Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
1. And at that time some were present, who told him of the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2. And Jesus answering said to them, Do you imagine that these Galileans were sinners beyond all the Galileans, because they suffered such things? 3. I tell you, no; but unless you repent, you will all perish in like manner. 4. Or those eighteen, on whom the tower in Siloah fell and slew them, do you imagine that they were debtors beyond all men that dwell in Jerusalem? 275 5. I tell you, no; but unless you repent, you shall all perish in like manner. 6. And he spake this parable: A certain man had a fig-tree planted in his vineyard, and came seeking fruit on it, and did not find it. 7. And he said to the vine-dresser, Lo, there are three years that I come seeking fruit on this fig-tree, and find none: cut it down; why does it even occupy the ground? 276 8. But he answering, said to him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: 9. And if it bear fruit: 277 but if not, afterwards thou shalt cut it down.
2. Do you imagine? etc. This passage is highly useful, were it for no other reason than that this disease is almost natural to us, to be too rigorous and severe in judging of others, and too much disposed to flatter our own faults. The consequence is, that we not only censure with excessive severity the offenses of our brethren; but whenever they meet with any calamity, we condemn them as wicked and reprobate persons. On the other hand, every man that is not sorely pressed by the hand of God slumbers at ease in the midst of his sins, as if God were favorable and reconciled to him. This involves a double fault; for when God chastises any one before our eyes, he warns us of his judgments, that each of us may examine himself, and consider what he deserves. If he spares us for a time, we are so far from having a right to take such kindness and forbearance as an opportunity for slumber, that we ought to regard it as an invitation to repentance.
To correct the false and cruel judgment which we are accustomed to pass on wretched sufferers, and, at the same time, to shake off the indulgence which every man cherishes towards himself, he shows, first, that those who are treated with severity are not the most wicked of all men; because God administers his judgments in such a manner, that some are instantly seized and punished, and others are permitted to remain long in the enjoyment of ease and luxury, Secondly, he declares that all the calamities which happen in the world are so many demonstrations of the wrath of God; and hence we learn what an awful destruction awaits us, 278 if we do not avert it.
The immediate occasion for this exhortation was, that some told him that Pilate had mingled human blood with sacrifices, in order that so shocking an event might bring sacrifices into abhorrence. As it is probable that this outrage was committed on the Samaritans, who had departed from the pure service of the Law, the Jews would easily and readily be disposed to condemn the Samaritans, and by so doing to applaud themselves. But our Lord applies it to a different purpose. As that whole nation was hated and detested by them on account of ungodliness, he puts the question, “Do you imagine that those wretched persons, who have been put to death by Pilate, were worse than others? You are perfectly aware, that that country is full of ungodly men, and that many who deserved the same punishment are still alive. He is a blind and wicked judge who decides as to the sins of all men by the punishments which they now endure. It is not always the most wicked man who is first dragged to punishment; but when God selects a few out of a large number to be punished, he holds out in their person a threatening that he will take vengeance on the remainder, in order that all may be alarmed.”
Having spoken of the Samaritans, he now approaches more closely to the Jews themselves. Eighteen men had at that time been killed by the fall of a tower in Jerusalem. He declares that those men were not more wicked than others, but that their death was held out to all as a ground of alarm; for if in them God gave a display of his judgment, no more would others, though they might be spared for a time, escape his hand. Christ does not, however, forbid believers to consider attentively the judgments of God, but enjoins them to observe this order, to begin with their own sins. They will thus obtain the highest advantage; for they will avert God’s chastisements by voluntary repentance. To the same purpose is the warning which Paul gives,
Let no man deceive you with vain words; for on account of these things the wrath of God cometh against the rebellious,
6. He spoke also this parable. The substance of it is, that many are endured for a time who deserve to be cut off; but that they gain nothing by the delay, if they persist in their obstinacy. The wicked flattery, by which hypocrites are hardened, and become more obstinate, arises from this cause, that they do not think of their sins till they are compelled; and, therefore, so long as God winks at these, and delays his chastisements, they imagine that he is well satisfied with them. Thus they indulge themselves more freely, as if, to use the words of Isaiah, (Isa 28:15,) they had made a covenant with death, and were in friendship with the grave. And this is the reason why Paul denounces them in such earnestness of language for
treasuring up to themselves the wrath of God against the last day,
It is well known that trees are sometimes preserved, not because their owners find them to be useful and productive, but because the careful and industrious husbandman makes every possible trial and experiment before he determines to remove them out of the field or vineyard. This teaches us that, when the Lord does not immediately take vengeance on the reprobate, but delays to punish them, there are the best reasons for his forbearance. Such considerations serve to restrain human rashness, that no man may dare to murmur against the supreme Judge of all, if He does not always execute his judgments in one uniform manner. A comparison is here drawn between the owner and the vine-dresser: not that God’s ministers go beyond him in gentleness and forbearance, but because the Lord not only prolongs the life of sinners, but likewise cultivates them in a variety of ways, that they may yield better fruit.
“Eussent offense plus que tous les habitans de Ierusalem;” — “had offended more than all the inhabitants of Jerusalem.”
“A quel propos aussi empesche-t-il la terre?” — “for what end does it even cumber the ground?”
“Que s’il fait fruict, ‘bien:’ sinon tu le couperas ci-apres;” — “and if it bears fruit, ‘well:’ if not, thou shalt cut it down afterwards.”
“Dont nous avons a penser quelle punition et damnation nous sentirons;”— “by which we are led to consider what punishment and condemnation we shall receive.”