Sermon preached on Luke 13:1-9 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 05/22/2022 in Novato, CA.
Today’s passage addresses a common question people have asked about. Why do bad things happen to people? Ancient people often gave a very different answer to such a question than how modern people tend to answer it. But Jesus’ teaching on it would challenge both. And this is a question that people in the church can struggle with too. Let us consider what Jesus here teaches us about this question. It is an important question because behind it are matters of eternity. So then, today we’ll consider first these two tragedies in verses 1-5. Then, in our second point we’ll consider Jesus’ analysis of them. Lastly, we’ll relate this to Jesus’ Parable of the Barren Fig Tree in verses 6-9.
Let us begin then by considering these two tragedies. Let’s observe the details and appreciate what is being described. The first tragedy is there in verse 1. Some people came and reported to Jesus news that Pilate had killed some Galileans. Remember, Galilee was the Jewish region in the north. That’s where Jesus grew up, for example, in the town of Nazareth. This Pilate is the Pontus Pilate who would later conduct Jesus’ trial. Pilate was the Roman governor not of Galilee, but Judea. Judea was the southern Jewish region, where Jerusalem and the temple were located. So, apparently some Galileans were down in Jerusalem offering sacrifices at the temple. That would have been the only location an orthodox Jew would have offered sacrifices. They especially would make a pilgrimage there during the three big Jewish feasts, though they could have certainly gone down at any time to make a trip to worship God and give offerings to God. So then, it seems that the ruthless Pilate for some reason had had these Galileans killed while they were offering their sacrifices, such that their shed blood ended up mingling and mixing with the blood of their animals they had just sacrificed.
I would note that we don’t know why Pilate had these men killed. Ideas have been suggested, like maybe they were zealots involved in some conspiracy against the Roman government, and Pilate discovered this and had them put to death. But that is just speculation. What history does record of Pilate would not suggest anything out of character of him. It nonetheless is a shocking account to hear that some Jews were slaughtered at the temple by some pagan Gentile ruler while they were in the act of worshipping God. Imagine if some police threw open the door of a church on a Sunday and shot dead a bunch of parishioners. It would certainly make the news. This event made the news. Whether we call this a tragedy or give it some other label, it was a horrific report to say the least.
When they report this horrible event to Jesus, it sparks Jesus to mention another recent tragedy. In verse 4, Jesus mentions eighteen people who died when a tower in Siloam fell on them. Siloam was a neighborhood in Jerusalem. You see this noted at the end of verse 4 even because it mentions everyone else who lived in Jerusalem, inferring that this Siloam was in Jerusalem. Indeed, it was a neighborhood south of the old city. John’s gospel in John 9 mentions a pool there in Siloam as another reference of this place in the Bible. Again, we don’t know the details about this tower falling. But from what we learn here is that there was a tower that tragically fell or collapsed in that neighborhood and the result is that these people died. It doesn’t sound like it fell for any particular reason, it was just a random tragedy. The people who died were in the wrong place at the wrong time and got killed.
So then, these two tragedies have some similarities and differences. In terms of similarities, presumably the people who died were all Jews. In other words, they would have all supposedly been part of God’s covenant people. What might have been presumed by the common Jew of the time is that being part of God’s people normally should mean blessing for you. You wouldn’t expect that Gentile kings should prevail over you, let alone towers to fall on you. That is, unless, you hadn’t been living the way you should. This was a common way of thinking by many Jews and frankly ancient people in general. If you were obedient to God, you would be blessed. If you lived in wickedness, you would be cursed. To be fair, there are examples in the Bible where one’s disobedience did in fact result in some remedial action by God. For example, Miriam was temporarily struck with leprosy when she murmured against Moses’ leadership in Numbers 12. So the Jews, and ancient people in general, tended to try to connect some evil that befell you with some sort of sin that you committed. For the ancients, bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people. This is very different than the common modern way of thinking. Modern people tend to completely disconnect tragedies from any consequences of our sin. They tend to see there no connection whatsoever in any way. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, even while sometimes good things happen to bad people. Among Christians today, you can see some of both thinking present at times among one Christian to the next.
