“Unless you transform you will all be similarly destroyed.” After warning his disciples about the dangers of wealth and encouraging them to be children of their heavenly father who worry about nothing, Jesus told his disciples to “be ready,” for a fire was coming into the world.
We might want to respond to Jesus, saying, “Be ready how and for what exactly?” Much to our frustration, Jesus seems to think if we simply paid better attention to what is around us that we would be able to know. He said to all the crowds around him, “When you perceive a cloud ascending in the west, you immediately say, ‘A thunderstorm is coming,’ and so it happens. When a south wind is blowing, you say, ‘It will be very hot,’ and it happens.”
Jesus knows we are quite capable of looking at the signs in the world around us and from that knowing what is about to happen. So he calls it like it is, saying, “Pretenders! You perceive how to examine the face of earth and heaven, so how do you not perceive how to examine this season?” Jesus knows that if we have enough observation skills to read the signs of heaven and earth, then we shouldn’t act like we can’t tell that something big is going to happen in our world, in this generation.
The problem is that our chosen and self-imposed ignorance about what is really going on around us, goes even deeper—we act like we don’t know what justice is. We act like we don’t know how things should be in our world. Jesus calls us out, saying, “Why can’t you also judge for yourselves what is justice?” We were made for justice, we were made to live in harmony with one another and the creation, we were made to treat one another with love, mercy, and fairness, and yet we claim to not be able to live that way. We claim that such views are “idealistic” and very “unrealistic” for our everyday lives. So instead, we go on pretending like true justice comes through courts of law and man-appointed judges. We use elaborate systems of “justice” and elaborate schemes of retribution and punishment and call it all “justice.” But Jesus knows that deep inside we know better.
Jesus said, “As you are going with your opponent to the boss, work to be released from him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge. The judge will give you over to the officer and the officer will throw you under guard. I say to you, you will never come out from there till you have given back the last smallest coin.” True justice, according to Jesus, is working one-on-one with your neighbor to set things right, it is not running off to somebody else to try to fix your disagreements through coercive retribution, punishment, fines, or prison. When we try to play that game of “justice” it inevitably comes back to haunt us all and we suffer under its actual injustice. If you think “justice” is running before a judge to get your way, then, according to Jesus, that same “justice” is going to come back to haunt you. The alternative is to work things out one-on-one with those you have hurt and wronged, healing things through patient communication, love, forgiveness, and humility.
Around the time that Jesus was teaching this, some others approached him and told him about how “justice” had been served to some rebel Galileans who had been killed by governor Pilate—who was the arm of “justice” in the area for the Roman Empire. Jesus asked them, “Do you assume these Galileans were more rebellious than all those in Galilee because they suffered these things?” Once again Jesus challenged them to think about their idea of “justice.” Did they really think that because these men were killed by Pilate that they deserved it more than others? And what about us? Do we think the terrorists in our world deserve to die more than us as they are hunted down and killed? Do we think the murderers and rapists deserve punishment more than us as they are prosecuted, imprisoned, and executed?
Jesus throws our world on its head with his response, “Not at all! I say to you, on the contrary, unless you transform you will all be similarly destroyed!” Jesus saw the Roman Empire and Pilate’s action of “justice” against these rebel Galileans as nothing approaching true justice. Instead, he saw it as an obvious, flashing, neon sign and symptom of the collective dysfunction of the society, culture, and world. If we think this kind of thing is true “justice” then we are greatly mistaken and are heading for our own destruction.
But what are we to learn from this action of Pilate’s and how are we to transform our lives accordingly? Jesus wants us to see the bankruptcy of the world’s way of doing justice. He wants us to transform our conception of “justice”—away from the world’s idea of creating elaborate systems and structures of retribution and into the down-to-earth, hard work of personal love and forgiveness.
Jesus then challenged the crowds even deeper, saying, “Or those eighteen that the tower in Siloam fell upon and killed, do you assume that they were in more debt than all of the humanity dwelling in Jerusalem?” This time Jesus references what seems to be a tragic accident where eighteen people were killed when a tower toppled and fell on them, crushing them to death. Do we see seemingly random accidents as signs that god must not have liked that particular person? Do we see hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and forest fires as god’s judgment on those specific people? What about car accidents, house fires, and towers falling? Are these signs of god’s disfavor with only those who suffer?
Jesus answers emphatically, “Not at all! I say to you, on the contrary, unless you transform you will all likewise be destroyed!” Jesus did not see this disaster with the tower as a sign that only these people deserved this fate. He once again saw this disaster as a sign and symptom of the collective dysfunction of the society, culture, and world.
But what are we to learn from this disaster and how are we to transform our lives accordingly? Going back to the “tower of Babel” in Genesis, towers have represented mankind’s desire to build his own world and to control and conquer the world. Therefore, towers falling down and crushing people is highly symbolic of our self-destructive ways of living in the world. If mankind had never built that tower in Siloam in the first place, could it have ever fallen on those eighteen people and killed them? No. Jesus is therefore calling us to rethink what we value, strive after, pursue, and build in our world. Is what we are building only going to come crashing down and destroy us in the end?
And so Jesus wants us to read the signs of the times and the signs of the world around us. He wants us to see that there are signs all around us pointing to the destruction we are bringing upon ourselves. If we would only look around at the world and see how it behaves, see how its treats one another and the creation, see how it conceives of “justice,” see how it conceives of “love,” see what it builds and invests in, then we would see that destruction is indeed right around the corner if we continue on this path. Jesus wants us to see that the things we are building are going to destroy us. The tower we build is going to be the tower that falls on us and crushes us.
In conclusion to all this, Jesus told a parable about a fig tree that had been planted in an orchard and yet was not producing any fruit. Seeing this, the owner of the orchard said to a worker, “Look! I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree for three years and I am finding none. Cut it down! Why should it even use the earth?” The orchard owner was frustrated because she had planted and cared for this tree for the whole purpose of it producing fruit. If the tree was not going to be and do what it was made for then it needed to go. The orchard worker was very patient and said to the owner, “Lord, set it free this year till I dig around it and throw on manure. See if it produces fruit for the coming year—if not, then cut it down.” One more year, one more chance, with the workers doing everything they can. If the tree changes its ways and becomes what it was intended to be, then it will be spared. But if it persists in its ways of bearing no real fruit, then it must be chopped down.
We need to start looking at ourselves and the world around us with new eyes, fresh eyes, honest eyes. We need to see the destruction and death that comes from our ideas of “justice.” We need to see the destruction and death that comes from what we build and invest in. We need to look at the parts of our own lives that are producing no real fruit. Jesus is here to wake us up, to wake us up out of our deep, deep slumber where we just go along with the world around us.
Jesus is calling us to transformation—to turn away from the patterns and voices of the world and turn toward his voice, his word, and his way of life. It is only in transformation that we will inherit the life that Jesus has been teaching us about through this whole section. But this transformation can only come through the word and spirit of god—it can only come through listening to the word of Jesus and begging to our heavenly father for his spirit to fill us.
The danger of the world’s way of doing things is very real, for as Jesus says, “unless you transform you will all be similarly destroyed.” Let us heed Jesus’ warning and let us take advantage of his patience with us—let us transform our lives today by listening to his word and producing the fruit that he, the gardener, is working so hard to cultivate in our lives. For if we do that then we will indeed “be ready” and we will inherit true and lasting life, peace, and joy—now and in the age to come. Amen.