A magnifying glass on the Galileans, the Blood, the Tower of Siloam, and the Vineyard of Luke 13:1-9
- Luke 13:19 – Pilate, Tower, Siloam, Galileans, Blood, Sarcifices, Sin, Calamity, Vinyard, and Jesus.
- The Author
- The Intended Reader
- Redaction Criticism generally, in Luke’s writing
- The literary context for this passage
- The passage itself
- The teaching (Verses 1-5)
- The Parable (Verses 6-9)
Luke 13:19 – Pilate, Tower, Siloam, Galileans, Blood, Sarcifices, Sin, Calamity, Vinyard, and Jesus.
I recently wrote this piece about Luke 13:1-9. My findings surprised me in one way: I had always thought this passage was about “sin and calamity”, and as it turns out, most Bible scholars think that too, to various extents. What I found is that the theme of sin and calamity is not actually something Jesus is teaching here!
This simple text, in which Jesus is asked about one contemporaneous event, mentions another, and then tells a parable, has a single message: Urgently repent.
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.
Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?
I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.
Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?
I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” – Luke 13:1-9
The account of Luke 13:1-9 has traditionally been treated by Bible scholars as having been sewn into Jesus’ discourse at this point by Luke, but having originally arisen separately, and possibly even as two distinct pericopes: 13:1-5 and 13:6-9. The shadow of that long held conviction is still evident, even in commentaries which are ostensibly interpreting the passage within its narrative framework.
One effect of this phenomenon is that Jesus’ incidental and deliberately dismissive comment about an implied connection between sin and calamity is often afforded extensive exegetical effort by commentators. But such effort is only warranted if 13:1-5 is unrelated to the surrounding Lukan material. In its presented context, however, the matter is immediately dismissed by Jesus, who only raised it himself rhetorically in the first place. It doesn’t even feature in the parable which supposedly arises from the mention of it.
In contrast to that approach, this paper explores the value of the 13:1-9 passage within the Lukan framework and defends its right to be there. Having done so, it finds that “sin and calamity” has been raised as no more than segue back to Jesus’ central appeal, urgently to repent.
The appeal to repent is predicated on the preceding discourse beginning at 12:1, which in turn was prompted by a conversation with Pharisees over a meal, from 11:37. This passage, in its appeal to repentance, is the concluding portion of that larger drama.
In Luke 13:1-9, Jesus is told of a brutal persecution of worshippers, and responds by referring to a separate terrible accident involving multiple fatalities. He then goes on to tell a parable about a vineyard. This passage is widely credited as presenting an imperative urgently to repent, on the grounds that the time granted by God, for repentance, is limited.
The Luke-Acts literature claims that Luke’s gospel is made up of eye-witness accounts which he collected (1:1-2) in order to provide “an orderly account”, as a didactic resource for a catechised man called Theophilus (1:3-4), and that the Acts narrative is a continuation of the same project (Acts 1:1-2).
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.
With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. – Luke 1:1-4
There are no particularly compelling grounds on which to dispute this claim. There is a “universal” consensus (so Mattill), that Luke-Acts was written somewhere between the 60’s AD and the early 2nd Century.
The Intended Reader
Kistemaker speculates on the identity of Theophilus on the basis of the address, “most excellent” (1:3), as implying a Roman governor. Mattill agrees that Luke could even have compiled it specifically for the Roman court, in the trial of Paul. If so, it could provide an “implied reader” which helps to interpret Luke’s depiction of Romans in general. It may, for example, give clues to the inclusion, uniquely by Luke, of details such as those concerning Herod in 8:3, 23:6-11, 23:12, Herod’s demise under God’s judgement in Acts 12, and the many detailed accounts of Paul’s encounters with Roman authorities in Acts 16:19-40, 17:7-8, 19:23-41, 21:31-22:29, 23:16-28:31. On the other hand, Alexander suggests a Jewish patron of a Roman house church instead, who is not necessarily the intended reader at all. In any case, the identity of Theophilus is not actually known, but for our purposes it does seem that Luke’s reader is assumed to be familiar with the events concerning the Galileans in Jerusalem, as mentioned in 13:1-5 (So Buchanan).
Luke is acknowledged as having certain “habits in redacting his sources”, but the nature and extent of his redaction in any given passage is a matter of debate among scholars, as it often relates to competing theories of possible literary dependence on sources including the Mark and Matthew documents, and the speculated “Q” and “L” sources from which Luke supposedly has drawn material.
