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This week’s readings are about “metanoia” the Greek word which we translate as “conversion”, “repentance.” It literally means to “turn around 180 degrees, to stop, turn, refocus and head in a different direction.”
Theological Themes, Interesting Points & Inter-textual links.
This passage from Isaiah is poetic reflection on the sovereignty or power of God. Written to a people who have been disobedient, we should expect a wrathful God, ready to judge and condemn. And the poem moves to sing of a God who feeds us like a parent, chef or farmer. It’s an invitation to a party, not destruction. It’s an exhortation that finishes with an exaltation of the God of Israel as beyond our imagination – a God who never fails and never fails to love. It’s a radical affirmation of God as all-powerful, all loving, and beyond anything we could imagine.
Our gospel can be broken into three parts:
Verses 1-3 and Verses 4-5
The episode begins with the arrival of some people bearing horrible news. Pilate, the Roman Leader of Jerusalem and the area, who we know was horribly cruel through history, in responsible for some sort of horrific massacre in the temple. The blood of people and animals has been mixed. Logically this would mean that the people were murdered as they offered animal sacrifices in the temple. We don’t know why they were killed. But we do know that this is triply horrific in that mixing the blood of animals and humans was considered an abomination (Leviticus 7:26-27 & 17:10-14) as was murder occurring in the holy space of the Temple. Thirdly it’s highly likely that this massacre happened during the holy time of Passover, the only time when lay people, without the help of priests, were allowed to offer their own sacrifices in the Temple. Verse 4 to 5 tell of a similar tragedy, the collapse of a tower in the Temple which led to the death of 18 people, presumably present for worship. Now these stories are both horrible and can lead one to question the power and goodness of God [theologians call this problem of evil – Theodicy], but that’s not the point with which Jesus is trying to get the people to wrestle.
In that day and age the rabbinical teaching was that there existed a link between sin and punishment, between crime and chastisement. Consequently if these people had died in such an horrific, abominable, violent way they must have really been blatant and major sinners. The contemporary thought was that God condemns according to our sin and rewards according to our righteousness. It’s a radically harsh and blind divine justice. Jesus questions this, asking the people what they think. He does so to overthrow this twisted vision of God’s power, justice and goodness. He also does it to overthrow the hypocrisy of the people who focus upon the sin of others, rather than admitting that they themselves sin, or fault short of God’s desires, as well. This question of Jesus is seen in the phrasing of verse 3 which is exactly the same as in verse 5, as well as in the question asked in the preceding pericope [section of scripture] in Luke 12:51.
Verse 6-9 || The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
The section ends with a parable. A similar, yet differing version of this story is also in Mark 11:13-14, 20-21. The gardener intercedes with the impatient land owner to try to save the barren fig tree. In the early church the Fig Tree was understood to be the Jewish Synagogue. Yet Biblically speaking, the Synagogue or people of Israel are more often represented by the image of a vineyard. From the Middle Ages the Church has understood the parable differently, with the Fig Tree as a representation of the believer, or of the church that doesn’t produce fruit. There is a curious connection to another story of Jesus encountering a non-producing fig tree in Mark 13:28-29 | Matthew 24:33-36 | Luke 21: 29-32. But it’s not just an allegory – where each thing represents another. There is no tidy ending. The parable is an unfinished story. What will happen to the barren tree because of the saving intervention of the gardener? We are invited to finish the parable with our own actions and in our lives. What do you think Jesus is trying to say in this parable?
Questions for wondering and exploring:
1. What troubles you and/or encourages you in these texts? Why? How does it contain good news for us?
2. These texts are dealing with “metanoia” the Greek word which we translate as “conversion”, “repentance.” It literally means to “turn around 180 degrees, to stop, turn, refocus and head in a different direction.” What is Jesus inviting the people who heard these parables and encounters to do and be? What are his words inviting us to do or be today?