This leads us then to our next point to see how Jesus challenges such presumptions. What Jesus says in assessment of these two tragedies effectively has something to say to both ancient and modern ways of thinking of these things. After hearing the matter with the killed Galileans, Jesus says, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way”? And after referencing the fallen tower in Siloam, Jesus asks, “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?” In both questions, the answer is, “No”. Notice the context of the question. Jesus isn’t saying that there aren’t sometimes people who do more evil than others. Surely there are. But Jesus is dealing specifically within the context of these two tragedies. In both of these questions he asks it with regard to why they suffered like this. Why did these people die in these tragedies? Was it due to some specific sins they did more than their neighbors? Not in this instance. By speaking like this, it challenges this ancient simplistic presumption that any evil that befalls you can be tracked back to something you did to deserve it. Remember, this is what Job’s three friends unwisely and incorrectly tried to do with him. God ended up rebuking them for such foolish counsel that they gave Job. We need to realize that we live in a fallen world cursed because of sin. Sometimes bad things happen to people simply because of that general fact. There isn’t always some specific personal sin that they can point back to as why the evil befell them. Often Christians today want such answers, they want an answer to “why” some horrible thing happened to them, and there just may not be the specific “why” that they are looking for. Jesus corrects the incorrect assumption that bad things happen always and only in response to some specific act of evil that someone did.
That being said, realize what Jesus’ words further bring out. They make the point that everyone is evil. Jesus describes the people who experienced these tragedies as sinners and offenders. The Greek word for sinner here refers to someone who is guilty of breaking God’s law. The Greek word for offender here is literally a debtor and refers to someone who has incurred a moral debt to God due to their violating God’s law. Jesus recognizes that the people who died in these tragedies were not worse sinners and offenders than others, but the presumption is that they are nonetheless sinners and offenders. But that means that everyone else is too. Every Galilean, every Judean, and certainly all the Gentiles, every human save Jesus is a sinner and offender. This is the problem with modern thinking that sometimes bad things do happen to good people, because there aren’t any truly good people. Mankind fell into sin when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. God cursed this world and there has been trouble ever since. And each us, save Jesus, live out our lives showing us to be Adam and Eve’s offspring, sinners and offenders just like them. Down through the ages people have been trying to wrestle with why do bad things sometimes seem to happen to good people, but really what we should be wrestling with is why does anything good ever happen to us who are all actually bad people. That we’ve not yet been murdered or had a tower fall on us is what should really surprise us. When we don’t have a personal tragedy on any particular day, we should recognize God’s grace and mercy to us.
Romans 3:23 says this. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Romans 6:23 then goes on to say that the wages of sin is death. If nothing changes, we will all likewise perish as Jesus says here. Please understand what Jesus means here. Jesus must be looking beyond simply death in this life. Because Jesus says that we need to repent lest we all likewise perish. But surely it can’t mean that people won’t die physically if they repent of their sins. Rather, in classic Jesus teaching fashion, he takes these two tragic events and speaks of a greater perishing. He ultimately sees beyond our deaths in this life to an eternal punishment that God will hand out to those who die in their sins. This rightly sees physical death in this life as a measure of God’s judgment on sinners. But it sees it look ahead to a far greater judgment beyond the grave. If we die in our sins, we will ultimately receive what the book of Revelation describes as the second death when we are cast into the eternal lake of fire to receive an everlasting punishment.
So then, Jesus gives us the right way to think about such tragedies. Don’t assume that some bad thing that happens in your life is due to some specific bad sin you did. Too often that is a faulty application people make for themselves. Too often you can even here some bad “preachers” claim this for others too, and that always upsets me when they speak so presumptuously. Yet the conclusion is not that bad things sometimes happen to good people. No, the conclusion is that sometimes bad things happen to bad people – us. So then, Jesus counsels us to repent of our sins in light of the coming judgment of God. That means whenever you do experience a tragedy like this, or see someone else experiencing such, we need to be reminded that this world stands under God’s judgment. Any such tragedies are a result of sin in general. Each of these things should stand as a warning to get right with God in advance of the final day of judgment.
So then, Jesus says we need to repent. What does it mean to repent of our sin? The word in the Greek literally means to “change your mind”, referring how we turn our hearts toward the Lord. In our membership classes we talk about repentance involving three parts: confession of sin, grief over sin, and turning from sin unto Christ. The Shorter Catechism gives a slighty longer definition saying that repentance is when a sinner, “Out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.” To clarify, repentance is not the same as the fruit of repentance which is our sanctification. But it’s that heart that’s changed to look unto Christ as Lord and Savior. Repentance and faith are closely related. Repentance is the turning of the heart and faith is the trusting in Christ for salvation. So again, the take away point when you see tragedies like this happening to others is not to think they must be worse sinners than yourself. It’s to realize that we are all sinners needing to be forgiven of our sins in Christ Jesus. We all need to turn to Jesus as our Lord and Savior and find forgiveness of sins and new life in Christ.