In this passage
In this passage, the proposed redaction is usually that the 13:1-5 and 13:6-9 sections could initially have circulated independently (in “Q”, for instance), and been joined by Luke,  or that the 13:1-5 discourse was an invention of the later church community. The two tragedies mentioned in 13:1 and 13:4 are not corroborated in any other extant historical accounts, and are not mentioned in the other Gospel accounts either. Buchanan still concludes that the events are reliably reported because this passage was written down at a time when readers would have been familiar with the events in question, and it contains what he identifies as authentic oral mnemonic devices called “chrais”.
Fitzmyer and Marshall both seriously question the challenge by early 20th Century R. Bultmann, that the dialogue was invented later by the early church, as an apophthegm to the parable of 13:6-9, each citing reasons instead to credit this account as authentic in agreement with Buchanan. Fitzmyer admits that the parable of 13:6-9 could have been unrelated to the events of 13:1-5 before Luke received the accounts and joined them, but finds no reason necessarily to conclude so. In my view, fully explained below, a fresh understanding of Jesus’ teaching in 13:1-5 will fully explain why the sin and calamity theme is not addressed in the parable of 13:6-9, by observing that Jesus was not talking about sin and calamity in the first place.
The literary context for this passage
Chapters 12 and 13 form part of the “Travel Narrative” (Luke 9:51-19:27) of Luke’s Gospel, (so Kistemaker). Wolfe finds a chiastic relationship between this section and Acts 8-11, which he says could explain why it is presented as a “travel” narrative, despite it not actually being a description of a journey.
The narrative context of this passage
Irrespective of whether the events and discourse in 13:1-9 really did immediately follow the events of chapter 12 and involve the same audience, Luke presents them as if they did. This means that the reader is expected, by Luke, to respond to this passage in context with what has gone before.
In the immediately preceding story
Chapter 12 is a series of teachings which depict an imminent dramatic change of the spiritual and social landscapes, following a dramatic faceoff with the Pharisees in 11:45-54. Right in front of the same indignant Pharisees, this new era is depicted to the now large crowd (12:1) as a time of secrets being revealed (12:3), of persecution (12:4), of judgement (12:8-9), and of martyrdom (12:11-12). Jesus teaches of the possibility of imminent death (12:20), the end of a need for worldly possessions (12:32-33), the imminence of the Messiah’s coming (12:40), and the terrible fate of those who are not ready for it (12:46), including the prospect of a divine “beating”, even for the ignorant (12:47-48). He talks of “fire on the earth” (12:49), and goes on to describe a situation that transcends family loyalties (12:52-53). Immediately preceding the discourse of 13:1-9, in something of a crescendo Jesus uncharacteristically accuses even the crowd of being “hypocrites” for not appreciating the urgency of the situation (12:56), and then describes a situation in which the hearer is a debtor who is unable to pay, and is on the way to court. His advice is “try hard to be reconciled on the way” (12:58), or face an interminable sentence (12:59).
This tirade would presumably have been terrifying for the audience. It is from passages such as this that we take the superlative, “of Biblical proportions”, to describe extreme calamity. In this context it is unsurprising that, ”some who were present at that time” (13:1), would ask about a contemporaneous event of religious, political and social importance, such as the Romans killing God-fearing worshippers at prayer (13:1).
The passage itself
Commentators speculate on the intent of the question of 13:1. Some of that speculation arises from the possibility that it was originally divorced from the preceding discourse. Hence, Bock thinks that the question could have been nationalistic, and would interest “philosopher/theologians” in the crowd, Fitzmyer points out that Jesus was a Galilean himself, which could have been expected by the people to influence his response. Nolland observes that those who asked the question were probably doing so with political issues in mind. Because Jesus answered apolitically, Tannehill expects that they would have been “disappointed or angered” by his response. Likewise, Bailey suggests that the expected response would be, “How long, O Lord! Destroy the house of the evil Romans! Hear the cry of thy people!”, despite the Romans not having featured in Jesus’ discourse thus far.
But this interjection could be interpreted instead with respect to an implied question: “Is this the kind of thing you mean, Jesus?”, because Jesus’ harsh words are still presumably ringing in their ears:
“Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time? Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” – Luke 12:56-57
Jesus did respond initially in terms of sin and calamity in 13:2-5a, but only in passing, with respect to two specific cases, each of which serve his main point about repentance. 5b provides a transition back to the theme of imminent judgement, as an introduction to the parable of 13:6-9. The parable develops his earlier point, “try hard to be reconciled on the way” to judgement (12:58), which provides the missing “explicit application” for the parable as noted by Fitzmyer, more convincingly than Fitzmyer’s own suggestion. The parable deals with the limited time before the judgement, just as 12:58 does, whereas Fitzmyer’s suggestion, which relies only on vv13:3,5, does not.
