It seems on the surface a very weird text, but it’s teaching us important things about how the world works and what God is like.
“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.” Whaaaat is THIS? This event is not recorded in history for us, so it’s tough to have a clue, but it’s in entire harmony with what we know about Pilate. The best guesses are that these Galileans, at a feast in Jerusalem, may have been involved in some insurrection against the Roman government. Such things happened all the time. It seems Pilate had the leaders executed right in the temple courts where the Jewish sacrifices were going on. It’s the “I’ll teach everyone what happens when you try this on my watch” philosophy of governing. Jesus uses it as a teachable moment, as he often does, and he asks a stabbing question:
“Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way?” Ah, was it God punishing them? Do you think that when people suffer, or bad things happen to them, that it was God’s doing, or because they were bad people? Hm. Great question. Does God make circumstantial things happen as ways to reward and punish people for their behavior?
He answers his own question in v. 3: NO! That’s not the way the world works, and that’s not the way God behaves. Rather than plumbing deeper into that, as we would have wished, though, Jesus makes it personal rather than theological or philosophical: “But that doesn’t make it OK for you to sin. That wasn’t God punishing the people, but God is a judge, and God does punish, so watch how you live.”
Then he gives another example in v. 4: “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” See, his first example was one of their own perpetration, but this example is just, like, some dumb quirk of fate: a tower fell on them. But one was no more God’s doing than the other one. Then he launches into a parable:
A guy had a fig tree growing in his yard. (Just so you know, fig trees are often used a symbols for Israel, and therefore of anyone who claims to be a child of God.) But this fig tree didn’t have any fruit on it. What in the world is the use of a fruit tree with no fruit? So the owner said to his worker, I’ve been patient with this thing, but it never does what it’s supposed to do. Get rid of it.” Now isn’t this fascinating! The master punishes, not for bad behavior, but for lack of good behavior. This is the way the universe works. But this is just a “point on the way.” He’s going deeper to his real point.
The worker protests, “Can’t we give it more time? I’ll baby it. And if that doesn’t work, then nothing will work, and we’ll be done with it.” The implication is that the master agrees. the point is that God treats people with patience and grace, not by making buildings fall on them, or making them get caught so they get punished. It shows that God’s involvement in the world is in people’s heart, not in the manipulation of their circumstances.
And along comes a living example. A crooked, crippled woman hobbles into the synagogue where Jesus is teaching. See, instead of this being some kind of punishment from God, Jesus heals her. That’s the point: her condition was not God’s judgment on her. God is a healer and a giver of life, not some bitter antagonist who delights in cruelty.