Today’s Gospel reading is not the easiest to understand. It seems as though there are actually 3 unrelated stories here. One was about those who had contributed to the defiling of the Temple by Pilate and another about those who had perished due to Herodian mismanagement. And then there is the story of the fig tree.
Sometimes reading Scripture seems like walking through a mine field with unrelated stories packed against other stories. But the Gospel of Luke isn't like that. Luke’s Gospel is fairly well written with a design to lead the hearer from one incident or parable to the next to give the hearers of the Gospel an idea of who God is. That is the case of these stories. Jesus uses these stories to get his point across that repentance is the way that one needs to approach the events of one’s life to understand the gifts God has for us.
In the years of my ministry the question that I get the most as a pastor and priest is “why did this happen?” I generally get from someone who has come to a funeral or in the face of some tragedy. Or the other question equally related is “Where is God in all of this?” This is more or less the same questions that they were asking Jesus in this passage: “Who sinned that this tragedy came upon us?”
In Jesus’ day, as in our own, one of the commonly held beliefs was that if something bad happened it was because of sin--someone must have sinned that God would punish them so. We have religious pundits today that say that Katrina was the result of the sin in New Orleans, or Sandy due to the wickedness of the people of NY and NJ. (I keep wondering why guys like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were made the ‘go-to’ guys when major disasters come about. It is clear that they don’t know jack about Christian theology!) Because in this passage Jesus side-steps the causal issues, the ‘whys’ of Pilate’s injustice or the fall of Herod’s tower just as surely as we should. Disasters happen! Period! Full Stop! They aren't the work of God even though insurance companies call them that so they don’t have to pay out. “Why?” just isn't the question we need to ask of events like this. The question we need to ask of these events is “what do we do now?
The stories that Jesus speak of in this passage doesn't have to do with Divine Justice—they have to do with how we know God. It isn't about blaming the victim; it is about knowing about God’s embrace when disaster comes. Loving God is not an insurance policy assuring us that we are covered and protected against all adversity. It isn't about ‘being good’ and nothing will happen to you. That isn't what God is about. God is about soothing the hurt and helping us to trust again.
All too often we understand that the primary act of faith believes that God exists. Belief really is only an act of the brain. What we are called to do in faith is to love God. We are called to love God and others as ourselves. But we don’t really understand God’s love until we know God’s mercy. And it is through repentance that we first experience that.
It is the reason that John Baptist preached a message of repentance to herald the coming of the Messiah. It is in repentance that we allow ourselves to experience real forgiveness—the kind of forgiveness that washes us totally clean, or removes the guilt that we carry, or restores relationship without any strings. It is a feeling of unmerited freedom and joy.
In this story Jesus refuses to get caught up in the stories of the disasters. He stops the speculation of the condition of the souls of those who died. Jesus says that is a waste of time to speculate on the whys of these disasters. He gets right to the point---“unless you know the love of God—the mercy of God-- you are going to end up in the same unloving place where you are now.” Jesus didn't mince words.
When we experience God’s mercy; when we have been forgiven, we recognize what we have been missing in life. And when we have experienced that mercy we understand how undeserving of that mercy we are. In fact, if mercy is deserved, it isn't mercy. (Please remember that when you are giving alms.)
Jesus was teaching us of the very nature of God in a very profound way. And if God is merciful, we are to be merciful too. That is what it is about. If God can forgive, we can forgive too.
In the Near East the principle of vengeance and blood feud was one of the most deeply ingrained concepts of the society. It still is. Jesus makes the strongest rebuttals of that theory in these stories. Forgiveness was considered weakness--unless of course it was your transgressions that were being forgiven. In this parable Jesus makes a case that in God's forgiveness we are to find mercy and it is in mercy we are to find God's way of living in society.
The story of the fig tree is a parable about how God finds value even in the unproductive. God is always giving us a chance to be fruitful in life. In many of the parables that Jesus taught, God is the gardener. And the gardener offers to tend the fig tree, to prune it, to stir up the ground around it, to fertilize it so that it will grow into production. And until we too have experienced this kind of nurture we don’t know how to be the kind of Christian that our baptismal vows call us to.
When we have felt the unqualified, completely gratuitous mercy of God we begin to live the kind of love God is calling us to—the kind of mercy we are called to give.
When we understand how forgiven we are, how embraced we are by a God who would give His life for us, we begin to understand the kind of sharing that we are invited to. When we comprehend the depth of freedom that comes with God’s gift of mercy, the only thing we can do is be awed.
Many of us think that either we don’t need mercy or that we don’t deserve mercy. Both of those poles are lies. All of us need to know the mercy of God because we humans become toughened by the realities of life and forget the abundance of God’s goodness. There is nothing---NO-THING, no sin, no act, and no thought that can keep us from God if we are willing to accept the total freedom of God’s mercy. This is why repentance is the theme of Lent. It isn't a matter of paying for our sins; it is the way to deepen our walk with God. To know God’s love intimately and to learn to imitate God by also being merciful.
I would like to challenge you this 3rd week of Lent to allow yourself to think of those times in your life when you failed, when you were unproductive, those times when you were pretty stinky in the manure of life, when you did not chose ways that would further your life in the goodness that God has given you. Take time to offer to God your failings and your desire for amendment of life. And then allow yourself to know the freedom that comes with forgiveness. Drink deeply of that mercy of God. It changes your life. You will know that you never EARNED that mercy; it was freely given. And that is the kind of mercy that we all are to give. It is what real mercy is about.