At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 13:2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 13:3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 13:4 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? 13:5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” 13:6 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. 13:7 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?’ 13:8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 13:9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”
Today’s gospel begins with two warnings about the need for repentance. It ends with a parable about an unproductive fig tree and a faithful “gardener God”. The warnings include two examples of untimely deaths, one reported to Jesus and then used by him to illustrate the urgent need for repentance, the other reported by Jesus as a further illustration of his point. With respect to the first example, Jewish history recounts instances of Pilate’s cruelty, but makes no mention of his execution of Galileans and the mingling of their blood with their sacrifices. Neither is there any other record of the collapse of the Siloam tower and the resultant death of eighteen people. Jesus insists that those killed are no more sinful and no more deserving of death than any of their fellow Galileans or Jerusalemites. They are certainly not being punished for their sins and those who make such a link between suffering and sin have got it all wrong.
So why does Jesus twice assert, “If you do not repent you will all perish in the same way” or “you will all perish as they did”? The answer seems to lie in the constant need for self-reflection and the missed opportunity for conversion or reconciliation in the case of sudden and unexpected death. In other words, Jesus is telling his listeners, “Don’t be caught unawares; turn your life around in the direction of the gospel while you are alive and well”. The Greek verb “to repent” literally means to think again. It can have the sense of expanding one’s vision or one’s horizons, to think beyond the narrow confines of one’s own interests and one’s own little world. In the context of Jesus’ teaching, it is a call to take seriously the message of God’s empire or reign which embraces the whole Earth community.
The parable of the unproductive fig tree in the vineyard approaches the same topic from another angle. The owner of the vineyard wants to get rid of a fig tree that fails to bear fruit after three years. From an economic perspective, his position is perfectly reasonable: why should a non-fruiting fig tree continue to sap the goodness of the soil? Why not go for more vines, more grapes, more wine, and forget about the fig tree? The faithful or constant gardener, on the other hand, is like the womb-compassionate God of Israel who cares about the soil itself and wants to give the fig tree another chance, to turn it around and assist it to bear fruit, if the owner will relent. At this mid-point in our Lenten journey, we might get in closer touch with our compassionate “gardener” God and open ourselves to a more expansive understanding of the pain of the planet.