Our memories of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut are not old ones. We still may remember where we were when we heard of the tragedy, we may even recall with great clarity the knot in our stomach, the rage in our head, the overwhelming sadness. Tragedy is like that: it shakes our world and turns everything on its head, crying out for an explanation – why would God let something like that happen?
This seems to be the situation that is giving rise to the conversation in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus is told about some people who were killed by Pilate while they were offering sacrifices in the Temple. Can you imagine: people killed while at prayer! Certainly those who heard about the slaughter were shocked by it. News of another tragedy also seems to have been common knowledge, so Jesus includes it to illustrate what he intends to say. It seems that at Siloam a tower collapsed killing 18 people. These tragic events were on everyone’s lips – the news of the day. Times are different, but the events seem like they could have happened yesterday: a tyrant kills the citizens of his own country; faulty building construction causes a wall to collapse killing passersby on the street below.
Commonly in that time, people would have attributed such a tragedy to sin – God was punishing the people for something they, or their loved ones, had done. But Jesus isn’t having any of that in the Gospel: their sins were no greater than anyone else’s sins, no greater than our own sins. We all have sinned, and we all need to repent, that’s the message here. We don’t know if we will have tomorrow to do that; we don’t know if we will fall victim to tragedy or illness or disease; we just don’t have a guarantee of another day. So the acceptable time for repentance is now.
To illustrate that, Jesus tells the parable of the fig tree. It seems an odd parable, so there are a couple of things we should all know before we roll up our sleeves and dig in. First of all, fig trees actually did take three years to bear fruit. During those three years, of course, they would need to be nourished and watered and tended. But when those three years of hard work were up, the farmer certainly wanted his fig newtons! And the second piece of background is that, since the days of the prophet Micah, the fig tree has been a symbol for the nation of Israel, and Jesus’ hearers would have known that. So when they hear of a fruitless fig tree, it was a little bit of an accusation.
Conventional wisdom is that if the tree doesn’t bear fruit after three years of labor and throwing resources at it, you cut it down and plant a new one; why exhaust the nutrients of the soil? But this gardener is a patient one; he plans to give it another year and some extra TLC in hopes that it will bear fruit. So it is for us, the heirs to the promise to Israel. If we are found unfruitful, our Lord gives us extra time and TLC in order that we might have time to repent, take up the Gospel, and bear fruit for the kingdom of God. Our gardener is a patient one too.
To a point, though. We don’t get forever; if we still don’t bear fruit when the end comes, then we will have lost the opportunity to be friends of God, and once cut down in death, we don’t have time to get serious about it. The time for repentance is now. The time for us to receive and share God’s grace is now. The time for us to live justly and work for the kingdom is now. Because we don’t know that there will be tomorrow; we can never be presumptuous of God’s grace.
The consolation, though is this: we don’t have to do it alone. The Psalmist today sings that our God is kind and merciful: We get the TLC that our Gardener offers; the grace of God and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Lord God, our great “I AM,” comes to us and leads us out of captivity to sin just as he was preparing to do for the Israelites in the first reading today. We are always offered the grace of exodus, all we have to do is get started on the journey and begin once again to bear the fruit of our relationship with Christ.