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Sam Sawyer, S.J. October 21, 2022
a dead looking but still growing fig tree with blue sky and green grass around itPhoto via iStock.

A Reflection for Saturday of the Twenty-ninth Week in Ordinary Time

Find today’s readings here.

“It may bear fruit in the future.” (Lk 13:9)

Today’s Gospel offers the somewhat rare experience of Jesus telling us what not to believe. 

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means!”

This is perhaps one of the most liberating of all of Jesus’ teaching. He basically says to us, “Do you feel like you need to explain and justify why bad things happen to good people? Well, I’m not going to try to justify what happened to these Galileans, and you shouldn’t either. By no means.”

Sometimes, especially in moments of tragedy, well-meaning people will say, hoping to offer comfort, something like “God never gives you more than you can handle.” That is one of the few spiritual claims I know of that can be empirically disproven. Whether or not we ought to say that God gives it to us, we often get more than we can handle. Certainly those Galileans did. 

Jesus doesn’t attempt to explain or justify persecution or tragedy in reference to the sinfulness of the victims or some concept of God’s plan.

I can remember moments in my own life, especially after the death of family members, where people have said such things to me. I know that they were trying to be comforting, but it certainly did not make me feel comforted. Instead, my reaction—which I eventually came to recognize as an authentic encounter with grace—was that a God who parceled out tragedy in some kind of measured dose, according to what I could be expected to “handle,” was not the loving God whom Jesus reveals and trusts. Even less so a God who is imagined to measure out calamity in proportion to sinfulness. 

Jesus doesn’t attempt to explain or justify Herod’s persecution of the Galileans or the random tragedy of the 18 people killed by the falling tower at Siloam, either in reference to the sinfulness of the victims or some concept of God’s plan. Instead, he takes it as a jumping off point for repentance—which is to say, conversion and transformation. Even though his approach to this focus is not particularly comforting itself (“if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did”), it reminds us that we are all in the same boat when it comes to tragedy. God finds us there not insofar as we are particularly guilty, but rather because we all stand at risk and none of us is guaranteed the safe or easy road. So repent and be transformed, Jesus tells us, to meet God as a companion rather than imagining him as a tyrant. 

The parable of the fig tree at the end of today’s Gospel can perhaps help us toward that conversion of imagination. The owner of the orchard is ready to cut down the tree, but the gardener is not so precipitous. He has a plan, not for what the fig tree is expected to “handle” nor an explanation of why it has failed, but to give it what it needs, to cultivate and fertilize it. In other words, his response to the fig tree’s seeming failure is to accompany it more closely, for perhaps “it may bear fruit in the future.” That’s the plan—not a justification of bad things in the past, but the openness to imagine better things possible in the future. That is the God in whom Jesus invites us to place our trust.

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