Pause for a moment to consider your own response. “Do people who suffer deserve to suffer? Are the bad things that happen to us our fault? Is there a connection between suffering and sin? Is God punishing us when we suffer?”
There were, and are, some who would not hesitate to answer ‘yes.’ They believe that we live in an orderly universe of rewards and punishments. For them, there is a direct connection between a person’s character and behavior and his or her financial, social or physical state. They are ready to assume that the good fortune they have experienced or that their social group or their nation has experienced is a sign of God’s favor, a reward for their goodness and faithfulness and hard work. They are equally ready to assume that those who do not share their good fortune are reaping the fruits of their shortcomings and sins. We reap what we sow, they would say.
And they are not entirely incorrect. Sometimes our behavior does lead to direct consequences, for good or for ill, both for ourselves and for others. Sometimes we do indeed reap what we have sown. But we cannot generally assume that one who suffers has brought the suffering on himself, or conversely, that one who has avoided suffering is the cause of her own good fortune. Jesus says “No, the fact that certain Galileans were put to death by Pilate does not indicate that they were worse than other people. And no, the fact that several people lost their lives when the tower of Siloam collapsed does not mean that their sins caught up with them.” There is not an obvious or direct connection between suffering and sin. In fact, we have to admit that sometimes the wicked prosper and the righteous are made to suffer. We cannot assume that people who suffer deserve to suffer, any more than we can assume that those who prosper in this world have found favor in God’s eyes.
So we have an answer. But the answer is not the point of this exchange or of the parable that follows it. Jesus is not interested in drawing an analogy for his listeners from the stories of these victims who lost their lives; rather, he is intent on using these stories to talk about the need for repentance. He cites these two tragedies to help us avoid another tragedy. “Unless you repent,” he says, “you will all perish as they did.” These words may sound needlessly harsh to those of us who have become accustomed to think of ourselves as good people, and who rarely think of ourselves as being in need of repentance. It’s easy to assume that the call to repentance is meant for other people rather than for us – hardened, deliberate sinners, perhaps. But this call to repentance is given to a vast audience of followers of Jesus, which includes his own disciples. It is a call for us as well.
Jesus is not issuing a threat – “Unless you repent, you will all perish” – but simply stating a reality. When we behave in ways that lead to death rather than to life, we will die – unless we turn and change. There is not one of us who does not need daily to repent – to turn away from ways of being and acting that lead to death and to reorient ourselves on the path that leads to light and life.
To underscore this, Jesus offers his hearers, and us, the parable of the fig tree. It is a parable about judgment, repentance, and mercy. The barren fig tree is under judgment: it has not produced the fruit it was intended to produce. The owner of the vineyard has pronounced a sentence on it: “Cut it down!” he orders, “Why should it be wasting the soil?” But the gardener asks for a reprieve: give it one more year, let me tend and care for it, and then if it is still unfruitful you can cut it down. It is a sensible answer. Replacing the tree would cost more money, and a newly-planted replacement could not be expected to bear fruit for several years. So what is there to lose in giving it one more year?
The gardener in Jesus’ story is God. It is God who demonstrates such patience with us, giving us the opportunity to repent and to bear fruit. But notice that in this story there is a time limit. There is a window of opportunity, an opening in which the situation can be rectified – but it does not last forever. The tree is given another year, but it is still expected to produce fruit.
As so it is with us. “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Paul writes to the Romans. The story of the fig tree is a story about God’s patience and mercy, but it is also a story about the need for repentance and the inevitability of judgment. And as such, it addresses two extremes: For those who are quick to condemn and pronounce God’s judgment, it is a reminder of how patient and merciful God is towards us all. This is certainly good news for us all – because we all stand in need of God’s patience and compassion. For those who dismiss the idea that God will indeed judge us according to our actions, it is a reminder of God’s justice. And this too is good news, because God’s judgment is a reflection of God’s justice. God cares about the evil we do to ourselves, to one another, and to our world. God’s love extends particularly to those who are victims of injustice, oppression and violence. God sees the suffering that has been wrought on them and will hold the perpetrators of evil and injustice accountable for their actions.
Jesus holds these two ideas in tension. There is an urgent need for repentance, he is suggesting; we must turn away from evil and from those things that divide and hurt us and separate us from God. Unless we repent, we will die. But there is also mercy and patience, a willingness on the part of God to bear with our weakness long enough to give us the chance to reform. These two things – God’s judgment and God’s mercy – are held in balance here. We cannot embrace one and deny the other.
We are meant to produce good fruit: the fruit of good deeds and the fruit of a character that has been shaped by the Spirit, full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). God is patient with us and merciful, giving us every chance to turn ourselves away from evil and towards good – moment by moment, day by day, year by year – so that God’s purposes may be accomplished in us. But if we do not take advantage of the opportunities that are being offered us day by day, we may lose out in the end.
Hear this as the good news it is meant to be. God will use even the tragedies and sufferings of our lives to wake us up, to turn us towards the new life, to help us see ourselves and the world we inhabit differently. God will use the circumstances of our lives to jar us into the recognition that life is a gift that should not be squandered, that God is seeking us out, patiently tending and nurturing us so that we might bear the good fruit God desires. There is so much good we can do in the time we are given, if we do not squander it.
Jesus calls us to repentance, and asks us to proclaim “repentance and forgiveness of sins… to all nations” (Luke 24:47). What does repentance really mean? What does it actually look like? Are we to clothe ourselves in sackcloth and ashes? Are we to dwell on our past life with regret and sadness? Are we to wallow in guilt and shame? No, God’s desire is that we come to our senses; that we realize the privilege we have been given to know ourselves as children of God, fully known and fully loved; that we rightly order or re-order our priorities; and that we orient ourselves towards the future with hope and expectation, confident that the God who has begun this good work in us will complete it.
“You did not choose me,” Jesus reminds us, “but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…” (John 15:16). The invitation to repentance is an invitation to life – fruitful, abundant life. During this season of Lent, and throughout the whole of your life, choose life!
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