Sunday, March 13, 2022

Theodicy or Hypocrisy?

Below is a rough translation and some initial comments regarding Luke 13:1-9, the gospel lection for the third Sunday of Lent. The text seems clearly to have two parts – as is reflected in many translations that use subheadings. But, it is equally clear that Luke sees these two parts as interrelated. A significant interpretive issue would be naming the nature of the relation. I will offer some thoughts about that below. As usual, your comments – good, bad, or ugly – are always welcomed. Well, not the ugly ones, but you know what I mean. 

Παρῆσαν δέ τινες ἐναὐτῷτῷκαιρῷ ἀπαγγέλλοντες αὐτῷ περὶ τῶν Γαλιλαίωνὧν τὸ αἷμα Πιλᾶτος ἔμιξεν μετὰ τῶν θυσιῶν αὐτῶν.
Yet some in that time brought news to him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices.  
ἀπαγγέλλοντες: PAPart, nmp, ἀπαγγέλλω,1) to bring tidings (from a person or a thing), bring word, report  2) to proclaim, to make known openly, declare 
ἔμιξεν: AAI 3s, μίγνυμι, 1) to mix, mingle   
1. This verse begins with the conjunction δὲ (it is the 2ndword, but it is called a ‘postpositive’ word because it is usually translated as the first word). δὲ can signify continuation (and), contrast (but), or change (then) depending on the feel of the context. Here, Jesus has begun to address the huge crowd in 12:54. The nature of the news that some folks are bringing to Jesus might indicate that a change of topic within the same stream of conversation has come up. Typically, I would use ‘then’ for such a case. But, Luke adds “at that time” which would make ‘then’ redundant. When in doubt, I fall back on ‘yet’ as a translation of δὲ. See vv. 6, 7, and 8 below for other possibilities.
2. This is such an intriguing manner of putting things - "whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices." If those sacrifices themselves were blood sacrifices, this would be not only a brutal act of bloodshed but also an ironic act of blood on top of blood, the sacrifice of the sacrificers. And it would be an act of terror during an act of worship. I have no idea what the historic event might be behind this phrase, but it is tragically rich in meaning.
3. And they were Galileans. I've often felt that there is a tension - especially in Mark's gospel - between Galilean piety and Judean piety, with Jesus clearly on the side of the Galileans. I'm trying to remember any stories of Jesus participating in sacrifices as a form of worship. Beyond the birth/circumcision/presentation narrative in Luke and the event of the Passover with no details, I'm not remembering any sacrificial motifs in the gospels. Anyone? 

 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Δοκεῖτε ὅτιοἱ Γαλιλαῖοιοὗ τοι ἁμαρτωλοὶ παρὰ πάντας τοὺς Γαλιλαίους ἐγένοντο, ὅτι ταῦτα πεπόνθασιν;
And answering he said to them, “Are you supposing ‘Those Galileans among all Galileans became sinners, that they have suffered these things’?
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer  2) to begin to speak, but always where something has preceded  (either said or done) to which the remarks refer
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain
Δοκεῖτε: PAI 2pl, δοκέω, 1) to be of opinion, think, suppose 
ἐγένοντο: AMI, 3pl, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being  2) to become, i.e. to come to pass, happen 
πεπόνθασιν: PerfAI, 3pl, πάσχω, 1) to be affected or have been affected, to feel, have a  sensible experience, to undergo  1a) in a good sense, to be well off, in good case  1b) in a bad sense, to suffer sadly, be in a bad plight 
1. ὅτι: The conjunction ὅτι appears 2x in this verse. It can be translated either ‘that’ or ‘because’ or it can introduce a thought or a quote. Most translations have the first ὅτι as “that” and the second as “because.” The problem then becomes the verb ἐγένοντο. It gets translated as “were,” when an aorist form of the verb ‘to be’ is common and would serve that purpose better. I am interpreting the first ὅτι as introducing what it is that they are supposing. 
2. The contrast in the supposition is between ‘those’ and ‘all.’ Those Galileans – among all Galileans – became sinners. So, Pilate killed them or perhaps God let Pilate kill them.

