God is not the owner, or the vineyard keeper

I’ve been reading a lot more about second temple Judaism lately. That’s the culture Jesus grew up in BTW. Thanks to folks like NT Wright and Michael Hardin who have made the topic approachable for someone like me. Wright’s book “Paul and the Faithfulness of God” alone is a wealth of information. I would also recommend Hardin’s book. “The Jesus Driven Life” which also can help couch Jesus in his culture for us.

So one interesting thing that happens when learning this history is that when you read the gospels you start to see things once missed. A perfect recent example for me is my recent reading of Luke 13:1-9

“Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” And He began telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.'””

‭‭Luke‬ ‭13:1-9‬ ‭NASB‬‬

This passage was always confusing to me. On the one hand Jesus seemed to be saying that the listed misfortunes weren’t necessarily connected to how bad a sinner the victims were but on the other hand warning his disciples of a similar fate if they didn’t repent. The moral story usually conveyed by preachers of this passage is that sinners always run the risk of terrible catastrophe unless they repent. Once I learned about a couple things common to Judaism  at this time some things began to fall in place not just for this passage but for verses 5-9 as well. And this interpretation I think could be very freeing for folks. Let me explain.

First of all, nowadays I approach the term repentance in its most general sense when I encounter it in the scripture so that the context of the situation can provide the scope of the repentance. Repentance is basically a change of direction or intention. It does not mean to be sorry for sins or even to stop sinning. There are even times the scripture describes God repenting, indicating a change of direction. So the first thing to keep in mind is that the rest of the passage can inform us as to what change of direction Jesus is referring to.

A common belief among second temple Jews of Jesus’ time was that if Israel could remain pure before God, that He would help them overthrow the Roman occupation and take back Israel. Another common belief was that, in general, God protected and gave favor to those who were faithful and pure while bringing destruction on sinners. These two ideas were deeply embedded in the culture.

When I read this passage yesterday, some things fell into place which showed me how Jesus was actually dismantling a belief that it appeared he was reinforcing on previous readings. The passage addresses two catastrophes, galileans being killed by the Roman governer, and some structure falling on some folks In Jerusalem. I always thought these were disconnected random misfortunes because I assumed Jesus was reinforcing the idea that disaster was a constant risk for those outside God’s protection. But I was wrong. These events are connected in the sense that Jesus uses both to address the same problem, the ongoing and impending violent resistance against Rome, and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem as foreseen by Jesus. The parable of verses 5-9 also can be seen in light of this problem as well.

With all this context in mind, I’d like to present the following reading of Jesus’ response to the question of the Galileans.

“Do you really think that it was because they were worse sinners that these Galileans were slaughtered by Rome? No, but if you continue believing God will give you victory over Rome and protect you in war you will meet the same fate. And what about those 18 people in Jerusalem who were killed when that tower fell, do you really believe that happened to them because they were worse sinners than others in Jerusalem? I’m telling you that’s not the way things work. But again, if you don’t turn away from your agenda of the violent establishment of the kingdom of Israel, you will meet the same fate when ALL the structures of Jerusalem are toppled by Rome.”

I’m just trying to present this in the way I’m understanding it as I’m reading. So this reading basically disarms the whole holiness/protection/sin/punishment paradigm and also denounces the idea that God is on the side of Israel against Rome. Jesus is warning Israel of their coming destruction, not by the anger of God against their sins, but by virtue of the fact that they are trying to establish a kingdom of God based on the same principles as Rome. Cultural supremacy and justified violence among other things.

Since the idea that God is protecting the faithful and judging the sinner with catastrophe is also very prevalent today, a reading that shows Jesus as denouncing this principle could be huge for christian communities in how they understand God and encourage one another in difficult times and catastrophes.

Verses 5-9 can now be easily seen as a continuation of Jesus’ point about Rome and Jerusalem. Perhaps, like me, you always heard that the meaning of this parable was that if you didn’t eventually bear fruit, God would uproot you and Jesus is the merciful vineyard keeper trying to give you more time. In this interpretation God is the owner, Jesus is the vineyard keeper, and you are the fig tree. Or perhaps you heard the more nuanced interpretation where Israel is the fig tree and God is the owner who no longer sees fruit coming from Israel so he wants to uproot it to make room for new trees ( Christianity perhaps?). Who the vineyard keeper represents is less clear in this interpretation.

I prefer to read this in the context of the Rome vs Jerusalem issue that Jesus addresses earlier. Rome is the owner seeing the people and culture of Israel as more of a problem than as a useful resource to the empire. The vine keeper represents those who are in Jerusalem trying to stave off the wrath of Rome (Pilate, Herod, priests, sympathetic Romans, etc…) and the fig tree is Israel. In other words, Jesus rightly understands the politics at play in the relationship between Rome and Israel and he realizes just how close to the brink they are. He is desperate for peace but knows the opposite is inevitable if Israel, including his followers, remain on their trajectory. This reading frees us from an understanding that Jesus already disarms, that God is rewarding the faithful/fruitful with safety and prosperity, while also submitting to disaster the sinner/unfruitful.

In conclusion, God is absent from our power struggles while still present in our midst just as Jesus separated himself from the ultimate power struggle of his day, even denouncing the struggle, while still being present among the people.

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