Catechists, preachers and others who regularly share the word of God know that certain passages of the Gospels can cause significant consternation. The first part of this Sunday’s Gospel reading is one such passage. A casual reading reveals Jesus’ belief that God does not cause suffering. The Galileans died from Pilate’s wrath, not God’s, and the Jerusalemites on whom the tower collapsed were victims of misfortune, not objects of divine justice. God did not will these misfortunes to happen; they occurred because, as a once popular book proclaimed, sometimes bad things happen to good people.
But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!’ (Lk 13:3)
What undeserved good things has God given you?
What new vision calls you to repentance?
What can you do this Lent to show that something new has begun in your life?
Those who read more carefully, however, find much about which to be confused, because Jesus used these examples as calls to repentance. God may not have willed the death of the Galileans, but that does not mean they were without sin. Likewise, God may not have caused the Siloam tower to collapse, but that does not mean the people it crushed were righteous. In fact, Jesus uses the victims of these tragedies as examples of “average” sinners who happened to receive justice by accident. Bad things happened to bad people. The real mystery, given the prevalence of human sinfulness, was why good things happened to bad people so often.
Jesus’ response to this question appears in the second half of this Sunday’s Gospel reading. In Jesus Christ, humanity has an advocate whose gentle remonstrance can soften the urgency of divine justice. Just as improvement of the soil often leads a barren fig tree to fruitfulness, so, Jesus hoped, the preaching of the Gospel would lead humanity to righteousness. Because of Jesus, a reprieve might yet allow good things to happen.
Luke believed he lived in the era of this reprieve. The risen Christ was working through the Spirit in the church to promote the Gospel and refashion humanity. An essential feature of this work was the call to repentance, a step-by-step process. When people who live the Gospel preached it with words and deeds, others caught sight of a new way of living.
The next, more difficult step was the actual turning away from sinful attitudes and behaviors. In addition to causing the destruction of self and others, these attitudes and behaviors symbolized an opposition to God’s vision. Sorrow for these attitudes and behaviors symbolized a commitment to a new way of life, one that harmed neither self nor others and fulfilled God’s dreams for creation.
Cultivating this commitment is the metanoia, the “transformation of mind,” that so many early Christians described. Although it is a long-term process, it begins with a commitment to change, a desire to conform one’s life to this new vision. A life conformed to God’s vision is the fruitful fig tree that Jesus hopes for in Sunday’s Gospel parable.
Good things happen to bad people because God hopes for their transformation, and this takes time. In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Luke reminds us that in Jesus humanity has received a reprieve from divine justice. In this era of mercy, Christ works in the Spirit with each of us, ever hopeful to see us burst into bloom.