 οὐχί, λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀλλ 'ἐὰν μὴ μετανοῆτε πάντες ὁμοίως ἀπολεῖσθε.
No, I say to you, but unless you repent all of you will likewise perish.  
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain
μετανοῆτε: PASubj, 2pl, μετανοέω, 1) to change one's mind, i.e. to repent 
ἀπολεῖσθε: FMI, 2p, ἀπόλλυμι, 1) to destroy  1a) to put out of the way entirely, abolish, put an end to ruin 
1. One issue facing the translator is whether the λέγω points backward or forward. Is it, answering the previous supposition with “No, I say!” Or, with Jesus having said ‘No,” is the λέγω introducing what Jesus adds: “No. I say unless you ...” 
2. Another issue facing the translator is what to do with the side-by-side conjunctions ἀλλ' and ἐὰν. ἀλλ' is a form of ἄλλα (dropping the vowel because it is joined with a word that begins with a vowel) and typically means ‘but,’ indicating a strong contrast. ἐὰν often means ‘if’ but here it is sidled with the negative particle μὴ, so ‘unless’ or ‘except.’  
3. The word ἀπόλλυμι often means ‘to destroy,’ but here it is in the middle voice, so it is not an active act of destroying as much as a reflexive act of perishing. 
4. I see the phrase πάντες ὁμοίως “all likewise” as emphatic, since it is wedged in between two verbs using the 2ndperson plural voice which already mean ‘you all’. To me, it is emphatic in opposing the contrast between ‘those Galileans’ and ‘all Galileans’ in the supposition. 

 ἢ ἐκεῖνοι οἱ δεκαοκτὼ ἐφ 'οὓς ἔπεσεν ὁπύργος ἐν τῷ Σιλωὰμ καὶ ἀπέκτεινεν αὐτούς, δοκεῖτε ὅτι αὐτοὶ ὀφειλέται ἐγένοντο παρὰ πάντας τοὺς ἀνθρώπους τοὺς κατοικοῦντας Ἰερουσαλήμ;
Or those ten on whom fell the tower in Siloam and killed them, are you supposing ‘They among all people living in Jerusalem became debtors’?  
ἔπεσεν: AAI, 3s, πίπτω, 1) to descend from a higher place to a lower  1a) to fall (either from or upon) 
ἀπέκτεινεν: AAI 3s, ἀποκτείνω, 1) to kill in any way whatever  1a) to destroy, to allow to perish 
δοκεῖτε: PAI 2pl, δοκέω, 1) to be of opinion, think, suppose 
ἐγένοντο: AMI, 3pl, γίνομαι
1. Like v.2, I am translating the ὅτι as the beginning of what they are supposing. 
2. Like v.2, the contrast is between ‘they’ (the ten) and ‘all’ people living in Jerusalem in the supposition. 

οὐχί, λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀλλ' ἐὰν μὴ μετανοῆτε πάντες ὡσ αύτως ἀπολεῖσθε.
No, I say to you, but unless you repent all of you will in like manner perish. 
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain
μετανοῆτε: PASubj, 2pl, μετανοέω, 1) to change one's mind, i.e. to repent 
ἀπολεῖσθε: FMI, 2p, ἀπόλλυμι, 1) to destroy  1a) to put out of the way entirely, abolish, put an end to ruin 
1. This verse is exactly the same as v.3, with one exception. 
2. The exception is that this verse has the word ὡσαύτως instead of ὁμοίως. Many translations reflect no difference. The NRSV has ‘as’ and ‘just as’ in vv. 3 and 5. I changed ‘likewise’ to ‘in like manner’ just to show that there is a difference. The question arises whether Luke changes this word in order to indicate that this similarity is the point of the two verses. While the common supposition points to the difference between the sufferers and others, this retort speaks to the solidarity of either all Galileans or all of those living in Jerusalem. Whatever we might say about ‘them’ is likewise true about ‘us.’ 

