Saturday, October 24, 2015



The gospel this (Saturday) morning got me thinking. Some of the ideas in this post are based on a commentary by Luke Timothy Johnson. Here’s the gospel text.

At that time some people who were present there told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. He said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent,  you will all perish as they did! Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them —do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did.

Every day the newspaper tells a few stories like the above: a stray bullet kills a child standing in her living room, a truck going the wrong way on an expressway wipes out a whole family, a drone strike in the Middle East kills several of the unsuspecting enemy.

Luke is always at pains to show Jesus in the role of a prophet. So in this passage the prophet takes the news accounts about sudden deaths and uses them to teach a lesson. His point is not, he tells us, that these people were particularly bad sinners who were punished, but rather that death itself, with the judgment of God, is always so close. It can happen while you’re standing beside a wall, or when you’re worshipping, but when it comes so suddenly there is no time to repent.

A rabbi named Eliezer had declared that a person should repent the day before death. Sounds like a plan, right? Woops! Yeah, there’s the problem of the falling wall or the sudden murder. So the rabbi's disciples said that since we never know when our death will be, we should live our whole lives in repentance. That sounds like a better plan, actually.


The prophet Jesus then takes this opportunity to tell the parable about the barren fig tree. 

And he told them this parable: “There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. [So] cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’” (Lk 13:1-9)

There’s an interesting secondary lesson in it, besides the main point that God is merciful and gives us time to repent.

The other point, very apropos for this post, is that for Jesus the Prophet,”repentance” doesn’t mean simply a turning away from sin, but also an acceptance of God’s visitation, the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. He calls us to live the kingdom in our everyday deeds of charity, justice, humility, service, and so forth.

This idea was pointed out by, among others, St. Caesarius of Arles, who wrote that it would not be for bearing bad fruit that the tree would be cut down and burned, but for bearing no fruit at all.

When I die, the Lord (the owner of the fig tree in the story) is not going to ask me about my bad fruit: “Did you murder anybody?” or “Did you steal, or commit adultery?” (Too bad! I'd score pretty well in that category.) No, according to Jesus, the Lord is going to ask this simple question: “Okay, Albert, where’s the fruit?”



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