Unless You Repent

“The Barren Fig Tree” by Eugene Burnand

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There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And He answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

What’s this about some Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices? We don’t know a lot. Only Luke, but no other New Testament nor extra-biblical source, reports this tragic event. From Luke’s description we deduce this much. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, had somehow come into conflict with some Jews from Galilee. While they were in the middle of an act of worship in the temple courtyard, Pilate attacked them; the result being that their own blood was mixed with the blood of the animals they were sacrificing to the Lord.[i]

The mixing of the blood of the Galileans with their sacrifices was a heinous crime. It would be akin to a mass shooter coming into our sanctuary as we are receiving the body and blood of our Savior in Holy Communion and opening fire. It probably occurred during Passover, the only occasion when laypeople would sacrifice in the temple precincts. Pilate violated all holiness codes by sending his troops into the temple area to murder some Galilean Jews while they were slaughtering their lambs for Passover Seder, mixing the blood of these Jews with the blood of the sacrificial lambs.[ii]

Those who report this incident probably hope to hear Jesus issue a strong rebuke against Pilate and the Roman occupation of Israel. Perhaps they think this incident is a sign that God is finally intervening to bring political freedom from Rome. But Jesus sees it in a religious context and speaks not of the sin of Pilate, but of the sin of the Jews—not just the martyred Jews, but all of them. The issue here is not political, nor does it concern drawing a one-to-one correspondence between sin and suffering.

As Jesus responds to this outrageous report, He first addresses the unspoken assumption: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way?” Like so many others, the crowd assumes that tragedies happen to people for divine retribution for specific sins. Of course, bad behavior often results in painful consequences. But that is not the only possible circumstance. Jesus reminds them that not all suffering is deserved. Famous examples of those who suffered greatly, even though they did not bring the misfortune on themselves, include Joseph and Job.

No, these Galileans were no more “sinners” than the other Galileans. Particular incidents of suffering and tragedy are not signs of God’s judgment on individuals, but of His wrath against all sinful humankind. The signs of this time say that you are on the way to appear before the judge (Luke 12:54-59). “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).

Jesus uses this tragedy to spur His audience into self-examination and an honest assessment of their own walk with God. If they do so, they will realize that tragedies are not moments for assigning blame or asking why, but times for reflecting on our own frailty and turning to God in repentance.

To clarify His point further, Jesus cites another example of tragic death. Eighteen people were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them. This tragedy had no political or religious overtones—no Roman villain or Jewish martyrs. It was an accident, not a man-made massacre. But Jesus describes it as a sign just like the preceding tragedy. “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you.”

Once again tragedies should not be taken as moments for speculation and the assignment of blame. Rather they ought to move us to sorrow over our sin and to a deeper reliance on God’s mercy and grace. Brutal murders, shocking accidents, deaths in whatever form—all are sermons of God’s Law: the soul that sins will die. Death is one way God calls people to repentance so they may not perish eternally.

Some falsely conclude that if nothing really bad happens to them in life it is a sign they have been living good lives. Jesus teaches that repentance is necessary for everyone, not just certain wicked people. Jesus calls not for speculation, but for contrition and faith: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5).

Contrary to popular belief, tragedy does not always strike people because they deserve it. Rather, in His infinite wisdom, God sometimes allows and uses even tragic events to warn of judgment, to convert from unbelief, to strengthen faith, and to bestow eternal life. The Christian conclusion is not “they must have deserved it,” but rather, “I deserved the same,” yet also, “Thank God that Jesus perished on behalf of me and of all, so that I might not perish eternally.”

Jesus goes on with a parable. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down’” (Luke 13:6-9).

In parables, a vineyard is code for Israel. The fig tree in the vineyard is supposed to be producing fruit, but it is not. It’s taking up space, and it looks better suited for firewood. But the vinedresser pleads for more time, in the hope that the fig tree will change. The people of Judea, says Jesus, should be bearing good fruit for the Lord. If they do not, they will face judgment; but the Lord is mercifully providing more time for them to repent.

