It seems like folks in Jesus’ time were preoccupied with many of the same concerns as are we in our own: Why do bad things happen to good people? Is it God who causes these bad things to happen, or do folks bring about their own misfortune? Why doesn’t God save the innocent? And what does God require of us? These are all fair questions… the answers to which inform the core of our faith.
I suspect that some of Jesus’ followers had questions such as these on their minds when they came to tell him about the Temple massacre. I can just imagine the outcry: “How could God have allowed such a thing to happen? Certainly, none of us is without sin, but had the sins of these victims been so egregious that they deserved to be cut down in cold blood as they worshipped? Or were they just in the wrong place at the wrong time? How can we make sure something like this doesn’t happen to us?” To which Jesus responded: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No!”
Some background: Galilee had been a hotbed of sedition and anti-government activity for years. Herod Antipas had been unable to bring the rebellious region under control, and so the Romans felt compelled to take on the insurrectionists directly… which only escalated the situation. We don’t know the specific events that precipitated the Roman raid on the Temple on this particular day, and the slaughter of a group of Galileans as they offered their sacrifices at the Altar, but we do know that these sorts of “tit-for-tat” atrocities happened from time to time in Galilee in those days. And we know that the Romans were not the only ones with blood on their hands.
Jesus followed up his first question by reminding listeners about a recent accident wherein eighteen Jerusalemites had been killed in a tower collapse. “Were these people especially bad apples? No!” And then, as he so often did, Jesus took the discussion to a deeper level. Physical death is a certainty. We may not understand the timing or the manner in which it occurs, but God does. We have to trust that. But as he pounded away at the necessity of repentance, and by choosing the word perish to describe the consequences of failing to repent, Jesus helped his listeners understand that there is something worse than losing one’s physical life – and that is neglecting one’s spiritual essence. Jesus seems to be implying that at least some of the victims of the massacre and the tower collapse had lost more than their physical lives on the day of their demise. That, for whatever reason, they had neglected their spiritual essence—failing to make themselves ready to meet their Maker—and that it had cost them dearly.
Though we often seem to forget it, this world is not our home. Our home is with the One who created us from dust for a purpose that is beyond our immediate knowledge. We can’t comprehend it… but God can. And God has placed us here on earth to live out the purpose for which we were created… and whatever that might mean for any one of us in particular, I’m pretty sure it involves practicing love—for all of us—without exception. Then, we go home to God. A friend once described her idea of heaven as “being with God.” Simple. Elegant. I like it. And continuing that line of thinking, if the definition of sin is anything that separates us from God,then sin is what prevents us from being in heaven. Duh! But notice that it’s not God who bars us from entering Paradise—we do that to ourselves. The late, great Elbert Hubbard once wisely observed that we’re not punished for our sins… but by them. Hear, hear.
So, sometimes bad things do happen to good people. Sometimes folks bring it on themselves, sometimes it’s perpetrated upon them by bad actors, and sometimes, sometimes… stuff just happens. Perhaps it’s the machinations of the Evil One… I don’t know. We can’t understand it, and it’s not a lot of use getting ourselves wrapped around the axle about something we have little or no control over, by my way of thinking. The takeaway, Jesus tells us, is that it’s not punishment from God. But Jesus also warns us that we have a limited amount of time to identify and remove those things that separate us from God and God’s purpose for our lives… or else we might just lose something we can never get back. “Repent now, or you will surely perish.” Talk about tough love…. And it’s not just “things done” that get us in trouble… things like lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride… you know, the seven deadly sins. Sometimes it’s “things left undone…” those ways in which we fail to practice love in our lives. Sin is sin.
A parable is a story that illustrates a truth that’s beyond our ability to comprehend… through language and experiences that we canunderstand. Jesus uses the parable of the fig tree in today’s Gospel lesson to underscore the importance of “giving into God” while we still have life and breath within us. The fig tree was planted and tended all its life in order that it would someday bear fruit. That was its purpose. When the tree failed to bear fruit, the man who owned it decided to cut it down, not out of anger or malice, but simply because the nonproducing tree was not living into its purpose. It was wasting good soil and water, both of which were (and still are) precious in that part of the world. Good thing for the fig tree that the gardener was around to help make sure that the tree got one more year to live into its purpose.
So… what “truth” might this parable be intended to convey? How about this? The earth is our vineyard and we have a finite span of years produce fruit… to grow into the creatures that God made us to be. Kind of scary, huh? But Paul reminds us in the first letter to the Corinthians that, “No testing has overtaken [us] that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let [us] be tested beyond [our] strength…” (v. 10:13a). I don’t know what happens to those who fail in the task… to those who perish. I don’t know what “Plan B” God might have in store for them, though I’m sure there is one, because God is good, and loves us unconditionally despite our frailties and failures. But I’m also pretty sure I’d rather not be that fig tree in year five… if it hasn’t gotten its act together.
Giving in to God’s purpose for our lives is hard, but it constitutes repentance and amendment of life in the truest sense. And never forget this: God loves us more than we could ever ask or deserve, and we’ll never be left to face our trials alone. So, repent. Now. Change your direction. Cast off those things that are separating you from God and give in to what he has in store for you. Fight for it. Even now, God’s in your corner… cheering you on.