Herb Montgomery | May 15, 2020
“The contradictions of our present economic system are being exposed more every passing day. The exploitations built into our present system are straining in this pandemic. A system with such a long history of placing profit above people and planet cannot easily pivot now to prioritizing people, especially not the most vulnerable people in our society.”
In Luke’s gospel we read:
“At that very time, there were some present that told him about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did. Then he told this parable: A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:1-9)
As we discussed in A Gospel for the Earth, Jesus had called the elites in his audience to make reparations to exploited and marginalized people in their society before the response to their exploitation escalated out of control (see Luke 12:58). In our passage today, some in his audience respond by raising Pilate’s slaying Galilean rebels. Did they bring up this incident as a rebuttal to Jesus’ call for reparations in a society on the verge of rebellion?
Rome very carefully watched when any of its subservient people congregated, but it especially watched those with subversive tendencies leaning toward revolt. The Galilean Jews certainly fit this description. Being exploited nationally by Rome and economically by Jewish elites cooperating with Rome left some on the edge of rebellion, ready to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression by any means necessary. One of the ways the elite responded was to accuse the exploited rebels who hungered and thirsted for things to be put right (see Matthew 5:6) of being “sinners” getting what they deserved. Jesus called them blessed.
The elites were victim-blaming. The oppressed class’s failure to put things right was not because they lacked moral uprightness. It was the result of an almost insurmountably heavy system that had been designed to work against them, violently if need be.
As we all respond to COVID-19 now, where do you see injustices in our society being laid bare, amplified, and pushed to a breaking point? Are you seeing those most vulnerable being blamed today? Who is defending the system now? Who is calling repeatedly for change?
There are some parallels between Jesus’ context and our own economic and political breaking point. The story in Luke invites us to ask: how can we stand in solidarity with vulnerable people who are hungering for things to be put right, right now?
Most scholars agree that in the Galilean revolt referred to in Luke 13, Roman soldiers must have surprised Galilean insurgents while the rebels were sacrificing in preparation for their revolt. The Roman soldiers slaughtered the Galileans right then and there, and the religiopolitical elite responded by questioning whether the people revolting had been morally upright. Jesus replied:
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”
He goes on to say:
“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Then Jesus responds to these objectors with a second occurrence everyone was talking about during that time:
“Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”
According to some sources, the tower of Siloam was a tower that Rome used for weapons storage. A group of Zealot insurgents had tried to dig a tunnel under the tower, hoping to seize the weapons stored there and use them in a violent revolt against the Romans. But the tower’s foundation was already decaying, and the Zealots’ tunnel further compromised the integrity of the foundation. The entire construction suddenly collapsed and claimed the lives of several Galileans.
Jesus said again:
“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
In Jesus’ calls for repentance, I don’t hear the evangelical, moralistic idea of repentance so many of us are used to today. I hear a Jewish prophet of the poor calling for a change in society so that the poor and indebted are not further exploited, but could experience the distributive justice called for by the Hebrew prophetic tradition (see the book of Amos).
Luke’s gospel was written long after Jerusalem’s catastrophic crisis in 70 C.E. Yet in that gospel, Jesus warns that if the people did not change their society’s path, inequities would continue to escalate until their society imploded and all would be destroyed together. Because it was written after the fact, Luke’s gospel can connect these dots for its audience.
Jesus then finishes this warning with a story. Please read this story prayerfully, remembering the social and political context in which Jesus told it:
“Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”’”
The system of exploitation of the masses for the benefit of a few was set on a collision course with annihilation if something didn’t change. What was the fruit the gardener looked for that would ensure it remains?
I believe it was a more distributively just shaping of society, where the rain fell and the sun shone on all equitably (see Matthew 5:45).
What does this mean for us today?
The contradictions of our present economic system are being exposed more every passing day. The exploitations built into our present system are straining in this pandemic. A system with such a long history of placing profit above people and planet cannot easily pivot now to prioritizing people, especially not the most vulnerable people in our society.
Our food distribution chain is breaking down.
People have lost their income.
They can’t afford to feed their families.
Those who were barely surviving already now can’t pay their rent and/or mortgages.
The solution here in the U.S. so far has been to plunge those in need further into debt. Bailouts for people in the U.S. are very different than those other countries are offering to their citizens. States’ are also quickly running out of money.
The immigrant population here is especially vulnerable during all of this, and our present food chain depends on them.
The for-profit-health system is also at a breaking point, and healthcare professionals now have to place their own lives at risk.
Nonprofits that typically provide charity are also feeling the strain as they operate at significantly lower income levels than they usually do.
It’s time to dream of and work toward a system the places people over profit. Imagine the world we could create if Jesus followers insisted on following Jesus’ clear call to distributive justice.
In Luke’s gospel, the fig tree continued to grow but did not produce any life-giving fruit.
Growth for growth’s sake in capitalist economics is called profit. It’s good for business. But on a cellular level in biology, it’s called cancer.
It’s not good for creatures or for the planet. And it’s not good for those at the bottom and edges of our present economic system. It was once named a recipe for potential disaster, and today it’s proving to be just that.
In our passage, the fig tree won’t be allowed to continue to grow exponentially or indefinitely without providing fruit for the sustenance and life of those around it.
What can this say to us right now during this crisis about our own systems?
Our present system is not working. It’s not simply not working and for those our present system deems “the least of these,” it’s doing immeasurable harm.
I want to believe that another world is possible.
If it is, we will have to choose it.
We have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”
We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and to practice physical distancing. You can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.
This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this pandemic has proven. And we need each other during this time. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. How many ways can you take care of others while we are physically apart?
- How have Jesus’ social teachings spoken to you during our present pandemic? Share with your group.
- Our present system with its long history of placing profit above people and planet is not pivoting well now to prioritizing people, especially not the most vulnerable people in our society. What is the parable of the fig tree saying to you in this context this week? Share with your group.
- Thinking of those most impacted in our society by our present pandemic, a statement by Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas has been on my heart. In Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, writes, “God’s justice means a restoration of the dignity of all people. This begins with the crucified class of people . . . God’s peace thus requires a radical restructuring of a political, social and economic order that is sustained by and thus creates ‘crucified classes of people.’” (p. 200) This week, how can we work toward a world where crucified classes of people no longer exist. Brainstorm with your group. Then pick something from what you come up with and begin putting it into practice this coming week.
Thanks for checking in with us this week.
Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.
Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.
Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.
I love each of you dearly,
I’ll see you next week