It is the common perception of spiritual reality around the world, in many different religions, and even in daily living—The Good Deed Balance Scale. You might call it Karma, the Golden Rule, or even “Paying it Forward.”
It is not that all these teachings are bad, necessarily. All are teachings to encourage us to do good to other people. Rather, it is that these teachings to no go far enough.
There are some places in the Bible where I wish that the writers would have added a couple of footnotes. Today’s Scripture reading is one of those instances.
In this passage, some people had come to Jesus, wanting him to comment about some “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” as the writer put it (Luke 13:1).
Nothing more about this incident is recorded any other place in the New Testament or in secular history. We do not know specifically who the people were who were killed and we do not know the occasion upon which this tragedy occurred.
Apparently however, there had recently been a confrontation with the Roman soldiers in the temple at the time of a Jewish sacrifice. The outcome of this incident was that some of the Galileans present at the temple were killed by the Romans, perhaps right at the altar, since there is a mention of the blood of the people mingling with the blood of the animal sacrifices.
Although we know none of the details, this all certainly does sound like a horrendous event. It was an event that was not only politically motivated, but there were also religious overtones included in the circumstances. It affected the residents in much the same way as we react when we learned of Americans who had been decapitated by the Islamic State Terrorists—even more so, since these people of Galilee probably had even closer ties with those killed.
“Were these Galileans worse sinners than all the others?” the people asked Jesus.
In their struggle to make sense of the events that had occurred, this was their question. “Why did these people suffer in such a horrifying way? Was it because these who were murdered were especially bad themselves?” The questioners were implying that perhaps those people were so bad that God had allowed them to be killed.
The answer to them that Jesus gave was this: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
The Falling Tower
Jesus quickly followed with an example of another incident that also must have recently happened, this one in Jerusalem. Here again, a footnote would have been appreciated, since we do not have any other history concerning this event.
Jesus said this: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Concerning the Galileans at the temple who had been slaughtered, the talk about them was that perhaps they were especially bad sinners, and that is why God allowed them to suffer the fate that they did, right in the temple and right at the moment that they were making their sacrifice.
In addition, since Jesus also brought up this other incident, perhaps the talk was also much the same for the people on whom the tower fell in Jerusalem. Had God punished these people because they were especially wicked?
“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,” Jesus responded to all such talk.
The Balance Scale of Justice
The reason that the people back in the days of Jesus speculated that the victims to whom these tragedies happened may have been especially bad was because, in those days, the people were accustomed to think that finding favor with God was all about tipping the “good deed balance scale.”
Put simply, they pictured God as holding a large balance scale of sorts, in which one side contained the good things that they did, and the other side the bad. If they could make their good deeds outweigh their bad things, then they would find favor with God.
But, if the bad became too heavy – BOOM! God brings tragedy to us, perhaps even killing us.
“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,” Jesus responds to this notion.
Does God Punish Us When We Are Wrong?
The question, of course, is much larger than just the Galileans at the temple and the people on whom the tower fell. Terrible things happen all the time. We experience this in very personal ways in our families and among our friends. People suffer terrible accidents, contract terrible diseases and sicknesses, and are victims of terrible crimes.
Likewise, when passing through a trial of some sort, we sometimes ask ourselves, “Did this happen to me because God is punishing me? Have I done something wrong, and God is not pleased with me? Is that why these things are happening?”
Quite frankly, the general conception of how one gains favor with God has not changed a great deal over the millennia. It is still very common to hear the comment, “I only hope that when I die, God will see that I did more good things in my life than bad things, and he will let me into heaven.”
People speak as if it is an exam that they will need to pass, based on what works they did in this life.
The Balance Scale of the Old Testament Law
It is not that there is no basis at all for people to think like this. God himself instilled this thinking in the people during the time of the Law of the Old Testament. For instance, consider these words that God spoke to his people when they were about to enter into the land that he had promised to give to them:
You shall therefore keep every commandment which I am commanding you today ….If you listen obediently to my commandments which I am commanding you today, to love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul, that He will give the rain for your land in its season, the early and late rain, that you may gather in your grain and your new wine and your oil. He will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.
Beware that your hearts are not deceived, and that you do not turn away and serve other gods and worship them. Or the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and He will shut up the heavens so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its fruit; and you will perish quickly from the good land which the Lord is giving you. (Deuteronomy 11:8, 13-17 NAS)
Such was the general tone of the teachings of the prophets throughout the Old Testament. The obedience of the people to the Law of the Lord was closely connected with the blessings of God. Conversely, it was taught that disobedience to God brought judgment.
