Today’s Gospel tells of two horrific incidents – a massacre of Galilean pilgrims in the Temple in Jerusalem carried out on the orders of Pontius Pilate, and the collapse of the Tower of Siloam which resulted in the deaths of 18 people. One is clearly an example of moral evil, the act of a ruthless political leader. The other may have been an example of natural evil, the collapse of a building due to an earthquake.
We can infer that when Jesus asks:
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?
He is responding to a question of the kind that all of us have asked at times:
“Why do innocent people suffer? Why does God permit it?”.
These questions have the strongest possible resonance at the present – for Pontius Pilate, read Vladimir Putin. Our news is dominated by reports about people who have been killed and injured in the Ukraine as a consequence of unprovoked aggression, including some who had sought shelter in a mosque in Mariupol.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus emphatically attacks the belief that bad things happen to people because God is punishing them, but he does so in a challenging way. The Galilean pilgrims slaughtered by the Romans were, he says, no worse than other Galileans, and the eighteen people killed when the Tower of Siloam collapsed were no worse than the other inhabitants of Jerusalem. He is reminding his hearers that, while they do not deserve to suffer and God does not inflict suffering on them, they are not innocent. They need to repent.
He explains that need in a parable, the parable of the fig tree in the vineyard. It was common practice in those days to plant fig trees in between the rows of vines – fig trees have quite shallow roots, so they don’t take up too many nutrients from the soil. The fig tree in the parable had been there for three years – and that’s significant – it’s the length of time that a fig tree needs to come to maturity. If a fig tree doesn’t produce any fruit in its third year, it almost certainly never will, and the landowner’s wish to cut it down is therefore understandable and sensible. The fig tree is a waste of space.
The gardener in the story pleads for a second chance for the fig tree, promising to dig round the tree and to treat its roots with manure. “If it bears fruit next year, well and good;” he tells the landowner, “but if not, you can cut it down.”
I’m sure that this particular passage has been chosen for one of the Sundays in Lent because Lent is a time when we are encouraged to reflect on how fruitful we are, to find nourishment for our shallow roots. We are still here, despite the changes and chances of this transitory life, and the fact that we are still here can be seen as a God-given opportunity for the repentance – the turning round of our lives – of which Jesus speaks.
Christianity isn’t a self-help or a self-improvement programme. We aren’t called to be the gardeners of our own souls, and we certainly can’t sort ourselves out by our own efforts. To use the language of the parable, it is God who is the gardener and who provides the manure. Our Lenten disciplines are about allowing God the time and the space to do that.
Going back to what lay at the root of the question that Jesus was asked – that why question, why does undeserved suffering happen? I feel sure that the question was, in part, prompted by fear. When bad things happen to people, whether as a result of human evil or natural disaster, we are afraid. Will it be me next? Or someone I love? And somewhere in the background, moving into the foreground when there are wars and rumours of war, moving into the foreground as we get older, is the awareness of our own mortality.
I think Jesus’ answer to his questioners lovingly acknowledged the fears from which their question arose. They felt vulnerable and fragile, as do we in these alarming and uncertain times. Jesus understood those feelings but he did not provide a knock-down theological answer to the mystery of undeserved suffering. Rather what he said to them was, in effect, this:
“Yes, you are vulnerable and fragile. And so am I. But that part of you in which the fears have arisen can become a place of change, growth and fruitfulness. It can become the place in which, because you acknowledge the fragility of your life, you learn truly and fully to value it and to live it, to have life and to have it abundantly.”
And that is to move from a fear about our own fragility into repentance – and repentance shouldn’t be thought of wholly or mainly as a backward-looking process – a cataloguing and confessing of past wrong-doing. It should be seen more as forward looking – as reflecting on what God calls us to be and to do, and then acting on that.
As he answers this question, Jesus is heading for Jerusalem and for the extraordinary climax of his ministry in which he will show that God’s answer to the question “Why do bad things happen to good people” is to take the bad things upon Godself and suffer them and die – like the Galilean pilgrims – on the orders of Pontius Pilate. In doing so he placed God at the very heart of the mystery of undeserved suffering. For us, despite the best efforts of theologians, it remains a mystery, but the Passion and the Resurrection of Christ are a pledge that, although human life cannot be made safe, nothing
“…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”