Father Nicholas Lang
Third Sunday in Lent
The opening sentences of this Gospel should in no way surprise us. It seems quite timely to me given the horror of what we are watching unfold in the Ukraine. Indeed, we are not unfamiliar with events that are tragic; things that make us wonder how God could allow such suffering. Some unnamed persons come to Jesus with a similar question.
A number of Galileans were brutally slaughtered by Pontius Pilate’s soldiers while they were presenting their sacrifices. He had them killed because he thought that they were dangerous to his rule—again, not an unfamiliar scenario for our generation. In this horrific act, the blood of the victims was mingled with that of the sacrificial animals. These curious folks also ask Jesus about the collapse of the tower of Siloam in which some Judeans died, another disaster not unlike those we’re aware of in our time. What they are not asking is the underlying question, “Could any of these things happen to us?”
In other words, were those who died worse sinners than they are? Were they asking Jesus for some reassurance that they were somehow more securely positioned within the circle of God’s favor? They wanted to know if these Galileans were guilty of some secret sin that brought this calamity. Their concern comes from the belief in those days that bad things happen to bad people. When catastrophe hit it was because you had sinned. e know that decisions we make have consequences. If we steal or shoot someone we will likely end up incarcerated. If we drive under the influence, we may cause a fatal accident. Sometimes there is a relationship between doing the wrong thing and finding ourselves in serious trouble. Often, however, there is no clear cause
Clearly, this interrogation about the Galileans killed by Pilate and the people who were crushed when the tower fell on them speaks to our inability to comprehend why God allows certain events to occur. The list is huge. There are global and historical atrocities like the Holocaust, segregation, genocide and now the slaughtering of the Ukrainian people and then there are our own personal tragedies. Last night a car crashed into a crowd of 100 people at a carnival in Belgium and there was a mass shooting at a car show in Arkansas.
The short parable of the fig tree throws no light on this conundrum either. Yes, it points to the need to trust in God’s mercy, even in those situations we cannot explain. But given the unlikely possibility that we’ll have Moses’ burning bush experience, we will continue to struggle to understand why tragedy seems to befall innocent people. How can we make sense of the more than 100 children already killed by the bombings in the Ukraine? What did these innocents or their parents do to deserve that?
If you hoped that I would offer an answer to this mystery about the plethora of misery in the world, I’m afraid I will need to disappoint you. In all of it, I scratch my head in bafflement just like the next person. So, what are we to do in the face of such ambiguity? We could refer to the admonition of Jesus given to his listeners to repent, but that won’t necessarily guarantee one’s safety. If it did, it would be no less oppressive and superstitious than the Old Testament theory that bad things happen to bad people.
Maybe all we can to is to count on the hidden message in the parable of the fig tree: trust in the mercy of God, especially when we simply don’t have the answers to the big questions. In the end, isn’t that all we can do? Our human minds can’t comprehend the workings of God, so we are asked to trust that as the great philosopher Martin Buber taught, God is with us and God is on our side. When faced with tragedy and incomprehensible horror, we may wonder about this. I think the best we can do then is to admit it to God. Maybe even let God know how angry it makes us. How utterly helpless we feel.
If there is any good news here in this Gospel, it is that God simply loves us. We are like the tree that is often, by grace, given more time, a better chance, the opportunity of continued life on this earth. How do we open our lives to Jesus as our own personal gardener to dig around our roots and provide us with manure? Sometimes the workings of God’s grace are like manure: stinky and messy, but ultimately nourishing and exactly what we need.
Life can be hazardous, uncertain, and just too short. While I share the struggle to understand why there is so much suffering, especially in the lives of the good, the faithful, the innocent, I take comfort in the verse of a hymn I read in yesterday’s morning prayer:
And when the world at last shall end,
And Christ appears as judge and friend,
May we be welcomed by that light
And dwell forever in God’s sight.
God in your mercy, hear our prayer.