Unless we turn around from Empire, the victimization will continue

Fig TreeBy Ched Myers, for the 3rd Sunday of Lent

Note: This is part of a series of Ched’s occasional comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year C, 2016.

Somewhat strangely, the RCL reading this week moves backwards, from the end of Luke 13 on Second Lent to its beginning this Sunday, leapfrogging the poignant story of the “Bent Over Woman” in the middle of that chapters (which we’ll look at on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Aug 21st).

Our text picks up in the middle of Jesus’ discourse on interpreting the meaning of one’s historical moment (Lk 12:54ff, which comes up on Aug 14th). “Why do you not know how to judge the present time?” he laments (Lk 12:56; Gk kairon). The notion of the kairos moment is scattered throughout Luke’s narrative. There is a time of believing and of falling away (8:13b); the “time of visitation” that people miss (19:44) and false proclamations of the “moment” that lead people astray (21:8); the “Day” divine promises will be fulfilled (1:20) and the “season” of the Gentiles (21:24). Thus we are to stay awake at “all times” (21:36).

This sets us up for our passage, which begins: “At that very moment (kairō) there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (13:1). Richard Cassidy long ago pointed out, in his classic Jesus, Politics and Society: A Study of Luke’s Gospel (1978), that Luke often “provides his readers with certain political notices pertaining to empire history” (p. 14). These can be as broad as his listing of the imperial rulers in power during the time of John and Jesus (Lk 3:1-2); as notorious as Quirinius’ census (2:1-3) that provoked a Judean rebellion (see Acts 5:37); as polemical as his allusion to how Herod Antipas curried the favor of Tiberius (Lk 19:12); and as local as the two incidents noted in our passage.

Pilate’s massacre of Galileans—perhaps at the time of a Passover pilgrimage (hence the reference to “their sacrifices,” 13:1)—could refer to any number of  skirmishes between Roman authorities and nationalist dissidents during this period, some of which are documented by Josephus. Similarly, urban construction accidents killing pedestrians (13:4) were not uncommon, given the many Herodian building projects and the notorious working conditions and “code violations.” [1] (Below, ruins of a Roman aqueduct near Cæsarea.)


Yoder is certainly correct that at issue in this exchange are not “the mysteries of Providence.” Rather, Jesus is warning that the violence and victimization associated with imperial occupation and Herodian rule in Palestine are inevitable unless things radically change. His pointed and emphatic refrain—“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did” (13:3,5)—implies that unless Judeans can “turn around” their history of captivity, “perishing” at the hands of the Powers will become everyone’s fate (interestingly, Luke uses the Greek verb apollumi far more frequently than any other N.T. writer).

Jesus is trying to get his people to “judge critically” (the meaning of dokimazō, the verb used in 12:56) the history in which they are caught, to see the big picture of oppression and alienation, not just isolated incidents of “tragedy or turmoil.” This teaching represents a clear indictment of what we call “structural sin.” We are all caught up and complicit in systems of domination, and we are all potential victims—not just an unfortunate few. To invoke an uncomfortable analogy, this kind of critical judgment was required—but rarely exercised—when those World Trade Towers fell fifteen years ago.

Sunday’s gospel continues into the next parable (13:6-9), which appears to soften this severe ultimatum with the story of a field worker’s poignant appeal for more time “for the tree to bear fruit.” In the Hebrew Bible the fig tree was a symbol of peace, security and prosperity in Israel; the fruitful fig was a metaphor for God’s blessing (Dt 8:8; Zech 3:10), while a withered tree signified disaster, both symbolically (Jer 8:13; Is 28:3f) and as a literal consequence of war (Joel 1:7, 12).

In Luke, John the Baptist introduces a metaphor for judgment as “trees bearing good or bad fruit” (Lk 3:9), which image also concludes Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain (6:43f). Mark understood the fig tree trope (Mk 11:20f; 13:28f) as a kind of midrash on Micah’s lament over the apostasy of Israel:

Woe is me! For I have become one for whom… there is no first-ripe fig for which I hunger. The faithful have disappeared from the land, and there is no one left who is upright. (Mic 7:1f)

Luke too interprets the fig tree to imply judgment on the nation, but omits Mark’s fig tree “cursing” and replaces it with this parable of patience.[2] This is consistent with his portrait of Jesus throughout: the One who understands the logic of empire, sees disaster coming on his people, labors to open blind eyes and deaf ears, but who in the end can only weep over Jerusalem (19:41-44)—a heartbreaking text we’ll take up in a few weeks for Palm Sunday (March 20th).

[1] John Howard Yoder notes that the two incidents might in fact be connected if the “Tower of Siloam” was connected to Roman aqueduct construction, since Josephus reports that Pilate killed a group of Jews protesting his seizure of Temple funds to pay for imperial waterworks projects in Jerusalem (The Politics of Jesus, 1972, pp 43f; 91f). In another interesting note, Luke again here equates “sinner” (hamartōloi, v. 2) and “debtor” (opheiletai, v. 4), perhaps an allusion back to the scenario posed in 12:57-59.

[2] On Mark’s story as a prophetic sign-action see my reflection: “What about Jesus and the Fig Tree? Jesus Talks to Plants: Agrarian Wisdom and Earth Symbolism.” In T. York and A. Alexis-Baker, eds., A Faith Encompassing All Creation: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Care for the Environment. Eugene:Cascade Books, 2014, pp 100-110.

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