Easter Without Hindsight: Stealth or Violent Nationalism?
The clash between Jeshua’s image of the stealthy development of God’s kingdom and the disciples’ instinct that messiah might instead stride through the land destroying pagan and sinner alike, is poignantly illustrated (Luke 13:1-9) in the conversation surrounding the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree.
People crowding around Jeshua are discussing with him the fate of a number of pilgrims from Galilee who had recently been killed in the Temple in Jerusalem by Pontius Pilate’s troops. “Pilate had mixed their blood with that of the sacrifices” says Luke, strikingly using the image of their blood mingling on the ground with that of the animals they had just had just sacrificed.
He has repeatedly warned of the consequences of violent opposition to Rome. Jeshua points out that these Galileans were no guiltier than others who might suffer death at the hands of the tyranny. Jeshua is himself leading a group of pilgrims to Jerusalem from Galilee. He knows, at this point in the gospel, that he will suffer and die in Jerusalem. Rebellion against Rome will be the crime that the Temple priests will construct against him in order to force Pilate to crucify him. It will happen in spite Pilate’s own protestation that Jeshua is innocence of that charge.
The point Jeshua is making to his disciples here is that unless Israel rejects violent rebellion against Rome as their vision of ‘God’s kingdom coming’, the Jewish people will suffer. If they live by the sword they will die by the sword. Or be crushed when the Romans eventually destroy the city.
The parable is another illustration of their likely fate. The vineyard was an often-used symbol for Israel as God’s own garden. The fig tree in the vineyard (fig trees were often planted in vineyards) produces no fruit so the vineyard owner discusses its removal with the gardener. Those who heard the story would have understood Jeshua’s warning working two ways:
On one hand, Jeshua can cast himself as they vineyard owner. He has spent the last three years walking through the land of Israel seeking repentance from violent nationalism (all too often the human response to political oppression) and hoping to see some of the fruits of the kingdom. He has found precious little of either, even among his own disciples.
Or the vineyard owner could actually be God, asking why the tree should take up soil any longer. Jeshua, in this version is the gardener. His advice is:
“I’ll dig all round it and put on some manure. If it bears fruit next year, well and good. If not, you can cut it down.”