Exodus 3:1-8,13-15; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6,10-12; Luke 13:1-9
In our newspapers we read of disasters and watch catastrophes on television. And we deal with painful tragedies in the lives of our friends and loved ones, and ask: “Where is God?”, “How can God allow these things to go on?” It is implicitly the question put to Jesus in this Gospel account dealing with the fact that the Roman Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, the same one who condemned Jesus to be crucified, murdered a number of Jews in Jerusalem while they worshipped! He mingled their blood with the blood of their temple sacrifices. It was a terribly shocking thing to do, to say the very least.
Some people explain away tragedies by telling us that it is sinners who suffer tragedies. Tragedies, they claim, are God’s way of punishing us for our sins, justified punishments from God inflicted upon us for our sins. That, of course, may or may not be true. Why? Because bad things happen to good people –people who are totally innocent suffer terrible tragedies. Jesus makes it crystal 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 diseases, pains and illnesses, both physical and mental, that result from behavior that is, shall we say, unhealthy, unnatural, and even bizarre. Still, 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 vast 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 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 that 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 in what they think, say and do.
And, to be truthful, we are all sinners. If God were to directly link all suffering with our personal sins the world would not be habitable. We simply couldn’t survive; no one would be safe. 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. God has given His son for the life of the world.
We need to realize that 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 active refusal to surrender to God, or because of our indifference and “who cares?” attitude, to that extent, chaos and the forces of sin will enter into to fill the vacuum and fill our lives with more pain and suffering.
This is why in response to the original question I put to you moments ago when I began this homily, Jesus points out the terrible sin of uselessness in His parable about the fig tree. 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, to produce the fruit that God made them to produce in the first place. And we, too, have been put on this earth to produce the results for which God gave us life in the first place to produce.
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 care. Their owners have a right to expect them to produce, not to simply wave their pretty 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 that fig tree. All it was doing was soaking up water, minerals and other precious resources needed by the other trees to produce their fruit. This tree was good for nothing.
The response of the owner here in this parable was extra tenderness, extra-ordinary care, and a range of “second chances.” The owner allowed three seasons, nine chances, to be productive, before it was to be cut down. That fig tree was given no room in which to complain 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, love, and graces. God has offered us His tender, loving care in abundance. 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, care for the outcast, 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, Jesus, 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.
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? The responsibility rests upon us – not God.