Third Sunday of Lent Year C Lectio divina on Lk 13,1-9
A sudden disaster, an unexpected death or unjust killings, are likely to arouse in any of us a sense of unease and some difficult questions. Believers feel even more challenged by this sad and obscure reality which is the existence of evil, because we believe that nothing happens by chance, that everything is the result and the sign of God’s goodness. It is natural then that, when faced with evil, we look to God who alone can give us a “good” answer, a reason that will ease our sorrow or, at least, enlighten us in our confusion. The existence of evil, which is so obvious in our daily lives, causes greater problems to those of us who believe, than to those who have stopped believing because of it.
There were some present at that very time who told Jesus of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? 3 I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” 6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, `Behold, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, `Let it alone, sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure. 9 And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
I. Read: understand what the text says, focussing on how it says it
After Jesus had exhorted the people to try to read the signs of the times and of all that was happening to them, and to take decisions accordingly (Lk 12,45-48), he was asked to give an explanation of a recent disaster that had caused much sorrow and misunderstanding. The violent death of some of their countrymen, just as they were offering sacrifice to honour God, was particularly painful for believers. Where was God when they were worshipping him? The episode was extremely painful, especially since it had been ordered by an authority that they considered illegitimate (Lk 13,1-3). Jesus did not give an immediate response but he added to the problem by referring to another fact that was well known to his listeners (Lk 13,4-5). The accidental death of some people who were crushed when a tower collapsed on them, was equally incomprehensible, and in this case, they could not put the blame on the wickedness of a cruel despot. For believers, the death of innocent people, whether the result of violence or of an accident, always raises questions about God and his goodness.
In his reply, Jesus interprets what has happened prophetically. When evil occurs, it does not mean that the victims are evil. Death, whether accidental or deliberate, does not come only to sinners. The victims were not greater sinners than those who survived. When disasters occur, they serve as a serious warning to those who survive and are still alive. The evil that others suffer when disasters occur, should lead to the conversion of those who witness the disaster and are spared. Anyone who is not converted on witnessing evil, will die under its power. The difficulties of others affect us too, and should influence the way we live our lives. Being spared when disaster strikes does not mean that we are better than those who die, but it should make us better people.
To give more force to his call to conversion, Jesus adds the parable of the barren fig tree (Lk 13,6-9). The owner is annoyed because it does not produce fruit and decides to uproot it, but yields to the pleading of the vinedresser who promises to give it special attention, and agrees to give him a year of grace. The fig tree is given a last chance. As long as there is life in it, the owner has hope that it will bear fruit. The hope of our loving God is that those who are not yet good will be converted, and so he is patient with the wicked. However – and we should not forget it – the time granted is already fixed. The owner will not wait another three years. He concedes only one.
II. MEDITATION: apply what the text says to life
Jesus makes use of two recent tragic events and a parable as the basis for his call to conversion (Lk 12,35-59). Unexpected death, whether it comes as a result of wilful violence at the foot of the altar, or as an unfortunate consequence of the collapse of a tower, poses a situation that requires explanation. Jesus warns those who are still alive that they should not ask questions about the fate of those who have died. They should be concerned, instead, about their own future. The dead may or may not have been sinners, but only the living have the possibility of avoiding the real death which lasts forever. The fact that they still have time does not free them from their obligations, but adds to their responsibilities. Just because their hour has not yet come, does not mean that it will not come. The fact that their judgment has been delayed adds to their responsibility, and makes their resistance to conversion more culpable. Instead of worrying about what cannot change, the Christian should choose to change his own life, and seek to live a better life, because this is the only thing that can ensure that he will escape perdition. Only by living as God wants him to live, can the believer be free of fear. God is no longer feared by those who accept his will.
One day, some people went to Jesus with this very question in their minds. They were greatly disturbed by two sad events that had happened recently. The mass assassination of believers during a religious celebration was proof of the cruelty of the political regime which they had to put up with against their will. The unforeseen collapse of a wall was, if anything, even harder to explain. It made death seem the result of pure chance. In both cases, they found it hard to see where God and his providence could be found.
