The following was presented as a reflection on March 27th at the Lancaster Theological Seminary Wednesday Chapel service at 11AM.
When I first looked at the preaching schedule, and saw my name by this passage, I said to myself, “Oh, there’s been a huge mistake – they’ve assigned a ‘repent passage’ to the agnostic existentialist!” As someone who has been on the receiving end of a certain kind of evangelistic message, I was not looking forward to this morning. What can I say? Guilt-tripping people into loving Jesus isn’t really my style. As time has passed, however – as I have studied and read, thought and discussed, worked and slept, laughed and cried, raged and deliberated – as I’ve continued in the grand task of living life, in other words – I have found echoes of this passage in my context, and resonance with my experience. To my surprise, I found that I actually do have things to say.
Historically, passages like this have been used as evidence in an argument that God’s favor had passed from Judaism to Christianity. As one commentator points out, “Christian interpreters have been quick to see allegorical meanings in the parable. The fig tree and the vineyard represent Israel, the owner is God, the gardener is Jesus, and the three years refer to the period of Jesus’ ministry.” Although he does not go on to acknowledge what to me appears to be a fairly clear path to an anti-Judean conclusion, other commentators do not shy away: “Luke begins his gospel with a less than favorable portrayal of the Jews … [and his] passion narrative makes it clear that it is the Jewish leaders who are responsible ultimately for the death of Jesus. [These] narratives could and have been interpreted as anti-Jewish.” That’s the easiest way to understand Jesus’ teachings, right? “You Jews in Galilee and Jerusalem assume that those who died were more sinful than the rest of you. Repent! Become Christian now, or else!”
Let’s step back a minute, however. Why would anyone assume that God has turned God’s back on Israel? Well, remember that this passage started with some unnamed individuals in the crowd bringing up an incident where Galileans (presumably Jews) were murdered by the Romans while offering sacrifice. That is, they were murdered during worship. Jesus’ response sounds a lot like, “Well, not only did they deserve it, but what makes you think that the rest of you all don’t deserve similar?”
I have to tell you, this message raises all my hackles, and the fact that most commentators I read basically said something along the lines of, “ooooh, you tell ‘em, Jesus,” only makes it worse. Because I’ve heard this exact same thing before – on message boards, on Facebook, on Twitter, and in person: “Oh, he should have just followed instructions.” “If you’re not guilty, then you have nothing to fear.” And, of course, “F’ing punks, these a-holes always get away.”
This, in essence, is what Ta-Nehisi Coates is referring to when he speaks of “the Dream”: it is the promise given to one group of people at the expense of another, a promise rooted in state sanctioned violence that is then wrapped in lies of benevolence, natural (or divine) law, and glorious destiny. And the Dreamers – the Chosen ones who most benefit from this Dream of dominance – are its staunchest defenders, sometimes unwittingly.
New Testament scholar Neil Elliott describes it like this: “Empires routinely and deliberately seek to join force to persuasion … [using] a rhetorical arsenal of themes of inevitability, beneficence, and consent.” Specifically describing the Roman Empire, he states, “Force … was inadequate by itself. The dominant classes [attempted] to persuade those they exploited to accept their oppressed condition without protest … to persuade the poor that they really are not fitted to rule and that this is much better left to their ‘betters’.” Elliott continues: “The expansion of the Roman economy through the conquest and enslavement of subject peoples was effectively represented as the inevitable, divinely ordained, and indeed salutary destiny of the Roman people.” To the Romans, the Empire was the shining city on the hill, providing a beacon light to guide civilized people everywhere; it had a manifest destiny of unchecked expansion – from sea to shining sea. Of course, one of the logical conclusions from this line of thinking would be that Judeans, as a conquered people, were clearly not only not meant to control their national, communal, or individual destinies, but also that they only had themselves to blame for whatever suffering befell them. By challenging – or even questioning – Roman rule, they proved themselves to be uncivilized, and thus fully deserving of whatever destruction they experienced at the hands of their “betters”.
In other words, in Galilee, as in the rest of the Empire, there were Dreamers – those who bought in to the imperial propaganda, those who insisted that the Roman Dream (aka the “Pax Romana”) was just, noble, and real. People suffering were simply on the wrong side of history – and furthermore, damn them for making us do this to them. To quote a deliciously sardonic song, “we do what we must because we can, for the good of all of us except the ones who are dead.” And even those conquered people, those most experiencing the force and trauma, end up twisted around on themselves, confused and wondering, “what if we are to blame for our suffering? What if we deserve this?”
These verses have no parallel in the other gospels; they appear to be entirely the work of the author of Luke n’ Acts. Most agree that the gospel was written after the Roman razing of Jerusalem, and there is a general assumption that the writer, although intimately familiar with Jewish scripture and practice, was probably not Jewish. Most likely, he (or she) was also well educated – not of the highest social class, but close. Maybe not the 1%, but the 10%? Personally, I think Luke was a Roman Dreamer – a defender of this Roman narrative of dominance – and, because of this, his Jesus had to be one as well. Two commentators describe Luke’s literary treatment of the Judeans as a “historically inaccurate and unjust depiction [which] is due in part to a desire to show the reader that the founder and his movement were not revolutionary and therefore were not dangerous to the state.” In the writing of this Gospel, Luke has, to paraphrase Ta-Nehisi Coates, “retrofitted [the Christian message] as a staging ground for a great deception” – one that normalizes, justifies, and deifies the twin practices of violence and gas-lighting inherent to imperial rule. Through this Jesus, the rule of God becomes effectively indistinguishable from the rule of Rome – wrath and violence are not only justified, but required against those ingrates who reject divine benevolence. “God does what He must, because He can.” In other words, as Elliot describes, “the non-Judeans … confuse their own status ‘in Christ’ with the status that imperial ideology promised them as participants in the civilization of wealth. They should expect to be included among ‘the powerful,’ enjoying the impunity of victors who stand at the effective end of history.” Unfortunately for them, it was not the effective end of history. We all know what eventually happened to Rome – and to the Roman Dream.
