28th February 2016
In this chapter the covenant with David is applied to all people. This is an open offer of food which is good and those who thirst can come to the waters, and people can buy wine and milk without money and presumably without GST. What is on offer is life for all and the implication of the poetic metaphors is that whatever is offered in this section of Isaiah is there to be accepted and the aim is continuing life for all.
In a demonstration that it really is people in general this offer is directed at, Yahweh says that he is making an everlasting covenant with them so that the covenant that is promised to David and his descendants is now transferred to the people. David was a commander of people but in this new covenant nations who do not even know Israel will come into their own.
Luke 13: 1-9
Justo González notes that in major tragedies we all wish we had ready-made answers that would immediately console the bereaved, enlighten the perplexed, and reassure the doubting but in this passage Jesus does not give us any readymade answers. Instead he tells us that some popular answers are wrong and then moves on to suggest that, although survivors of unexplainable and mysterious disasters are not to blame, the tragedy may indeed call them to greater obedience to the divine way of living.
Fred Craddock writes that ‘this passage is not only characteristically Lukan but it has no parallel in the other Gospels. The subject matter is repentance which is found more often in Luke than other Gospels. In fact repentance and forgiveness is a theme running through Luke’s Gospel.
The passage has two different but related parts with the first part concerning two tragedies, one of human brutality and one a natural event. The question of why such things happen is as old as humanity and Jesus refutes the idea that the people affected were somehow responsible through their sin. The parable of the fig tree leaves opens the possibility of fruitfulness through divine nurture and patience. It has a similar image of God to the story of Jonah where judgement on Nineveh is delayed and the people repent.
Bill Loader concludes his commentary by saying the judged need judgement and they need love. This gives voice to the heart of Jesus’ teaching on compassion that helps put a crossbar on the waving finger.
The passage from Isaiah is an example of prophetic realism where the vision of the prophet recognises that if God is the creator of everything then God is the God of all people. Therefore it is not Israel’s task to wipe out all the other people.
Isaiah and others suggest that if Israel has a special position because of its covenant relationship with God then it has a responsibility to announce to the world that such a relationship spreads to all people.
The covenant, like any contract, has responsibilities on both sides and this morning’s passage makes the point that people have to recognise and accept God’s generosity. The passage is filled with the generosity of God, God’s Grace. The passage implies that such Grace is freely given and there is an implied wonderment that such a gift is not accepted:
‘Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labour for that which does not satisfy?’ (Isaiah 55:2) The passage then goes on to suggest that doing evil is not accepting God’s Grace:
Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts. (Isaiah 55:6, 7)
Those two verses suggest that deviant behaviour leads to separation from God and wickedness breaks the covenant. In theological terms it suggests that sin is separation from God and in wickedness people ignore the gifts of God so freely given.
However it is in the little book of Micah that the prophet makes the human covenant responsibility much more direct by both asking the fundamental question and giving a definitive answer
He has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
For the generous gift of a life sustaining planet we just have to accept that gift and care for it. The absolutely amazing thing is that people can ignore their covenant responsibilities and probably do very well, but according to this passage God will be perplexed. Furthermore we will be outside the covenant, which carries a hint of consequences. People can do well and amass a fortune. They can even let their cows pollute a pristine lake but they shouldn’t be surprised when Dr. Mike Joy puts a picture of your cows on Facebook and the government introduces tougher penalties for such disregard of the environment.
What we can easily see from this metaphoric and prophetic poetry is that it is easily misinterpreted. Therefore it is somewhat encouraging to read in our Gospel passage that it was being misinterpreted in Jesus’ time.
It is just so easy to minimise the power of the poetry and produce some shallow scriptural algebra that says that God rewards faithful people and punishes evil people. Because we learned algebra in high school we know that we can write an equation another way. We could say that because people are rich they are good and poor people are evil. Or because people are fit healthy and doing OK they are faithful and if they suffer some disaster they must have been bad.
However these equations are rebutted in our Gospel reading.