 Ἔλεγεν δὲ ταύτην τὴν παραβολήν: Συκῆν εἶχέν τις πεφυτευμένην ἐν τῷ ἀμπελῶνι αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἦλθενζητῶν καρπὸνἐν αὐτῇ καὶ οὐχ εὗρεν.
Yet he was saying this parable: “Someone had a fig tree having been planted in his vineyard, and he came while seeking fruit on it and found none.  
Ἔλεγεν: IAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain 
εἶχέν: IAI 3s, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold  
πεφυτευμένην: APPart, AFS, φυτεύω, 1) to plant  
ἦλθεν: AAI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons
ζητῶν: PAPart nsm, ζητέω, 1) to seek in order to find  1a) to seek a thing
εὗρεν: AAI 3s, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon 1a) after searching, to find a thing sought 
1. Like v.1, this verse begins with the conjunction δὲ. It can be a continuation or contrast word, depending on the feel of the context. For example, in vv.7, I think it is just a way of moving the story along, so I translate it ‘then.’ But here the δὲ is the connective tissue between the conversation of vv.1-5 and the parable of vv.6-9. Is it “and,” meaning that the parable simply continues the theme of the conversation? Is it ‘but,’ meaning that the parable speaks against the notions at play in the conversation? Is it ‘then,’ meaning that this is the next sequence but more neutral regarding the connection? (Most of the translations I have at hand go with either ‘then’ or ‘and.’ Nobody is going with ‘but.’) 
2. A fig tree in a vineyard. Are they compatible plantings so this is common or isthis an oddity? The ancient farming manuals provide one answer.  It seems to have been a common practice to plant fig trees in vineyards to aid in the trellising of vines. In fact Pliny recommends that trees be used for growing grape vines since "high class wines can only be produced from vines on trees " Pliny specifically mentions the fig tree as a preferred tree for use in trellising "The choicer wines," he says, "are made from the grapes at the top of the trees." (Pliny, Natural History pp.136-139) 
3. By the way, isn’t “fruitless fig tree” one of the best insults in history? 
4. Parables about trees make an interesting intertextual study in the Scriptures. Compare Judge 9:8-15, Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:8-18, and of course the references Jesus makes in his dire words about Jerusalem to the fig tree. 

 εἶπεν δὲ πρὸς τὸν ἀμπελουργόν, Ἰδοὺ τρία ἔτη ἀφ 'οὗ ἔρχομαι ζητῶν καρπὸν ἐντῇ συκῇ ταύτῃ καὶ οὐχ εὑρίσκωἔκκοψον [οὖν] αὐτήν: ἱνατί καὶ τὴν γῆν καταργεῖ;
Then he said to the viticulturist, ‘Behold three years I enter while seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none.’  [Therefore] cut it down; why is it also wasting the ground?’ 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain 
 Ἰδοὺ: AMImpv ὁράω, behold! calling attention to what may be seen, heard, or apprehended in any way.
ἔρχομαι: PMI 1s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons
ζητῶν: PAPart nsm, ζητέω, 1) to seek in order to find
εὑρίσκω: PAI 1s, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon 1a) after searching, to find a thing sought 
ἔκκοψον: AAImpv 2s, ἐκκόπτω, 1) to cut out, cut off  1a) of a tree  
καταργεῖ: PAI 3s, καταργέω, 1) to render idle, unemployed, inactivate, inoperative 1a) to cause a person or thing to have no further efficiency 1b) to deprive of force, influence, power 
1. I’m using a bit of license with ‘wasting,’ but the point seems to be – because of the καὶ (also) – that it is not just the tree itself that is affected but the ground that is being idled by the barren tree.  