This was not a wrong teaching. The prophets of God spoke what God had told them. The people were indeed to understand that they must learn obedience, for with obedience to God came the blessings of God. On the other hand, if one disobeyed, they could expect judgment.
The teachings were right, but the lessons that the people learned from these teachings were wrong. They began to interpret it all in light of the scale. They thought if they could somehow have their obedience outweigh their disobedience, then with a little luck, God would look favorably on them.
This part, they got wrong. For God did not only demand that their good outweigh their bad, but that they should be perfect! There was to be no bad at all! There is no scale…no two sides to the coin. There must only be good and no bad. Only obedience and no disobedience.
The Law was a harsh taskmaster. What it taught was good, but oh so severe! It demanded no mistakes at all!
A Seemingly Hopeless Situation
How were the people ever to achieve this? How were they supposed to attain perfection?
What the people were to learn from this was not how to tip the scale in their favor. Instead, they were simply to learn that the situation was hopeless. They had no power, no ability to live in the way that God demanded. That is why Jesus responded the way that he did about the Galileans who were murdered and about the people on whom the tower fell.
“Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Jesus did not want the people who came to him to think that since they themselves had not been slaughtered at the altar that perhaps they were somewhat more righteous than those who had. Not at all! They were as much deserving of death as those who were killed.
What the ancient Jews were to learn from this was that God was a demanding God. Indeed, God did have very high expectations. He was a God who expected perfection. God told the people that they were to keep all of his commandments all of the time. This has not changed. It has not changed even for you and me.
But there is a difference.
Obedience Through Love
Jesus also told us that we should keep his commandments, but here is what the difference is. Listen to what Jesus said: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
How is this different?, you may wonder. It still is a lot to ask. How does this help me to obey?
I think that any parent or any child can see the difference if we think about it for a moment. Children are also to obey their parents, but there is more than one motivation for this obedience.
On the one hand, a child may obey because if he does not, he is sure to get the belt from his father. But on the other hand, a child may obey because he knows that his father loves him, and also because he loves his father. The child obeys because he wants to obey. He loves his father and wants to please him.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” Jesus said.
Obedience now is not motivated by fear, but instead by love. What is more, we now also have help in this. Jesus continued, “I will ask the Father and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive because it does not see Him or know Him, because He abides with you and is in you. I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you” (John 14:15-18 ESV).
Terrible things that happen to us or to other people does not mean that we or they are worse sinners than anyone else. The truth be told, we are all terrible sinners. To put it graphically in words that you may not like to hear, we all deserve to be slaughtered at the altar or be crushed to death by a falling tower.
The Fruitless Fig Tree
To illustrate what he meant by all of these things, Jesus immediately followed this discussion with a parable:
A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard,” Jesus said, “and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’
And he answered him, “Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” (Luke 13:1-9 ESV)
I realize that some Bible teachers will get off on the subject that the fig tree is a symbol for the nation of Israel, etcetera, etcetera. But that to me mostly evades the true issue.
The simple lesson of the fig tree is that God has planted within each of us that which we need to produce fruitful lives. When Jesus told this story to the people of his day, he was telling them that with all that God had done for their people, and in all the ways that he had communicated to them, there could have been no reason why every person should not have responded positively to his message.
The time had been more than adequate for them to turn to God. But they had continually refused. God had come to them time and again, as it were, expecting there to be fruit. He found only barren branches.
“Cut it down,” seemed to be the best way to respond to such fruitlessness.
Water and Fire
It had happened before in history. The first time was at the occasion of the flood of Noah. At that time, God saw that “the wickedness of man was great,” and that every thought of man was only evil. Because of this, the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land” (Genesis 6:5, 7).
Another time when the judgment of God came was upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. At that time, the Lord said, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is extremely grave” (Genesis 18:20).
In both of those cases, God looked at the tree of mankind in those places and said as he did of the fig tree, “I will cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?”
God’s patience and tolerance are great, but they are not limitless when dealing with a rebellious people. If there is no repentance, judgment will surely come. That is why Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Nothing has changed in this regard for us.
But as with the story of the fig tree, Jesus now offers us a temporary reprieve. “Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
Jesus has come to us to explain to us what the meaning and the motivation of obedience is. He is cultivating the ground around us so that we will respond in love. The obedience that he seeks in us is not that which comes because of fear of reprisals, but it is obedience based on love. Jesus has come to us to show us that God himself is one who is motivated not by anger, but is motivated by love.
We still seek to live by the standards that God has given us, but do you see the difference in our obedience? The difference is that Jesus has shown us that it all is to be motivated not by fear of judgment, but by love. This is the way that Jesus put it:
This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you.
No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.
You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you. This I command you, that you love one another. (John 15:12-17 NAS)