Today’s gospel raises a question that often haunts us: “Does God punish us for our sins?” We ask it in lots of different ways. It seems to arise in periods of reflection such as Lent offers.
In the verses just before our gospel passage, Jesus spoke to crowds: “You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky; why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:56) Some in the crowd quickly rose to the occasion, stating a case of unjust suffering with the implication that Jesus should interpret its meaning. They told him about some Galileans that Pontius Pilate had murdered in a ghastly event. No question is stated explicitly, but a question is surely implied. What is one to make of that? Did those Galileans deserve it? Was Pilate the instrument of divine judgment against them and consequent punishment?
I think it is the question we often ask about such tragedies – and reveal an operative assumption: there is a reason for human suffering, and it usually has to do with something in the past of a person’s life, something that is evil. The assumption is that we live in a universe of rewards and punishments. That way of thinking is reflected within the Bible itself. The book of Job is a particularly eloquent case. Job suffered severe losses (family, property, and health). According to Job’s friends (Job 3-28), he must have done something wrong to deserve his suffering. Job claims that he is innocent and wonders why he suffers.
Within the New Testament, the disciples of Jesus ask him, when they encountered a blind man, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” (John 9:2) Jesus replied that neither the man nor his parents had sinned so as to cause the blindness.
Jesus answers the crowd that the Galileans who suffered were no worse sinners than anyone else. And he adds to their illustration one of his own. He refers to an accident in Jerusalem. Eighteen persons died when a tower fell on them. Those persons were no worse than anyone else. The accident was random. Anyone happening to be at the wrong place at the wrong time can be the victim of an accident.
Yet, the crowd’s question lingers into the present day. To think that human suffering is due to divine punishment for sin, or perhaps to some unknown flaw or secret misdeed, is too simple, but familiar. It is the quick remedy to explain illness and death.
Of course we know that there are cases where cause and effect can be established between risky behaviors and their consequences. Within the Bible itself there are passages that speak of sin leading to divine punishment (Exodus 15:26; 20:5; Psalm 107:17; Jeremiah 31:30). That’s fair enough. But that is not the issue in all cases or in most cases. The interchange between Jesus and his listeners concerning the Galileans and the victims of the tower’s falling are occasions for Jesus to make a point.
There is a part of us that wants Jesus to reply: “Just as innocent people suffer randomly, as in the two cases mentioned, so you, though innocent, can expect to suffer too.” Rather, he takes the occasion of two local stories about human tragedy to speak about another tragedy that could happen, unless things change. “But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” (Luke 13:5)
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree that follows carries forward the message of judgment, but ends upon a note of grace. The landowner had planted a fig tree in his vineyard, and he figured that it was about time to gather figs from it. But taking a look, he found that the tree was barren. As a good steward of his land and crops, the land owner concludes that there are two problems at hand: (1) the tree is worthless, because it is barren for a third year in a row, and (2) it is taking up space that could otherwise be productive in the vineyard. It is time to cut it down. The caretaker pleads for patience. Give it another year, he says. In the meantime, he will loosen the soil around it and add fertilizer. It might still produce fruit in another year, and that would be good. And think of it: if the tree is replaced by another, the new tree would need several years to produce fruit. There is good reason to give this tree another chance. On the other hand, if it does not produce fruit in another year, then it can be cut down. The implication is that God is patient, which gives Jesus’ listeners time for repentance, but there is a limit.
The parable helps place God’s judgment and grace into a larger perspective. In the larger scheme of things, God’s grace is greater than God’s judgment. How could it be otherwise? Divine patience is simply another expression of God’s love and grace. But God’s grace is not to be understood as casual indulgence or indifference. The apostle Paul put it this way: “ [Are you unaware] that the kindness of God would lead you to repentance? By your stubbornness and impenitent heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself for the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God.” (Romans 2:4-5)
There will always be an unknown part of our lives and motivations. Why do we sin? Why do we suffer? Why can’t I get it right? Why aren’t there answers? The French writer Simone Weil once described the afflicted of this life as standing at the edge of the universe crying, “Why,” out into the seemingly endless void. And no reply is heard. Weil says that is the moment when one either turns away and is forever lost, or one remains in the question, the uncertainty, and perseveres. To wait in uncertainty leads to an encounter with the crucified Christ – arms ever stretched out to receive you. It is to encounter the one who took on the judgment against all humanity as witness to the greater grace of God.
All of life is to consist of daily repentance and renewal – Lent is just a time when we bring it into sharper focus. Each day is a day of grace, a day to encounter Christ, a day with the opportunity to repent