Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem for the final time (Luke 9:51). He knows that danger lies before him. But he is resolute in his journey. Jesus knows his agenda: to follow the way of the Father (see Matthew 6:33). In this passage, Jesus calls his followers to that same agenda, and not to be sidetracked or distracted by other voices.
This passage is an urgent call to repentance and discipleship though seasoned with gracious patience. This same urgency is found in Paul’s writings: 2Cor. 6:1-2 As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation. This message develops around a reporting of two events and a story about a fig tree.
First, we hear about a horrible action taken by Pontius Pilate. Pilate is a bad, evil person. He is an unpopular and unpleasant governor of Judea. The ancient historian Josephus lists several acts that upset and irritated the local Jewish population. Here we are told how he slaughtered people worshipping in the Temple, the holiest place for the people of Israel. In this act blood from the sacrifices is mixed with the blood of murdered worshippers. It is a horrible image.
The second event is a construction accident, a “natural disaster.” Eighteen people in Jerusalem are killed when a tower fell on them. The reporting of each event ends with the phrase: unless you repent,you too will perish.
Some, because of the twice-repeated phrase find this to be a passage about avoiding hell. An accurate interpretation of this passage see Jesus challenging his followers to follow the way of the Father today, right now. Jesus is not discussing the issue of bad things happening to good people, rather he is stating that no matter what comes your way, you must whole heartedly follow the ways of the Father.
Tom Wright (Luke for Everyone) sees a more political message in this passage. The report of the first event is a warning to Jesus. Jesus, are you really going to Jerusalem? Jesus, have you heard what is going on? Jesus knowing his Father’s agenda says yes. He knows the danger, but his face is turned towards Jerusalem. There is no safe place for him, but a longing love for this people drives him to Jerusalem (see Luke 13:32ff). His message of repentance and discipleship means: “you must abandon your crazy flight into national rebellion against Rome. The consequences of military action will be death by the sword” (Tom Wright).
For Wright the reporting of the second event also has a political undertone. This construction accident points forward to the destruction of the walls of Jerusalem by the Roman army in 70 AD. Jesus point: if Israel does not repent, the consequence will be destruction, not merely of a tower, but of the city. Again Jesus says, repent, turn around, and follow a new agenda, the agenda of the Father, not a military agenda.
Whatever the interpretation, Jesus’ message is the same: follow the way of the Father. Repentance means to turn back. It is a turning from idolatry, and a turning towards the Lord. Jesus calls his followers to a life-giving level of discipleship. Jesus said early in Luke: Luke 9:23-25 Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must put aside your selfish ambition, shoulder your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to keep your life for yourself, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for me, you will find true life. And how do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose or forfeit your own soul in the process?
This is a new way of thinking and acting. This new way emerges from a life-giving relationship with God. This new identity forges new practices, practices of discipleship. In spite of the risks or the difficulties, follow the right path. In spite of many voices calling out for solutions including military and political solutions, don’t give in. As Jesus was resolute in his journey to Jerusalem, so the followers of Jesus must be resolute in following the ways of the kingdom.
Our life of discipleship, of following the agenda of the Father emerges out of our identity in Christ. Christians often get sidetracked. The agenda of the Father does bring transformation to people and to society, but it often happens in ways that are subtle. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship reminds us that our discipleship is to be lived out in the world.
Followers of Jesus too easily get caught up in a Christianity that is simply an avoidance of hell, rather than a determination to live a new and different life today. A variety of less important issues also easily sidetrack followers of Jesus. While a hurting world sit right before us, we get involved in the silliest of squabbles. No wonder the church is seen as irrelevant and out of touch.
The call on the people of God is simple and yet powerful and profound: “He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). This is the demand of discipleship. Imagine how the world would be different, and imagine how our churches would be different, if we simply lived out the practices found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). This is the call of Jesus in our lives.
THE FIG TREE
Jesus reinforces the call to discipleship with the parable of the fig tree. Fig trees were good for grapes, so they were planted in the midst of a vineyard. Fig trees were also an OT symbol of the people of God (Hosea 9:10, Joel 1:7). This fig tree planted in the vineyard was not producing fruit. For three years, fruit was expected, but no fruit grew. The owner of the vineyard wanted to cut the tree down, but the one who cared for the vineyard, pleaded for the tree: “give it another year.”
In this story of the fig tree, we see the fierce demand of repentance and discipleship. The Lord’s people are to bear fruit. We are to turn around and follow the Lord. We are to be salt and light. We are to be a blessing to the nations. This is the demand that emerges from the identity of God’s people. How often do we disappoint the Lord in our diversions?
In this story we also see the gracious patience of God who is reluctant to give up on his people. “Give it another year.” This is the message of mercy. Yes, God’s people falter, sometimes miserably. Give it another year. This stubborn and blind people might still repent. Give it another year. We still might see the fruit of blessing.
This is Jesus’ gracious demand upon each of his followers, and upon the church. We are to be resolute in following the ways of Jesus. We are to mourn our stubbornness and our luke-warm behaviors. We must repent, and today, right now, follow the ways of the Father.