 8ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς λέγει αὐτῷ, Κύριε, ἄφες αὐτὴν καὶ τοῦτο τὸ ἔτος,  ἕως ὅτου σκάψω περὶ αὐτὴν καὶ βάλω κόπρια:
But having answered he says to him, ‘Lord, allow it this year also, until when I may dig around it and may throw manure; 
ἀποκριθεὶς: AAPart, nms, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer 
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain 
ἄφες:AAImp, 2s, ἀφίημι, 1) to send away  … to permit, allow, not to hinder
σκάψω: AASubj 1s, σκάπτω, 1) to dig
βάλω: AASubj 1s, βάλλω, 1) to throw or let go of a thing 1a) to scatter, to throw, cast 
1. In this verse, the δὲ seems to introduce contrast – the viticulturist offers a counter-proposal to the owner’s solution of cutting the tree down. 

 κἂν μὲν ποιήσῃ καρπὸν εἰς τὸ μέλλον εἰ δὲ μή γε, ἐκκόψεις αὐτήν.
then it may bear fruit per the plan but and if not, you will cut it down. 
ποιήσῃ: AASubj, 3s, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, 
μέλλον: PAPart, ASN, μέλλω, 1) to be about  1a) to be on the point of doing or suffering something  1b) to intend, have in mind, think to 
ἐκκόψεις: FAI 2s, ἐκκόπτω, 1) to cut out, cut off  1a) of a tree  2) metaph. to cut off occasion
1. This is an atrocious verse for translating. The word κἂν is a merged word from καὶ and ἐάν, then it is paired with μὲν, which is sometimes translated and sometimes not translated but is a placeholder for another word later, like εἰ. On top of that is the participial phrase εἰς τὸ μέλλον, which, literally, might be ‘into the intending’ or something like that. I am using the phrase “per the plan” to represent this phrase. 
2. The point seems clear enough, regardless of the specific word-by-word translations. The viticulturist is asking for one more year of care and work. If the fig tree begins producing – mission accomplished! If not, bring out the axe! 

Part I: Theodicy or Hypocrisy? 
A text like Luke 13:1-5 invariably prompts us to think that the large question of theodicy is being addressed. It speaks to tragedies, both humanly perpetrated and (apparently) accidental. It may even get our hopes up that this text will finally answer the perplexing issues that surround questions of theodicy. Will we finally find an answer to “Why do bad things happen to good people” in this text? My feeling is, no, we will not. 

What I see happening in the first 5 verses here is not that Jesus is taking on those big questions. I see Jesus addressing not theodicy but hypocrisy.“Do you suppose a causal relationship between morality and tragedy?” That is what I hear behind the suppositions that Jesus perceives among those who bring him the news of this tragedy. “You have more in common than different with those victims.” It puts the whole question of causality or blame on a new footing – who are we to place blame? 

So, I see this first part as a criticism of those who assume that they are different enough from victims to place blame on them for their victimhood. Jerry Falwell after 9/11 or Pat Robertson after hurricane Katrina – pointing fingers, naming names, calling out communities from whom they are different – come to mind as those who assume they can fathom out victims and place blame.

Part II: One More Chance
The meaning of the second part of this reading – verses 6-9 – seems relatively simple compared to the previous verses. The vintner asks for one more chance. It is not an endless stream of chances, but it is certainly more patient than the owner’s first inclination of, “That’s it. Cut it down.” All I can say is that when people are ready to lynch me for various shortcomings – and there are plenty of possibilities out there – I hope someone among them has read this text and says, “Let’s give him one more chance.” I’ll try to do better. 

Parts I and II Together 
A great question, then, is what vv.1-5 and vv.6-9 mean when taken together. If the suppositions of vv.1-5 point to our tendency to cast blame, the theology behind those suppositions is a direct causal relationship where God says, “That’s it. Death for you!” Boom! Pilate and falling towers. 

The parable suggests that the connection between producing fruit and being cut down is not so direct. There is room for ‘one more chance.’ 