This is how the parable ends. Without resolution. Like the season-ending episode of the series you’ve been streaming on Netflix. Jesus leaves us hanging. Does the tree improve? Does the owner of the vineyard even grant the vinedresser another year? Or does the tree finally get the ax? Jesus doesn’t say. Perhaps that is the point. It gets you to think.[iii]

In his commentary on this text, Joel Green notes how this parable has a double purpose. It warns against unfruitfulness and it “dramatizes hope.”[iv] The warning is obvious. True repentance involves more than momentary feelings of sorrow or guilt. It also involves faith in God’s promises, which always lead to a fruitful life. The Epitome of the Formula of Concord sums up repentance this way:

We believe, teach, and confess that the contrition that comes before justification, and the good works that follow it, do not belong to the article of justification before God. Yet one is not to imagine a kind of faith that can exist and abide with, and alongside of, a wicked intention to sin and to act against the conscience. But after man has been justified through faith, then a true living faith works by love (Galatians 5:6). Good works always follow justifying faith and are surely found with it—if it is true and living faith. Faith is never alone, but always has love and hope with it.[v]

This is the warning. For Christians whose works of love are lacking, this parable puts them on notice. That is what Jesus is doing in the first five verses of our text. He teaches us to see every instance of suffering as an occasion for repentance. Not because He repays sins tit for tat, but because judgment is coming. All creation is fallen, and all creation will be held accountable.

But the warning in this parable is overshadowed by the hope it offers. The vinedresser had a lot of time and effort invested in the fig tree. He refused to give up on this unfruitful tree. He put Himself between it and the judgment it deserves serving as a mediator and caretaker. He promised to nurture it, and to help it bear fruit. [vi] God’s forbearance and willingness to delay judgement should be seen as an occasion for repentance, too.

Ultimately, Jesus’ words are not about Israel’s stubborn rebelliousness, nor the hubris of Pilate and the other Romans. Neither does Jesus address the age-old debate about a correspondence between individual sin and individual punishment. Rather, Jesus speaks of sin and judgment in terms of humankind and tells the parable of the fig tree to explain God’s mercy during “this critical time” (Luke 12:56). “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:5).

Yet the Gospel of forgiveness of sins through the blood of Jesus Christ is also for anyone and everyone. That Gospel offers comfort and hope even when God’s justice remains hidden in a world of sin, suffering, and death. One must see that one’s own judgment is imminent and flee through repentance to the Kingdom that is coming through the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of God’s Son. One must view tragedy from the perspective of the cross. The forgiveness of sins in present in the risen One, who remains present in His Church through the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. It is here that the suffering Christian meets the suffering Christ and sees in Christ’s sufferings his own comfort, his peace, his redemption, and his life everlasting.[vii]

Repentance is not some cruel exercise we must follow to grovel for some good at Jesus’ feet. It is a gift of God to us. He would not have us perish. Repentance is the Lord calling us from sin—and the death that sin brings—to grace and life in Him. Repentance is never just a one-time thing. It’s not a one and done, but a daily activity in which we live out our Baptism.

This is what God does for us through His Son and His Spirit. God addresses our unfruitfulness with mercy and forgiveness in Christ. He gives His Word, the Law that shows us our sins and calls us to repent, and His Gospel, which proclaims His promise of patience and forgiveness. This Gospel nourishes and enlivens you. It renews your faith in Jesus, and it sends you forth to live in love toward others.

What kind of fruit might you bear? Of course, it depends on your vocations and your context. But whatever it might be, I would encourage you to love as patiently as the vinedresser loved that fig tree.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Arthur A. Just, Luke 9:51-24:53: Concordia Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1997), 533.

[ii] Arthur A. Just, Luke 9:51-24:53: Concordia Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1997), 533.

[iii] Gospel: Luke 13:1-9 (Lent 3: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-luke-131-9-lent-3-series-c-2.

[iv]  Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT, 515).

[v] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 481.

[vi] Gospel: Luke 13:1-9 (Lent 3: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-luke-131-9-lent-3-series-c-2.

[vii] Arthur A. Just, Luke 9:51-24:53: Concordia Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1997), 537.

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