:
“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?”
According to some sources, this was one of the weaponry towers used by Rome for weapons storage. A group of zealot insurgents had tried to dig a tunnel under the tower, with hopes of seizing the weapons stored there and using those weapons themselves in a violent revolt against the Romans. But the tower’s foundation was already in a state of decay, and the tunnel further compromised the integrity of the foundation, leading to the entire construction suddenly collapsing, claiming the lives of several Galileans.
Again, the logic of the day was not that the violent approach itself was flawed, but rather how strictly those seeking to carry out such a violent approach were adhering to the Torah.
Jesus goes on:
“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
The problem was not how strictly they were adhering to the Torah according to Jesus. The problem was the concept of eye for an eye; the violent methods they were endeavoring to use themselves. Jesus warns, looking all the way down to 70 A.D., that if they did not repent, did not turn away from their “eye for an eye” retributive violence, it would continue to escalate until they themselves were destroyed.
Remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 7.13-14:
“Enter through the narrow gate [of forgiveness, enemy love, nonviolent noncooperation]; for the gate [of eye for an eye, violence, and retaliation] is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (emphasis added)
Jesus then finishes this third prophecy with a story, rooted in the social and political context of his day:
“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 around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Jerusalem was set on a collision coarse with annihilation. Her embracing of the way of violence and retaliation – rather than the nonviolent, enemy-embracing, non-retaliation way of Jesus – would end in Jerusalem’s destruction if something didn’t change. What was the fruit the gardener looked for that would ensure it remaining?
We find it told in the Sermon on the Mount by the Gardner Himself:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not retaliate against an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies [i.e., the Romans] and pray for those who persecute you [i.e., the Romans], so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil [i.e., the Romans] and on the good [i.e., Torah observing Jews], and sends rain on the righteous [i.e., Torah observing Jews] and on the unrighteous [i.e., the Romans]. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5.38-48)
In December of 2012, the Washington Times published research that 84 percent of the world population practices some sort of faith; a third of those are Christian. That’s 2.2 billion Christians (32 percent of the world’s population). There are 1.6 billion Muslims (23 percent), 1 billion Hindus (15 percent), 500 million Buddhists (7 percent), and 400 million people (6 percent) practicing various folk or traditional religions, including African traditional religions, Chinese folk religions, American Indian religions, and Australian aboriginal religions. There are 14 million Jews, and an estimated 58 million people—slightly less than 1 percent of the global population—belong to other religions, including the Baha’i faith, Jainism, Sikhism, Shintoism, Taoism, Tenrikyo, Wicca and Zoroastrianism, and others.
Notice that those claiming to have some connection to the Jesus revolution of the first century (Christianity as a movement before it became a religion) are the largest among these groups. Just imagine the world we could create if “Christians” simply insisted on following the clear call to non-violence represented by Jesus’ teachings, rooted in His picture of His Father (John 5.19) as well as the way He looked at all of us, including even our enemies as well.
The question still looms, and has been looming for 1700 years now, “What would happen if Christians started believing in Jesus once again?”
Wherever this finds you, keep living in the enemy-embracing, self-sacrificial, other-centered, nonviolent love we see in Jesus, until the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.
I’ll close this third part with the words of New Testament, Anglican scholar, N.T. Wright:
"'Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.' That remains one of the most powerful and revolutionary sentences we can ever say."