Interesting how sometimes we can feel far away from the world of the Gospel. Stories sound like stories that happened in an ancient time and we have to make a real effort to be able to relate to them…Yet, we have to acknowledge that, on the other side, sometimes, stories seem almost unbearably close to us…That could be the case today.
The story of Pilate executing the Galileans as an act of worship and the story of those killed by the falling of the tower of Siloam, it feels like these two stories happened last week with the people shot at the mosque in NZ and the reports of natural disasters and wide destruction both in the Midwest and in South Africa. In Jesus’s time as today, we see people being killed out of hate for who they are, people dying because the natural/physical world is not reliable in the way we wish it would be…Yet mainly these stories hit home b/c we react the same to those kind of catastrophes: We don’t know what to do, we don’t know what to say, we don’t know what to think. We try hard to find a reason to make sense of them, but we generally fail at it.
In biblical times, people very often explained suffering by assuming the victims of tragedy had done something wrong to provoke a disaster, they had brought on themselves God’s anger because of their sins. But today we see Jesus did not support this explanation – and it is not the first time he does that in the Gospel…so I think it’s really a message we need to hear, a message he repeats twice in the passage we have just heard: “Do you think these people were worse sinners? No, I tell you”.
Of course, thankfully, most of us don’t think anymore that God punishes people with trials and disasters and all sort of calamities…yet, if we search our hearts, we have to acknowledge that very often there is still a tendency in us to think that those who suffer have problems b/c they have done something (wrong) / or not done something (right), and there is often a temptation to dismiss their suffering by telling them what they should do or not and how they should feel. It can be made even worse when on top of that, it is assumed that their trials are there because God wants to teach them something, correcting them from their mistakes.
“Everything happens for a reason”: Who haven’t heard this kind of things, or professed them? I know I did, several times. But each time I hear someone saying that or when I catch myself thinking that, I realize we’re closer than we think of the people surrounding Jesus who assumed disasters hit sinners. We know that God does not “punish”, yet how hard it is for us to respond to suffering without explaining it away by finding a good reason for it.
Yet, if we look closer today, we’ll realize that Jesus not only said loud and clear that people don’t suffer because they are sinners, but we’ll also see that it is never said that God sends us sufferings to “teach us”. In the letter to the Corinthians, we read: “God will not let you be tested beyond your strengths” which we often translate as “God won’t give you more that you can handle”. But Paul never said that God “gives us” things hard to handle, Paul never said that God sends us sufferings for a greater purpose, to fix something in our lives and to teach us to be better people. At some point, we all have to deal with much more than we can handle! What Paul promises us is that God will walk with us so we can keep our faith, and God will give us strength and comfort in the midst of pain and confusion.
And so, as Christians, this is really what we are called to do: To respond to pain not by explaining it away in finding a good reason for it, but we are called to respond to pain by trusting God and by being present with those who suffer, in the same way that we believe that God is present with those who suffer. Paul is actually talking to a community, not to individuals, and what he says is that we can make it trough times of suffering when we are together as a community, when we support each other and take care of one another, not when we find good explanations / justifications for people’s suffering and advise them to just deal with it because what happens to them is God’s will.
I remember a comment I read in an exhibition about 9/11. A journalist marveled that: “Really, when there is a disaster everybody flee in the opposite direction, except for the firefighters and the reporters”. And I thought to myself: Well, not only the firefighters and the reporters, Christians also should run towards the places where suffering happen. We know that at least this is the example Moses gives us in our first reading. After all those years spent away from the oppression in Egypt, he will go back, right there in the midst of pain and confusion to bring healing and liberation to his people.
This is what repentance is all about I think. After Jesus dismissed the arguments of the crowd about God’s punishments, he asked them to “Repent” if they didn’t want to “Perish”. Repentance is often translated as “return” and indeed it is about changing directions. Not fleeing from the bad by explaining it away, but addressing it by doing good.
We need to address the bad by acting instead of finding good explanations when something happens to somebody. Yet it does not mean that we should not question why there is suffering in the world. To this global suffering, Jesus actually gave a very good explanation: the reason for suffering is our absence of repentance. It’s not that some people endure personal tragedies God send them as a punishment for their own private sins. But sin creates suffering. B/c of everybody’s sin, we have made the world a place of “pain and confusion” where a lot of bad things can happen to anyone because of our collective greed, because of our violence, or even just because of our lack of concern and our apathy. We live in a world that produces mass shooters, terrorists, natural disasters aggravated by climate change, buildings falling apart b/c they are made with haste at the lower cost. And those who suffer from the consequences of collective sins are not necessarily those who sinned- actually, most of the time, they are the innocent, the innocent who perish b/c of other people’s aggression, negligence or indifference.
Victims of tragedies don’t “perish” b/c they are “cursed”! If you were cursed when you die young or unexpectedly, it would not make sense that Jesus himself died young in a tragic way. But we see people perish because the way they die don’t make any sense. They are destroyed by the violence, the injustice and the absurdity our sins bring into the world. It’s not death that takes away the meaning of life, it’s sin! There are two ways of dying in the OT: Either you have your name perish, either you lie with your ancestors filled with years and children. What Jesus was saying is that we need to live lives that bear fruit instead of bringing destruction – barrenness being this very fate that threatens the fig tree in the parable.
Today Jesus calls us to refuse the absurdity, the injustice and the violence of the world and the best way we can respond to that is to tend our own garden, “to bear the fruit of repentance” as JB called the people to do at the beginning of the Gospel. We don’t have control over tragedies, but we have control over our own lives, we can choose to just sit there and criticize what’s going on and how people mess up everything or we can choose to live a fruitful life that brings healing and liberation, as did Moses.
And so maybe there are different ways to hear the parable of the fig tree. We generally assume that God is this man angry at the barren tree we are who wants to punish us by cutting us down, and Jesus is the gardener who tries to buy us a little more time. But maybe in the parable this man sadden by his tree is us and the tree is our world and the gardener shows us how, instead of despairing, we are called to look after it. Maybe we are tempted to give up b/c of all the violence and absurdity, but maybe Jesus calls us to look at the tree that is our world with compassion and hope and Jesus asks us to give our best to take care of it. If Jesus is the gardener of our world, maybe as disciples of Christ we can work with Christ to be the manure. The manure is just dust – as we were reminded on Ash Wednesday – but we are promised today that our dust can also bring life and renewal if we collaborate with him. Amen.