(Begin by reading the Gospel. Sometimes it is good to have someone read it to you. The Word is meant to be heard.)
The Gospel for this Sunday begins with someone telling Jesus about the tragic death of some people from Galilee. The people want to understand why this happened. They wonder if this is God's way of judging sinners.
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
Pilate killed the people from Galilee. We know that later, Pilate gives the order for Jesus to be killed. Do we think that God judges Jesus and has him killed? Of course not. Does God judge people and use a person like Pilate to execute the worst sinners? Jesus says, no. Of course not.
Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Jesus mentions another tragedy—the accidental death of people due to a tower collapsing on them. Do we think God judges people and causes towers to fall on the worst sinners? Jesus says, no. Of course not.
But why then, does Jesus say twice,
unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Repent means to turn around, to change one's ways. Jesus has been speaking about sinners. He has been speaking to sinners. Unless you turn and make a change, he says, you will perish like these people did.
To perish means to die. However, Jesus cannot mean that everyone who does not repent will be killed by Pilate and have a tower fall on them. That does not make sense. The word St. Luke uses here also means "to be cut off entirely from." From whom will we be cut off if we do not repent? We know Jesus means from him, from God.
The word unless holds within it all of God's judgment, does it not?
Jesus wants the people to understand about God's judgment that has nothing to do with Pilate or falling towers. So Jesus tells them this parable:
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
The owner of the vineyard has had this fig tree planted within his care. He has given it a long time to produce fruit. We can imagine the owner coming each day for three years to see whether today there would be a change. Each day, he would be disappointed. Three years in the warmth of Israel, within the safety of the vineyard, that tree should have produced fruit. But it has not. We wonder why.
The owner has given the fig tree an abundance of time to grow, to change. Something has gone wrong. It is time to cut it down and use the soil to plant something new. We feel badly for the fig tree, but it has had a chance—many chances. It is right and just to cut it down now. This is justice.
The gardener though, intercedes for the fig tree. He agrees that it is just to cut it down, but asks for a little more time—time to nourish the roots and encourage change. Wait until, he says. This is mercy.
Unless and until. Justice and mercy. Both are qualities of God.
In this time of Lent, we consider our need to repent. We consider also the manure the gardener mixes into the soil to encourage growth, to encourage this change. What could this manure be? What encourages our growth in relationship to God? In Lent, we seek to suck up all this goodness. Where can we find it? It is being mixed into our soil out of the abundance of God's mercy.
A fig tree cannot make itself produce fruit, but it does have to suck up the good nutrients. Then there will be fruit—fruit that the fig tree cannot even begin to imagine.