Let us now turn in our third point to look at this Parable of the Barren Fig Tree. Here we find a story about a man having a vineyard where he had a fig tree planted in its midst. The tree apparently had been given time to mature and then the owner came to look for figs on it. Yet, there were no figs. After years of waiting, the owner is ready to give up on the fig tree. He thinks it is time to cut his losses. He thinks it is time to cut the tree down so it doesn’t use up the nutrients in the soil. But then the vinedresser speaks up. This would be like the gardener who was responsible for the care of the vineyard. He proposes that he be given a chance to work with the fig tree and see if he can get it healthy and producing fruit. He asks for another year so that he can dig around it and put manure in it, and see if in a year from now it begins to bear fruit. The owner accepts the vinedresser’s proposal. That’s how parable ends with the fig tree’s fate to be decided in a year.
This parable is a great complement to the two tragedies we had just described. There, Jesus had noted everyone was sinners and needed to repent. But given the specific context, he especially took aim at the Jewish people who were supposed to be living different than the rest of the world. While we might expect a pagan Gentile like Pilate to do evil, sinful things, shouldn’t God’s people of Israel live differently? They had been given the law of God at Sinai. They had been blessed to receive so many prophets to call them to live according to those laws. They had so many other religious benefits. After so many centuries, you would think that God’s people would be a fruitful nation, religiously speaking. You would think they would be the one nation on earth that lived differently. You would think they would bear fruit of godliness by now. God had done so much to cultivate such fruit. Yet, they were still like this barren fig tree. That’s the application of this parable. This barren fig tree is akin to Israel. The owner is akin to God who had planted Israel in such a special place of privilege and care. Yet, year after year, Israel remained so fruitless.
But then you have this vinedresser’s proposal to further cultivate the fig tree and yet have more patience. This is surely an expression of God’s patience and grace in Christ Jesus. Right then and there, God in the ministry of Christ was at work in Israel. There, he was yet at work to bring a harvest. There, he was yet exercising patience toward his people. Would they yet truly repent from the heart? Would there yet be fruit of such repentance borne in their lives? Recognize then the grace of God that is there at work when Jesus brings them God’s Word. When Jesus teaches them and exhorts them, it is akin to the imagery of the vinedresser digging a hold and putting in manure around that barren fig tree. Would it yet bear fruit? Only time would tell.
As we think about this application of the parable to Israel, we should acknowledge that what is true of Israel certainly has applications beyond Israel. What I mean is that the repentance of sin that Israel needed, was something that all the nations needed. Every human is a guilty sinner before a holy God. All humans stand under God’s judgment and need to repent of their sins and find mercy from the Lord. This is something true in general for all humanity. All humanity ought to bear a harvest of righteousness unto God. But what the parable brings out is that it especially egregious when Israel hadn’t. Israel under the old covenant was the visible church of God on earth. The rest of the world was not. Israel had received all those special religious privileges. The rest of the world had not. You know, if you walk out into the wilderness and see some uncultivated wild fruit tree, you don’t think much of it if it has no fruit or bad fruit. But if you go into some nicely cultivated garden that has professionals meticulously caring for it, a sickly fruitless tree is going to stand out like a sore thumb.
Realize the application then at this point in history. Now, we are under the new covenant. While under the old covenant, God’s visible church on earth was identified was Israel as a nation, now the borders of his church have been expanded under the new covenant. God has opened wide his doors of his church making disciples of all the nations. So, the application we must take today is to look at the fruit of the church today. In our day, are God’s people bearing fruit as we should? We can ask that as a church as a whole. We can also each ask that individually who are in the church. Have you been bearing fruit for Christ? If not, realize all the advantages you have to do so. You have been the recipient of the ministry of the Word and Sacrament. You have been blessed to be a part of the worship of the saints as we lift our prayers and praises to God. We each have so much reason that we should be bearing fruit. If you have not been bearing fruit, this is a call by God to repent and look to him afresh.
I would like to point out here, that we can understand this call from two perspectives. From our human perspective, we should hear and heed this call to repent. If our fruit has been meager, we should repent afresh. But from God’s perspective, I remind you that the picture from the parable is that the gardener is at work on the vine to bring forth the fruit. If we do ultimately repent, we should recognize the grace of God at work in our hearts. We should see that God has not given up on us, but thank him for his continued patience and his ongoing cultivation in our lives.
So then, as needed, let us change our way of thinking. Let us not look at bad things and wonder why they would happen to us, but see them as a reminder of our need for God’s mercy. Let us then look at each good thing that happens to us as a gracious and merciful gift from our Father in heaven. Even that he would plant us to be a tree in his garden. That he would have his Son be our vinedresser. That he would be at work in our lives that we bear much fruit by the Holy Spirit.
Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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