I am often very reluctant to assume that the landowners or vineyard owners of Jesus’ parables are descriptive of God. They are rather severe folk and sometimes I’m inclined to think they are more a description of “this is how things seem to operate” to which God’s kingdom offers an alternative course. So, I’m not saying that this vineyard owner is God, thus making Jesus the viticulturist who has to talk God into being nice for once. To me, that is a very dangerous Marcionite way of looking at the God whose primary description in the Scriptures is “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”  
In the end, holding these two stories together offers an alternative to the kind of quid pro quo justice of revenge that many people ascribe to either God or some kind of universal force. We might call it “karma” (don’t, please) when someone driving obnoxiously gets a flat tire, or think it is God’s doing (don’t, please) if a bad person meets a bad end. As an alternative, Jesus offers a parable that invites digging, cultivating, dunging, and doing everything one can to give a fig tree a chance to bloom. It is a plan of action to assist the one who is failing, not a passive hope that they get what’s coming to them. 


  1. "whose primary description in the Scriptures is “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”

    Of course the theodicy problem brings to the fore, that one cannot be sure of how or when one enters into the covenant of that enduring relationship are. Because tradition is an all to human theological construct, one may doubt that we have even understood that 'steadfast love' at all?

  2. there it is! another breakthrough moment, Mark: "not addressing theodicy, but hypocrisy." thanks. ... but now... how to continue with my attempt at a sermon... --T Hennesy, Oswego, IL

    1. This is a really helpful insight. Thank you so much!

  3. What I am still struggling with is the comment in v3.3 and 5. Those verses imply that tragedy is the result of sin, and that repentance will somehow mean that people are not victimized by tyrants like Pilate or tragedies like a falling tower.
    It seems to me that tragedies - humanly and non-humanly contrived - are no respecter of persons. A tornado hits where it hits, without looking to see if there is blood on the doorpost first.
    That is partly why I just cannot accept that the pericope is about theodicy, the justice (dice) of God (theos).

  4. Hi there, TH. Great to hear from you. Here we are, together again, in text study. Nice.

  5. Thank you for your last paragraph! It's customary, as you say, to interpret all these landowners in the various parables as God, but I'm often very uncomfortable doing that. I appreciate your interpretation very much, as being more in line, with a God of love.

    1. Thanks Caryn. It's always delightful to hear from you.

  6. I read your posts weekly and always come away with new and different perspectives, thank you. I am curious to know your thoughts on the relationship between Leviticus 19:23-25 and the second half of this passage. Leviticus says fruit is forbidden the first three years of a fruit tree, and the fourth year's fruit belongs to God, then the fifth year is the year to collect the fruit for the first time. If there is a connection might Jesus be talking to them about their premature judgment of the fruit tree and the premature judgement of those in the first part.

    1. Well, that just changes everything! Thanks for the insight.

    2. That's an interesting intertextual connection, Matt, and not one that I've ever noticed before. I do think it could point us in the direction that you are suggesting, of premature judgment, which would connect the two parts of the reading. Thanks for this.

    3. Two other things to problematize the usual "God is the owner" interpretation: 1) my husband noted that we don't hear about any care taken of the tree before then. It's only when the owner complains about something he shouldn't have expected in the first place that the gardener suggests digging around it and spreading manure—things the tree needed to be able to bear fruit, 2) if, as you note, the fig tree could be understood as being instrumental to the winemaking process, why does the owner care about figs? Cutting down the tree would mess with the trellises, right? So maybe the parable is more about the owner missing the point, perhaps as Jesus' questioners are missing the point?

  7. Mark, I just want to say how much I enjoy reading your translations, insights and commentary each week. I use them for my sermon preps (thanks for this week's btw), my lectio divina group, and for personal study. I am happy to keep giving you chances as the fruit you bring forth seems quite good to me!

    1. So glad you didn't chop me down early in the game!
      Thanks for your kind note.

  8. I join in with my thanks. Yours is the first place I go for help when working with the text. In reflecting on it this time around I am struck anew (heh, as it were) with καὶ βάλω κόπρια. With all the shit flying around these days, how good it is to know that we can just dig it into the vineyard soil and use it for producing that fruit in time to come.