Bailey, Bock,and Tannehill recognise Jesus’ immediate return to the theme of repentance, but still consider Jesus’ straw-man argument of sin-and-calamity as forming part of his teaching even though Jesus himself dismisses it as irrelevant. It is only indirectly referred to as the contrived premise of rhetorical questions, the express point of which is to return the conversation to an unrelated theme: repentance. Jesus does not address the question, “is sin generally related to calamity?”
The teaching (Verses 1-5)
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.
The nature of the connection between 13:1-9 and the preceding narrative, is instructed partly by the translation of 13:1. Bailey observes that if the imperfective verb, “Παρῆσαν” is translated “came”, then the 13:1-6 pericope could stand alone, as Eastern traditions have interpreted it; but if it is translated, “were present” instead, then it can be seen as a tight sequential “tie” to the preceding narrative, which is the usual Western interpretation. Nolland agrees, seeing a unified literary unit from 12:1-13:9, as does Tannehill, who sees this passage as a development of the “challenge and warnings” of 12:54-59.
“The Galileans” could have been “seditious followers of Judas, the Galilean”, of Acts 5:37, or just “pilgrims”. If the reference to the blood of sacrifices is to be taken literally, then probably at Passover time. Alternatively, that expression may just be a “gruesome metaphor”. But the reference indicates that Pilate had killed these people during worship.
Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?
Jesus responds as though the question related to the relative sinfulness of the victims. Contrary to Tannehill’s observation, there is no indication that the question was intended to raise that point, so the possible explanations include:
- This dialogue is taken out of its original context by Luke, and used for his own narrative purposes without redacting for the premise of this question;
- Jesus knew the true, unstated inference of the people to be predicated on a question of sin and calamity;
- Jesus took the opportunity to teach a lesson about personal spiritual matters, and thereby avoided a trap posed by a politically loaded question;
- My own view: Jesus was simply turning the conversation back to his main point, repentance, and this rhetorical question was the foil he would use to achieve that.
“I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.
Jesus answers his own rhetorical question with an emphatic “no!”, and turns the subject back to repentance.
“Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?
To emphasise the lesson, Jesus uses a similar contemporaneous event which also involved innocent victims, and was also located within Jerusalem. This time it was an accident, which adds only a small nuance to his prior point: Accidents happen, therefore one cannot predict the hour of one’s death, even in the absence of persecution. Again he poses a rhetorical question about the supposed guilt of the dead, but without anyone having raised the subject.
“I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Again, Jesus emphatically refutes his own rhetorical foil, returning to his topic of discourse: repentance. Irrespective now, whether due to persecution or misadventure, repentance is universally exhorted. The literary link between the first and second questions is emphasised by the refrain of verses 3 and 5.
The Parable (Verses 6-9)
In the process of setting up, and then tearing down, a straw-man argument formed in response to the interjection of 13:1, Jesus has returned the topic firmly to the question of repentance. He then proceeds to tell a parable to reinforce an earlier point: the time is short, and therefore the time for repentance is now. The parable is silent about sin and calamity for the individual, simply because that matter is tangential to the point of this whole passage.
The parable of 13:6-9 is set in a vineyard, which likely draws on the legacy of Isaiah 5:1-7 and related passages, but with important differences in the way various symbols are presented. This passage focusses on an individual plant, for example, whereas Isaiah 5:1-7 concerns the whole vineyard. The single plant is thought to represent the leadership of Israel (so Bailey), the individual hearer (so Bock), either the city of Jerusalem or any individual Israelite (so Forbes), or even the later Christian believer of Luke’s day (so Fitzmyer).
These may all be incorrect, with Forbes getting close with “the city of Jerusalem”. In the previous chapter Jesus has been describing a cataclysmic change of political, social, and spiritual dimensions. Israel was about to be judged by God because of her failure to produce “fruit”. In that judgement, it would not matter if one was sinner or saint. The same fate would befall everyone. The vineyard would therefore be the whole world, whom God had purposed to bless through the election of Abraham (Genesis 12:3).
The judgement would be due to the “unfruitfulness” of the tree. That is, Israel. This is implicates the Pharisees as religious leaders, but the point about calamity for the individual is that the calamity is coming through no fault of the individual person, and they best be reconciled to God immediately.
It should go without saying the Jesus was proved right in his dire predictions when the Romans quelled a Jewish insurgency, destroying the Temple in 70AD.
The Fig Tree
This passage does not necessarily have any direct textual relationship to Matthew 21:18-19, and Mark 11:13-14, 20-21. The parable continues a “bearing fruit” theme, introduced through the Baptist in 3:7-9, and Jesus in 6:43-45. Both of the earlier passages, as this one, concern judgement with respect to bearing fruit, and so does a later one at 20:9-19.