Do I suggest, then, that we should throw the Gospel of Luke out of the Bible? By no means! First, throwing out Luke for these reasons would pretty much condemn Matthew and John, and Mark would get significant side-eyes. Second, and perhaps more important, however, is that, with a bit of tweaking, this passage can inform how we live our lives today – as long as we also remember the fate of Rome. So, indulge me in a slightly alternate reading:
As Jesus was teaching, some folks in the crowd brought up the Jews that Pilate’s troops had murdered during worship. Jesus said, “Did they deserve that fate any more than you do? No – and if you think so, perhaps you should reflect on your loyalties, before God shows whether God stands with or against those who murder people in church. And remember those folks who died when the tower fell? Do you believe the Romans’ lies about who they were and what they were doing? If so, perhaps you should reflect on your loyalties, before God shows whether God stands with or against those who gas-light the oppressed.”
Then Jesus told a parable: “This guy owned a fig tree that was supposed to produce amazing fruit. But every time he came out looking for these awesome figs, he found nothing but barren branches. So finally he told his gardener, ‘I’ve let this tree expand and grow, but it isn’t doing what it should. It’s just choking the life out of the surrounding plants. Destroy it!” The gardener replied, “You never know – maybe the tree will produce next year? Probably not, but give it some fertilizer and wait a bit. If, after all that, the tree still isn’t producing properly, then I agree – it needs to go.”
Imperialism does not – and can not – produce fruit of true justice, mercy, and humility. The Roman Dream – The “Pax” Romana – no longer exists. It was cut down. Even the broken fragments of that Dream, which are still limping along in the Roman Catholic church, are under continued assault from both outside and within, due to their protection of those willing to exploit the weakest among them.
Of course, the more things change, the more they stay the same. We live under a new Dream – the “Pax” Americana – which is just as fundamentally rotten as the old one. Roman ideals of ‘honor’ and ‘glory’ have been replaced by modern ideals of ‘Protestant work ethic’ and ‘rugged individualism’, but the effect upon the conquered peoples – quite literally, the ‘least of these’ – is the same. Who are the ones being blamed for their own suffering?
Nine worshipers killed Philadelphia. Eleven in Pittsburgh. Fifty in Christchurch. Who are the ones being blamed for their own suffering?
Iraq, Afganistan, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Indonesia, Yugoslavia, Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Venezuela. Who are the ones being blamed for their own suffering?
“Welfare queens.” “Black-on-black crime.” “Dangerous border crossers.” “Radical Islamic Terrorism.” “Short skirts send the wrong signals.” Who are the ones being blamed for their own suffering?
Maybe we are living in the new Rome, with a new Roman Dream, with new gospels written by new Lukes. It looks good and smells sweet, but who does the modern Christian gospel blame when one is suffering? Is the new Jesus of America the same Jesus of Luke’s gospel – a Jesus sent to justify and sanctify membership in a civilization of wealth with the privilege of power? Maybe. Is it the same Jesus that was sent by God to embody love, “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim the release of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor?” Hmm… Which of these represents the true fulfillment of God’s purpose in history? Which of these gospels describes God’s dream?
The fertilizer has been laid, and we’re all waiting to see the fruit. We know what happened to Rome. Where will your loyalties lie when the gardener comes back around?
 R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” In Luke; John, vol IX, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, edited by Leander E. Keck et. al (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 271.
 Judy Yates Siker, “Anti-Judaism in the Gospels According to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Mel,” Pastoral Psychology vol 53 issue 4 (March 2005), 306.
 George Zimmerman, “Transcript of George Zimmerman’s Call to the Police,” Genius.com, accessed March 25, 2019, https://genius.com/George-zimmerman-transcript-of-george-zimmermans-call-to-the-police-annotated.
 Neil Elliott, The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 28.
 Elliot, 28-29.
 Elliot, 29.
 Ronald Reagan, “Transcript of Regan’s Farewell Address to American People,” The New York Times, published January 12, 1989 and accessed March 27, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/1989/01/12/news/transcript-of-reagan-s-farewell-address-to-american-people.html.
 Jonathan Coulton, “Still Alive” (Bellvue: Valve Corporation, 2005), accessed March 27, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6ljFaKRTrI.
 Jane D. Schaberg and Sharon H. Ringe, “Gospel of Luke,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, third edition, edited by Carol A. Newsom et. al. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 496.
 Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 106.
 Elliott, 158.
 Micah 6:8.
 “Roman Catholic Church Sex Abuse Cases,” The New York Times, accessed March 27, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/topic/organization/roman-catholic-church-sex-abuse-cases.
 Luke 4:18–19 (NRSV).