    1. Yes, one of God's everlasting jokes on us is how shit makes good manure. If that's not a resurrection motif woven into life, I don't know what is. (I suppose it could be a recycling motif as well)

  9. Matt, I'm not sure the Lev. 19:23-25 scenario applies because there the trees are fruiting; the fruit is forbidden to be eaten. In Luke 13 the tree has failed to fruit. but then, how 'picky' do we get? :)

    1. This is a good point. I feel like we're all in a virtual Text Study group this week!

  10. Hi Mark. Its Cindy Jarvis. Here is another interesting observation unearthed during my Wednesday Bible Study by something a member googled: no one--but no one--ever plants a fig tree in a vineyard because it consumes too much ground water, the canopy produces too much shade and the fig tree attracts birds that eat the grapes. Fig trees, says this exegete, represented religious teachers and their institutuions:

  11. Hi Cindy!
    That observation leaves me with so many questions.
    Did Jesus not know horticulture or viticulture?
    Did Luke not know horticulture or viticulture?
    Did Luke/Jesus know exactly what they were talking about, so there is a clever joke or intentional irony at the heart of this story?
    Would the original audience have gotten the joke/irony immediately?
    Is the reader supposed to get it?
    Are NT stories so culturally specific that their meaning is typically misunderstood?
    Would a book - addressed to Theophilus, either a read person or a 'friend of God' more broadly - has this kind of insider language? Or, would people in the greater Mediterranean region simply know this about fig trees and vineyards, so maybe it's not "insider" at all?
    And if it is an open irony at the outset of this story, what is this misplaced growth of destruction in the vineyard - which both foolish owners and foolish vintners are working to keep alive - supposed to be?

    Hmm... I don't know what to do with this piece of information.

    But, thanks for it anyway. (I've a friend who was the Ex.Dir. of the Sonoma valley grape growers association. He's gonna hear from me this week.)

    Hope you are well. MD

  12. Most newly planted fig trees do not produce a crop until the third (or sometimes the fourth) year,

  13. Maybe in the parable the key figure is not te fig tree but the vine-dresser. He repents for not caring about the fig tree (it was not part of the vine anyway, a stranger, at best in the vineyard because it has a service to provide etc). He now promises to care and nurture, not just tolerate, not just wait and see what happens. Repentance means not to judge or condemn or accuse (it's their fault) but to nurture and care. Bit like the Vine-dresser on the Tree offering Paradise today to the 'sinner' along side him? There's an element of ridiculous generosity in this parable, as there is in a few others. Almost a 'would this really happen?'. Jesus is saying, 'In the kingdom of G-d, yes'. Just a thought ....

  14. Hi Mark. I very much enjoy your work and follow you regularly. As a former viticulturist, however, there's one small thing about ἀμπελουργός which Strongs translates as vinedresser or vineyard-keeper. You translate it as vintner. A vintner is one who makes wine, but does not grow the grapes. That's the job of a winegrape grower or viticulturist. One might do both, but the word vintner specifically refers to one who makes wine. Vineyard keeper, or in this case vineyard owner, would be better translations. Thanks for your work!

    1. Thanks, Shelley! I was clearly steering outside of my lane and your explanation is helpful. I'm going to substitute 'viticulturist' for 'vintner' and am indebted to you for it.

    2. I greatly appreciate your weekly offerings. I would beg you to pay more careful attention to the wording used in your exegesis. Saying there are those out to "lynch" you for your shortcomings uses language that, at a minimum, is insensitive to the history of African-Americans in our republic. Hopefully, you are are not ignorant of this history, but if so, I would refer you to the Equal Justice Initiative web site and a reading of The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone. I know you can do better. Thank you.

  15. May be primarily about use of violent rebellion to achieve freedom/change and the need for all to repent from that means. After 70 AD the ‘tree was cut down’ – Israel chose the sword against Rome. (Luke writes after AD 70).

    NT Wright suggests that there was likely violence and a Roman siege involved in the fall of the tower of Siloam as well as the Galilean retribution by Pilate.

    At the end of ch 13: Jesus mourns the fate of Jerusalem – due to its unhearing non-repentance…

  16. I know the hour is late. Yet there is time to repent.


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