3rd Sun [C] 2007

Fr. Charles Irvin

Exodus 3:1-8,13-15; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6,10-12; Luke 13:1-9

In our newspapers and on television we read of disasters and watch catastrophes each and every day of our lives. Added to that, we frequently deal with painful tragedies in the lives of our friends and loved ones. And we ask: “Where is God?” “How can a good God allow these things to go on?” It’s the question put to Jesus in this Gospel account dealing with the fact that the Roman Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate (the same Roman Governor who condemned Jesus to be crucified) murdered a number of Jews in Jerusalem while they worshipped in the Temple. He mingled their blood with the blood of temple sacrifices. To say the very least it was a horrible thing to do because it was akin to offering human sacrifice and blood as an act of worshipping God.

Some people explain away tragedies by telling us that it is sinners who suffer tragedies; tragedies are God’s way of punishing us for our sins. They are appropriate and just punishments from God for our sins. I want to suggest that may not be true. Why? Because bad things happen to good people. People who are totally innocent suffer terrible tragedies and it’s always painful to see the innocent suffer.

Jesus makes it quite clear that personal suffering and personal sin are not always connected. To be sure, most sins bring their own punishment with them. You can think of a whole lot of disease, pain and illnesses, both physical and mental, that result from behavior that is, shall we say, unhealthy, unnatural, and even bizarre. Nevertheless we must keep in mind the fact that personal suffering does hit the innocent. Suffering comes from many causes, not the least of which is simple, random chaos.

You and I are joined with God in the critically important enterprise of pushing back the boundaries of chaos and establishing cleared space in which order and harmony and peace can be found. That space is bought at a price, the price of whatever it takes to push the forces of chaos away and to build boundaries that will protect the ordered and safe space we have cleared.

Suffering also comes from other people’s sins. A good deal of the pain and suffering we endure in life comes directly from the sinful attitudes and activities found in other people, as well as in their inattentiveness, lazy slothfulness, and above all their indifference. A whole lot of pain comes from those who have a “who cares?” attitude toward what they think, say and do.

And let’s face it, we are all sinners. If God were to directly link all suffering with our personal sins we would live in a world that would not be habitable. We simply couldn’t survive; no one would be safe. But as it is, God has not absented himself from our world. As a matter of fact, He has so loved us that He has sent His only-begotten Son into our world, not to condemn it, but to save us.

The world will be saved only to the extent that we receive what God gives us in order to save our world. God offers, and then waits for us to respond. To the extent that we do not respond, either because of our active refusal to surrender to God, or because of our indifference and our “who cares?” attitude, to that extent, chaos and the forces of sin will enter to fill the vacuum and fill our lives and the lives of others with more pain and suffering.

Which is why, in response to the original question I put to you when I began this homily, Jesus points out the terrible sin of uselessness. You see, the question is not “Where is God in all of this?” the question is rather “Where have we been?”

Fig trees are supposed to provide figs. They exist to produce the fruit that God made them to produce in the first place. And we, too, have been put on this earth to generate love, care, and goodness, to build up God’s kingdom by producing the results for which God gave us life in the first place. The more we do that the less there will be of pain and suffering in our world.

A little lesson in Palestinian horticulture: fig trees over there produce crops of figs three times each year. These trees are given every chance to produce. They receive a gardener’s special care. Their owners have a right to expect them to produce — not to simply wave their pretty little leaves in the air. When the master found this fig tree to be yielding nothing, he had every right, if not the duty, to eliminate it. All it was doing was soaking up water, minerals and other precious resources needed by the other fig trees to produce their fruit.

The response here in this parable, however, was extra tenderness, extraordinary care, and a range of “second chances.” The owner allows three seasons, nine chances at being productive, before it is to be cut down. That fig tree was given no room in which to whine and complain. It couldn’t claim that it wasn’t given a chance to produce.

What, then, about us? God has planted us in the midst of His love and grace. Our families and our friends have given us love, our schools have given us education, and our Church has given us God’s holy presence, mercy, and graces. In abundance, God has offered us His tender, loving care. How have we responded? How will we respond? Will we just wave our pretty leaves in the air, or will we feed the world’s hungry and be about the tasks of bringing order out of the injustices and chaos in the world around us?

God wants us to finish the story for ourselves. You have perhaps noticed that the parable of the fig tree had no real ending. It just sort of stopped and we don’t know what eventually happened to that fig tree. The same is true for you and me. God has given us life and launched us out into our world with a script to follow along with a director to guide us. But how our individual life stories are eventually written depends entirely on how we respond to what God has given us. A merciful God has spared us all, many times over, up to this present moment. What will we do?

Of what use and just how fruitful will be the rest of your life . . . and mine? We have no idea what happened to the fig tree. We can have a pretty good idea about what will happen to us. Will we do nothing, or will we give God useful and productive lives spent in accomplishing His work and building up His kingdom? The responsibility rests upon us – not God.

About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”