The meaning of the Parable
Luke 13:6-9 deals with the concern for the vineyard as a whole, the welfare of which is being weighed against the value of a particular unproductive tree. The result is that the tree will be granted a stay of execution in the expectation that it will become productive. Failing that, it will be destroyed at a certain time for the good of the whole vineyard. The moral is that the Jewish religious enterprise (Israel) has been granted one last chance, to produce the appropriate fruit in order to avoid deserved destruction at the appointed time. If not, everyone who is part of that ‘tree’ will suffer calamity whether they are innocent or guilty.
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any.
The antecedent for this image could be any combination of Micah 7:1, Isaiah 5:4, Isaiah 5:7, and related passages. By referring to a vineyard, Jesus is deliberately appropriating the Old Testament imagery in which God is the owner of the vineyard, national Israel. The “fruit” implicitly equates to such virtues as justice and righteousness (Isaiah 5:7), but also more generally, “the faithful” Israelites themselves (Micah 7:2).
So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
“The man who took care of the vineyard” is not necessarily Jesus himself (so Fitzmyer), as it could merely be a reference to the cultural expectation of an owner relying on a hired man to tend the vineyard (so Bailey).
Bailey strongly refutes the allegorical connection to Jesus as the intercessor, but his grounds for doing so are flawed, because such an interpretation does not rely on the Trinitarian overtones as he suggests. The connection to Jesus as intercessor has a number of other Biblical precedents, such as Abraham interceding for Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33), and Moses interceding for the people (Exodus 32:11-14), both of whom achieved a reprieve.
In 20:9-29, the “farmers” were the religious leaders (20:19), but here the “vinedresser” promises to nourish the tree. The tree, in this parable, more likely represents the religious leaders against whom Jesus has been speaking vehemently since 12:1. It is therefore possible that Jesus was referring to his own ministry as “vinedresser” (so Forbes).
The reference to “three years”, however, is not likely a reference to Jesus’ ministry, since Jesus did not elsewhere explicitly teach about the expected length of his ministry. It may indicate the age of the tree to be six, or nine years old, but in any case its purpose is to indicate that the tree had “ample time to be productive”.
The inevitable and just outcome is that the unproductive tree should be destroyed. The injustice of indefinitely leaving the tree alive is highlighted by the rhetorical question, “why should it use up the soil?”
“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.
The vinedresser intercedes for the tree, promising to give it special attention.
The presence of an intercessor, and the focus on preserving, rather than destroying the vineyard, are key differences from the background Isaiah 5:1-7 passage, and these would not be lost on the audience. In combination, they represent an emphasis on mercy.
If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”
The Greek subjunctive verb, “ποιησῃ”, used in this way with the participle, “μελλον”, could be interpreted such that, “it may bear [fruit]”, is the implicit hope, or the intended outcome, rather than indifferently one of two possible outcomes. In such a case, the tree is being tended with the hope of producing the fruit of repentance, but the time is finite.
Jesus was saying one thing: Repent
This passage concludes Jesus’ public tirade against the Pharisees, which arose from a dispute during a meal (11:37-52), and took place immediately outside that venue (11:53). It began with the Pharisees attempting to debate Jesus publicly (11:53-54), and in that discourse Jesus described the faithful as being distinct from, and wary of, rather than reliant upon the Pharisees. He used violent allegories to describe the urgency of being ready for that kingdom. Specifically, he insisted, the hearer needed to repent immediately.
Jesus was not prepared to be distracted from his central message
During the discourse, two previous interjections occurred at 12:13 and 12:41. At 13:1 the third one came. As he had on the other two occasions, Jesus immediately turned the focus back to his own message: in this case, imminent judgement and the limited but real opportunity for repentance. In the process he briefly asked rhetorical questions about sin and calamity, but only as a contrived foil against which to pitch his message about urgent repentance in the face of an imminent undeserved calamity. He concludes with a parable, which presents Old Testament imagery in a way that the Pharisees would comprehend to be an indictment against their ministry, but which the crowd would comprehend as a warning that everything would soon change (because of a failing in the religious leadership), bringing with it a terrifying calamity for everyone, sinner and saint alike. The single point being, do not delay in being reconciled to God.
When the calamity came upon Judaism, it might be noted that the Christians left, precisely because of oracles such as this from Jesus.
But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella. And when those that believed in Christ had come thither from Jerusalem, then, as if the royal city of the Jews and the whole land of Judea were entirely destitute of holy men, the judgment of God at length overtook those who had committed such outrages against Christ and his apostles, and totally destroyed that generation of impious men.
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