Unless you repent, you too will all perish. Luke 13:5
If a person goes out and commits a crime, who is to blame for their actions?
In times past there would have been no doubt as to where responsibility lay, an individual would be held accountable for his or her own actions, no matter how harsh such a decision might have been. The person’s family might have been dying in poverty, but if they were to steal to try to feed them they would have been punished with the full force of the law. The Fields of Athenry, the song beloved of Irish rugby and soccer fans, is a ballad about a young man being transported to Australia for stealing corn to feed his starving family during the famine. Being transported was an improvement on previous centuries, when he could have been executed for stealing something valued at more than one shilling.
The harsh interpretation of the law in times past was clearly contrary to the Gospel teaching, on a number of occasions Jesus makes it quite clear that human need came before rigid application of the law – if your children had not enough to eat, then it was appropriate that you would do whatever you could to feed them. Movements for social reform in Britain helped create a more tolerant society, and the law was applied in a way that took more account of the circumstances of the crime.
In the 20th century, social scientists, sociologists and psychologists, produced a series of studies suggesting that our circumstances weren’t just to be taken into account when passing judgment, they were in fact the cause, in whole or in part, of people becoming criminals in the first place.
There sometimes seems to been a swing from one extreme to the other, from a situation where a person was completely responsible for their own actions, no matter what the circumstances were, to a situation where a person is seen as completely the product of their upbringing and environment, and is not at all responsible for their actions.
Where do Christians stand in this matter? The rather odd Gospel reading this morning can give people some clues.
A group of Jews tell Jesus about Galileans who have been killed by Pilate’s men in a violent clash at the Temple, and Jesus refers to other Jews who were killed in another violent incident at the aqueduct that was being built at Siloam. Jesus makes the point that lawlessness and violence aren’t just the responsibility of these small groups of people. Twice he says to his listeners, “unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Jesus is quite clear that crime and violence are a matter of concern for the whole of society and unless Jewish society is prepared to change it too will be destroyed. Sadly, Jesus’ words were to come true in the disastrous Jewish revolt of AD 70 that led to the destruction of the Temple.
So, on the one hand, Jesus is saying that crime and lawlessness has a very strong social dimension and that it is a matter for the concern of everyone.
But Jesus then goes on to tell the rather odd parable of the fig tree that has produced no fruit.
The man in the parable says, “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ And he is told, leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’ ”
The parable of the fig tree forcibly makes the point that if people don’t make use of the opportunities they have been given then they can expect to be held to account. The fig tree has been given three opportunities, now it is to be given one last chance and then it faces judgement.
Jesus’ teaching about the responsibility of the whole Jewish people to change is balanced by this very strong teaching about individual responsibility, if you have not taken the opportunities you have been given, then that is your fault and the blame rests with you.
Both society and individuals bear responsibility for crimes, but where is the balance to be struck? What Jesus seems to be saying is that when a person has been given ample opportunities, then they should be more sharply called to account. It is not the case that the fig tree has been given just one chance and has failed, it has been given three chances and is given yet another one. Where a person has been given many opportunities in life, then it would seem that Jesus’ teaching is that the judgment should be more harsh, rather than more lenient.
Confronted with our contemporary society, I think Jesus would show great disappointment at our society in its careless approach towards social responsibility. I think he would warn us that if we don’t change then our society faces disintegration.
But I also think that, in administering the justice system, he would apply the logic of the parable of the fig tree, particularly to those responsible for corporate wrongdoing affecting the lives of millions of people. There would not be different systems of justice for different people; there would be some hard words for all of them to hear. The individuals would be held accountable for their individual failures, as the individual tree is judged for its individual failures.
“Unless you repent, you too will all perish”, Jesus warns society. ‘Unless you repent, you will perish’, Jesus warns each each person.