Where the pitiful people saw only a grave punishment, Jesus saw a warning from God, a last call to conversion. The Jews were accustomed to think that, as the saying goes, you get what is coming to you. Evil that comes, even unexpectedly, is never completely gratuitous. There is always a reason. They believed that the victims of evil deserved it – they must have done something wrong. God would never punish the just. Seemingly good people who suffer only appear good – there must be some sin in their lives, whether they were aware of it or not. To this way of thinking, evil always has a logical explanation. There is always a reason. The evil that comes is ‘reasonable’ in a way, because it is the result of previous bad behaviour. Jesus, who was to suffer an unjust death, could not accept an explanation of that kind. Those who are spared are not better, he taught, than those who suffer. The evil may well survive while the just perish. Is this not our own experience?
The fact of evil, inevitable and hurtful as it may be, is a call to conversion. The experience of suffering is an invitation to turn to God, who alone can free us definitively from evil. Those who suffer most are not the most guilty. Unmerited suffering, whatever its cause, makes us worry about our safety, reminds us of our limits and, in spite of everything, directs us towards God. Anyone who is still liable to suffer is not yet saved. Anyone who can still succumb to evil is not yet completely good. The evil we do and the evil we suffer destabilizes our lives and makes us insecure. It increases in us the awareness of our weakness and our insignificance.
We should not be surprised then that we believers often feel as troubled as the people of Jesus’ time in the face of evil, which is so evident and so pervasive. We cannot escape it. It weakens us and threatens to destroy all the good we have been able to do in the course of our lives. We fail to realize that misfortune and disaster can be a warning from God, a severe call to be taken into serious consideration, a painful notice that should waken us from our indifference and call us back to God.
The evil that we experience when we ignore God makes us appreciate more the good things we have received from him, and pay attention to the risks we run through our ingratitude and neglect. The experience of evil in any form can be God’s way of reminding us that he is the Supreme Good who alone can fully satisfy us. He is the One who meets all our hopes and expectations, because he is the only good who remains forever.
Jesus told the parable of the barren fig tree to teach his troubled listeners that the experience of evil, in our own lives or in the lives of others, is a call to conversion. Jesus does not answer his own questions directly, but rather tells his listeners what they must do. He had not come to solve the problems they brought to him, but to raise some new questions. He lets his listeners continue to worry over their problem, but warns them that they have not yet faced up to the crucial question.
His listeners had witnessed evil, but in this case, it was not an evil they had experienced in their own lives. Their questions were well-intentioned, but a bit academic. They came not from their own grief but from their reflections on the grief of others. Jesus responds by saying that anyone who thinks he is safe from evil is the very one who is at risk, and exposed to unforeseen evil and to death, in the same way as were those who had died. But the living have one more chance. This is the warning behind the analogy of the fig tree. Like the owner of the fig tree, we may have put our hope in God and believed that one day we would bear fruit. Often we have made promises, without thinking that, one day he would come to ask of us what we had promised. Jesus reminds us that promises are not enough, whether we promise a little or a lot. It is not enough to live on God’s gifts. We have to give them back to him. Our future with God does not depend on our good desires, but on the good works we do. It would, therefore, be a mistake to hold that, just because nothing too serious has happened to us up to now, or because we have escaped relatively unharmed from the evil we have suffered, that we will be safe when it comes to the day of the Lord’s judgment.
Like the barren fig tree we have received a bit more time, a last chance. It would be wrong to spend our time worrying about the harm that might befall us, while neglecting to do the good that God expects of us. The evil we need to worry about is the good we fail to do to others.
Blessed are we if we listen today to the voice of the Lord! We need to be aware of the evil that is in the world and in our hearts. There is no need to go far to look for it. Why complain about how evil the world is, and how wicked other people are, when we could well find in ourselves the same evil that we attribute to others? We need to become more aware of God and his goodness, and the good things we have received from him, and remember that one day, when God has conquered all our evil, we will be asked to give an account of the evil we have done and the good we have failed to do.
If the presence of evil in our world, a presence which is so clearly evident and so visible in our daily lives, does not bring us to seek God, our supreme good, and lead us to live better lives, then our suffering will have been of no good to us. Maybe we think we have suffered unjustly. Maybe we complain that God does not take good enough care of us. The evil that exists around us should make us become better people. Jesus warns us that, while there is evil around us, we cannot go on doing evil, if we do not want to be lost and to lose God forever.