People were asking Jesus about local disasters and seeking a cause and effect to people’s suffering. Galilee was on the outskirts of Palestine and contained a gentile and mixed race population and was regarded with distain by the people of Jerusalem. As a Galilean we could therefore imagine a fair bit of sarcasm in Jesus’ question. Were the people who were killed worse sinners than all the other sinners from Galilee? These are the sort of questions people might ask today about people from certain suburbs or towns. There are places where we expect the people to be bad or at least of little value to the economy. Much as I am prejudiced against the TV programme Seven Sharp, or more specifically one of the opinionated presenters, I enjoyed the item about the three recently graduated doctors from the far north who intend to return there when they have finished their hospital service. That item refuted the negative stereotypes so easily applied to that region.
Returning to our Gospel Jesus’ question was rhetorical and he answered it himself.
No I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. (Luke 13:5)
We don’t know the details, perhaps they were part of a riot that broke out in the temple or simply in the temple when a disturbance broke out. What is easy to assume is that the soldiers lashed out at the crowd as a warning against future disturbance. We see that in demonstrations when the police will defend themselves with battens if a protest gets out of hand and tempers flare. However even in policing roles Roman soldiers carried swords not battens.
Most significantly is the comment about repentance because so much speculation about other people’s sin ignores the misdemeanours of those making the judgment. The passage from Isaiah focuses on divine Grace but in pointing out that Grace must be accepted it subtly suggests the theology that sin is separation from God. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:9)
Jesus makes the same point. We are all fallible humans and his call to repentance is echoed in the well known phrase ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’
Tradition has it that phrase originated from John Bradford who, on seeing evil-doers taken to the place of execution, exclaimed, ‘But for the grace of God there goes John Bradford.’ Bradford was a committed Christian and zealous preacher but his comment was somewhat prophetic because when Mary succeeded to the throne on the death of her brother Edward Bradford was arrested on 31 January 1555 for his opposition to Roman Catholicism. He was subsequently burned at the stake on 1st July of the same year.
The cruelty of the English reformation aside it would be good if at least some of the members of Sensible Sentencing paused to reflect ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’
Jesus’ next question moves from human brutality to a building collapse which is something we in Christchurch can certainly relate to.
Natural disasters can be made worse my human neglect or greed but usually it is the innocent rather than the sinner who suffers.
In the recent earthquake in Taiwan rescue workers found that tin cans had been used as fillers in concrete beams that were supposed to hold up an apartment building that collapsed and caused almost all of the 117 deaths. Apparently using old cooking oil tins to make beams look bigger without adding weight was not illegal at the time of the building’s construction. Nevertheless, like the CTV building, and Jesus example of the tower of Siloam none of the victims were responsible for the collapse of the structures that killed them.
Furthermore the God of Isaiah’s poem is not a vengeful God with his finger poised over the key of the smite button waiting for a sinner to walk under a suspended piano.
Quite the contrary and after catching his audience’s attention with the two challenging rhetorical questions Jesus moves to the main lesson in the parable of the fig tree.
Just like the human response of blaming people for their misfortune the owner of the fig tree wants to cut it down. Let’s get rid of the wasters and troublemakers, we could give them a choice, death by hanging or a penal colony in Australia. Hang on a minute mate! We are Australians, so let’s send them back to New Zealand.
But the gardener detects a lack of care, perhaps depleted soil from over cropping. He suggests a realm of nurture, loosening the soil and adding fertiliser. In human terms restoring hope and giving the nurture that may have been denied of a growing child that contributed to their deviant behaviour.
That is the parable in horticulture or human development terms but Jesus’ parables are always deeper than mere allegory. This parable pulls us towards the God of Grace we glimpse in Isaiah’s poem. A creative and resourcing God who calls: ‘Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price’. (Isaiah 55:1)
Jesus’ parable of the fig tree brings us the Graceful God of new beginnings who looks to restore rather than destroy, a God who calls us to the fullness of life without cost.
But the juxtaposition of the challenging and rhetorical questions does even more. In calling us to repentance Jesus is not just calling us away from our human inclination to blame and shame towards the God of generous new beginnings. Jesus is calling us to be just such a restoring presence to others.
The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel is calling us to be the restoring Christ in our time and place.
Through the magic of scripture both these reading call us to accept God’s Grace for ourselves and to be Graceful to others.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p463.
 Justo L. González Luke (Louisville Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press 2010), pp169,170.
 Fred B. Craddock Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009), p. 167.