One of the questions that always remains unanswered is why people die in an unexpected way. Why do the innocents suffer? People throughout history came with so many answers, especially with the religious presumption that disasters were always a punishment for sin. It was based on the misunderstanding of God’s justice by which the good are rewarded and the sinners are punished in this life. So, Jesus begins His teaching by responding to the crowd’s question about a tragedy that occurred through human malice. In particular, we are told that Pilate had killed some Galileans. He teaches the crowd that their understanding is mistaken. Sometimes bad things happen because of human free will and the evil actions of individuals such as Pilate. However, the greater tragedy isn’t when someone suffers at the hands of another person, but when an individual has not used well the gift of time and opportunities for repentance prior to a tragedy.
Jesus then provides another example of the tragedy that is the sole result of natural disaster rather than involving any human malice: the collapse of the Tower of Siloam. In this second example, the people suffered from an accidental event. Again, Jesus points out that such things are not an indication of the victim’s sinfulness but a reality of life.
Now we may conclude that there is no connection whatsoever between sin and suffering. But Jesus adds unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. The thrust of these two examples appears to be that, on the one hand, you should not assume that physical death is necessarily the result of a particular sin. On the other hand, there’s a kind of riddle built-in here where Jesus is saying, “If you don’t repent, you too will perish.”
“Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” seems to contradict what he just said. If death is not necessarily a result of sin, then why will I perish if I don’t repent? The answer to the riddle is he’s not talking primarily about physical death. He’s talking about spiritual death. He’s talking about being cut off from God. Elsewhere in the gospels, He says: “What does it profit a man if he gains his life but loses his soul?” (Mk 8:36)
How can you lose your soul without losing your life? So Jesus is not talking about the loss of physical life but of spiritual death through being excluded from the kingdom of God.
That is very clear in his third parable, the parable of the fig tree in which the fig tree represents the individual person, the lack of fruit represents a lack of repentance and the good works which are the signs of repentance. The fig tree that does not bear fruit will be destroyed. In this final example, the destruction will be the specific result of not bearing fruit. Jesus goes on to describe how the tree will be given time and encouragement to bear that fruit. By this example, Jesus teaches us that the greatest tragedy is that we bring on ourselves by our failure to repent and change our lives, especially when we are given time and encouragement to do so.
This is a powerful lesson for us as disciples. When we see tragedies occurring around us, then it should motivate us to evaluate our own lives and encourage us to make the needed changes so that we can be in the right relationship with God and others. We may never know the hour or circumstance when our time will come, but we can choose now to be spiritually prepared and in the right relationship with God and others, nonetheless.
So in this period of Lent, we can find ourselves in the fig tree planted in the vineyard, the Holy Catholic Church. That image itself talks very much. We are given one more opportunity to produce good fruits. Just as the farmer tended the barren fig tree with special care, so God affords us, the sinners, whatever graces we need to leave our sinful ways behind and return to God’s love and embrace Him. So let us reflect: am I ready to change my attitude to produce much fruit as a priest? Am I ready to produce much fruit as a husband, wife, son, daughter, teacher, student, etc.?
The fig tree receives the care of the vinedresser who puts manure that is, although stinky and ugly, helps produce a lot of fruits. Similarly, some temporal sufferings we are passing on now in our lives may be a kind of manure for us to stimulate growth so as to produce the good fruit of repentance. It’s not a sign of God’s punishment but of God’s mercy calling us to greater repentance. It is meant to be a fertilizer for our growth in faith that stimulates a change in life. As we find in the life of the prodigal son. The experience of famine helps him to realize his state of life and repent.
So let us examine our lives with the question, “what are the sins in my life that I need to turn from so I can bear fruit? Let us reflect for a moment and pray that we can become trees that produce good fruit and then burn like the bush of Horeb that attracted Moses so that we can bring anyone closer to God.