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The 3rd Sunday in Lent; Luke 13:1–9

A story is told about St. Teresa of Avila comes to mind. One day, travelling in an ox cart, her cart hits a rock, overturns, and catapults Teresa into a thornbush. Getting up, extricating herself, and brushing the dirt off her habit, she looks up at the heavens, and loudly shouts, “God! If this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them!!!”

A friend, an English priest, told me of a woman he knew in the inner city London parish he served before coming to Canada.
She had a terrible life. Her husband died suddenly almost immediately following the birth of their second child, and soon after she was diagnosed with a degenerative and, in time, fatal disease. In effect she made a bargain with God, to let her live long enough to see both her children graduate from school and establish independent lives; and indeed, she died not long after that happened.

One day, during a visit, she told my friend something that had just happened. That morning she had done the washing, involving boiling water in a large kettle, then scrubbing clothes by hand. To dry she hung them outside in her back garden. Just as she finished the clothesline broke and all her hard work ended up in the dirt. Desperately angry, she screamed, “Why me, God?”

As she told my friend, she then had the distinct impression of a voice calmly speaking back to her, “Why not you?”

I have been known to get theological inspiration from the “Peanuts” cartoon strip. Charlie Brown is reading the Sermon on the Mount to Snoopy, and has come to the passage in which Jesus says, “[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45b) Snoopy reflects on this, and in a balloon over his head appears the thought, “That’s a good system!”

We tend to set rather different standards for ourselves and for others, when it comes to the random events of life. Which of us has not, when some particular awful thing has happened to us, literally or figuratively shaken our fists at heaven and complained “Why me, God?” And which of us has not, when misfortune has fallen upon someone of whose moral and ethical standards we don’t approve, muttered in the secret of our heart that they probably deserved it?

Then, when fortune smiles on someone else, especially one of whom we don’t particularly approve, which of us has not had the passing thought that surely God must have made a mistake, or be joking? And when a stroke of good fortune comes to us, if we think about God at all, we might express a quick prayer of thanks with the inner though that it was high time that God finally recognized our sterling qualities and gave us the reward we were owed. And, I am willing to bet, that in good fortune none of us has ever looked to heaven and asked, “Why me, God?”

In the Gospel today, Jesus is debating similar questions. Some bystanders told him of a massacre that must have happened recently, when the Temple police had perhaps been more vigorous than usual in keeping order among worshippers. And Jesus himself speaks of another disaster, when a tower collapsed and killed eighteen people. The thinking of those with whom Jesus is speaking is obviously that the victims must have done something to deserve their fate, and that God was simply exercising justice over some who were worse sinners than those who were spared. Jesus insists that those killed were no better or no worse than others who survived, that in fact all were sinners, and would perish in the final judgment unless they repented. God’s hand was not to be found in the random events of this world that cause evil to fall on some, and good on others. Jesus refuses, in effect, to answer the question, “Why me?”

One of the earliest written documents dealing with that question is the Book of Job. In this story, Job, a good man, sees his fortune disappear, his family die, and ends up sitting on a garbage dump asking “Why did this happen to me?” Unfortunately, God’s answer isn’t very satisfactory, amounting to “You wouldn’t understand!”

One of the great thinkers of the last century, Carl Jung, analysed this story, and came up with his own “Answer to Job,” the title of one of his books. His answer to Job’s “Why me?” is “Why not you!” In creating a world with human beings who can think, make choices, and have totally free will, a world in which both good and evil co-exist, God has given up the right to interfere with the working out of human fate. To do otherwise would be to have a world in which humans were not really free, and furthermore, it would be a world with a God who is not really sovereign. And thus, the sun rises, and the rain falls, on all alike; and so also good and bad fortune.

But Jung also goes on to note that such a world would be intolerable, and such a God cruelly indifferent beyond belief. The real answer to Job is Jesus Christ, God coming into the world as an ordinary human being in order to experience fully what it means to be human, to experience fully the best and worst of human life. Thus God’s answer to the question “Why me?” is “I understand your hurt, I understand the unfairness of this tragedy, I understand the agony of your heart, I also understand you when you are happy and joyous, because I too have felt all these same emotions.”

But we cannot forget that Jesus is not just warm fuzzies; he reminds us in this Gospel passage that we are all subject to judgement. Not simply the misfortune that is a natural part of life, but an accounting for how we have lived that life. For there not to be a judgement, for God to be only merciful, would be terribly unjust!

We need to remember though, that immediately upon reminding his listeners of the judgement to come, Jesus tells the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree. It is of course a story about one last chance, and it is not difficult to see that the landowner stands for the judgement of God, and the gardener for the mercy of God. The tree is judged to be useless after the landowner has sought to harvest fruit from it and found none. The gardener asks for one last chance for the tree, and will go to extraordinary measures to persuade it to bear fruit. But to see just how extraordinary the mercy given the tree is, and hence how extraordinary the mercy of God is, we need some facts about fig growing in biblical times.

Under Jewish law, during the first three years of a fig tree’s growth the fruit is unclean, and so in fact at the time of this story, the fig tree had been growing for six years. There is no evidence that it was ever customary to manure fig trees, nor does this undemanding tree normally need manure; therefore the gardener proposes something very unusual; he is willing to try anything to save the fig tree.

This parable is the story of salvation in a nutshell. Year after year God tried to persuade humanity to repent of sin. Again and again God called his human creatures to return. Through prophets and sages God revealed his righteous law. But humanity continued to turn against God, and against one another(to paraphrase Eucharistic Prayer 4). And then God took the extraordinary, unprecedented step of sending his Son, not only to teach humanity, but to die for the sins of humanity. He left us a Church, through which we can receive the means of grace; baptism to wash us from our sins, Holy Communion to nourish and feed us as we struggle to live in accordance with God’s will. Perfection is no longer required; Jesus in his death took away the need for it, and repentance now means not getting all our life right, but trusting in Jesus Christ as our redeemer when we fail.

There is much grace in Jesus’ call to repent in today’s Gospel. It particularly fitting for Lent, when the Church calls us to rethink (re-pent!) our lives. There is still time. As long as we have life, we have time. The parable of the fig tree says that the story is not over yet. The gardener wants more time, to water and feed the tree. And as long as we have water to remember our baptism, and bread and wine to eat at this table, there is still time and hope.

Time to repent, re-think, time to be forgiven, again and again; and time to live a life with Christ.

Copyright ©2022 by Gerry Mueller