Today’s reading from the Gentle Shepherd’s Service for the Third Sunday in Lent is from the Jerusalem Bible version of the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 13, verses 1 to 9:
“Some people arrived and told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with that of their sacrifices. At this he said to them, ‘Do you suppose these Galileans who suffered like that were greater sinners than any other Galileans? They were not, I tell you. No; but unless you repent you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen on whom the tower at Siloam fell and killed them? Do you suppose that they were more guilty than all the other people living in Jerusalem? They were not, I tell you. No; but unless you repent you will all perish as they did.’ He told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came looking for fruit on it but found none. He said to the man who looked after the vineyard, “Look here, for three years now I have been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and finding none. Cut it down: why should it be taking up the ground?” “Sir,” the man replied, “leave it one more year and give me time to dig round it and manure it: it may bear fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.”’ This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Today’s reading begins with Jesus’ discussion of two disasters that befell local people. The first was an act of genocide, where a group of Galilean pilgrims had been slaughtered by Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem. The second was an accident, where a tower had collapsed and killed eighteen unsuspecting people. In both disasters, tragedy came swiftly and without warning. None of the victims were to blame for their sad, sudden demise. In both instances, Jesus intimates that tragedy is not the same as divine punishment. Awful things happen to people with or without their sinfulness.
This sudden, uncertain fragility of life raises questions of how and why we are here. We might feel in life that God has spared us from a particular hardship because we are special or virtuous in some way. Yet, Jesus shows us here that we are not to confuse what might be our own good fortune for special treatment. We all share the reality that we sin, and so we all need to repent. Jesus emphasizes this directly: without repentance, we will surely perish. Of course, Jesus is not merely referring to the death of our physical bodies, but also the destruction of our souls. Just as matters of life and death can be sudden, we never know the exact time when we need to prepare to repent.
Jesus says this not to manipulate us through our fear into clinging to God, but rather to point out our inner sense of complacency. Without death or dismemberment staring us in the face, it is easy to put off the kind of inner work that is required for Christian life to be fruitful until another day. Maybe then we will have time in our busy schedule to read Scripture. Maybe then we will have time to pray. Maybe then we will have a moment to attend worship. But maybe tomorrow will never come. Our awareness of the fragility of life through the suffering of others might be our only opportunity to set things straight in our lives before the unimaginable becomes real to us.
To me, Jesus’ parable about the fig tree really drives this point home. Unproductive trees, like those who nominally are Christians, could continue to live without bearing fruit. However, we should not mistake this gift of extra time as anything other than an opportunity to do what we should already have been doing. God’s patience and mercy hold back judgment only temporarily. God encourages us to repent and to lead lives that are spiritually fruitful. But the choice to do so is our own.
In this context, repentance does not simply mean being a model citizen. Rather, it means seeing our life differently from the perspective of living as God would want us to do. It means repositioning ourselves to see the urgency of the task at hand, and to live into and through our faith. Otherwise, the greater tragedy will not be an awful, sudden end to our human existence but instead the series of missed opportunities to follow the still, small voice of God along a spiritual path to the eternity of Life Everlasting. Amen and Amen.