Some years ago there was a terrible earthquake in Azerbaijan. Local buildings were badly constructed, so the death toll was high. However many Azerbaijanis placed the blame elsewhere. I remember hearing an Azebaijani man on the radio explaining that the disaster was Allah’s judgement on the people for letting their religion slip.
I imagine that the person who came to Jesus, in Luke 13:1-9, with the news of an atrocity in the temple was looking for a similar response: mustn’t those Galileans have been awful to have died in such a way? All we know about the two tragedies in the reading is what’s written here. It seems that Pilate, the notoriously cruel Roman governor had ordered the killing of some Galileans despite the fact they were engaged in sacred duties. Siloam, in v. 4 is part of Jerusalem and it appears that a tower suddenly collapsed on a crowd.
From Jesus question in v2, we conclude that the people who came to him did indeed think it the case that those who suffered were getting their just deserts. Views like that enable people to keep a simplistic view of the world where bad things happen to bad or careless people, while those who enjoy good things can carry on doing so, confident in the belief that they must have earned them.
Perhaps they wanted Jesus to moralise. If so, they got a shock! He says: Do not judge one another, because in v.3: ‘Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did’. Jesus doesn’t condemn, instead he challenges his questioners on their attitude. Why judge?
Jesus makes it very clear: we cannot say that if people have suffered, they must be worse sinners. Bad things happen to anyone, regardless of how they act. The disasters and tragedies of life do not seek out bad people alone, we are all equally vulnerable. So we mustn’t judge.
Religious people can be particularly susceptible to that form of self-righteousness. Yes, we may come to church and may have responded to God’s call – but we never grow out of the need to for self-examination and confession. It’s easy to put that discipline in the past. Paul reminds his readers that the Israelites who followed Moses out of the desert had seen God’s power. They had experienced his salvation, followed his appointed leader and been fed by heavenly food.
Yet they still managed to turn away from God and his goodness. In the same way, we who have been baptised, who follow Christ, who receive communion must hear afresh God’s call. For all people are in the same boat, says Jesus. All humanity has sinned, and we all need to repent. Some may appear better people than others, but all have failed to do what God requires.
Imagine a machine which consists of a headset and a video screen. And when you put your head in it, it replays every event in your life for all to see. Would anyone volunteer to do such a thing? I wouldn’t. I have things of which I am ashamed. I expect we all do. And we also intuitively know that such things deserve God’s judgement. For if God is to be God, if he is to be good in a meaningful way, then he must act against evil. He must judge. And that includes the sin in our own lives.
Yet as a loving Father, God does not want any of us to suffer. There is a problem here, which is resolved when Jesus offered himself in our place. When Jesus hung on the cross, he suffered the penalty for human sin. Justice was satisfied. Love triumphed as God himself bore the pain of forgiveness. Through that death we can all be wiped clean. Yet to be forgiven, Jesus says we have to accept it and make it our own.
Every year millions of pounds from the National Lottery get put into a special fund used for charity. They’re not donations. They’re unclaimed winnings. Thousands of people out there have won. And I don’t just mean the odd tenner, some significant sums. The money is theirs. But they miss out, because they haven’t claimed it.
It is similar with God’s gift. Knowing that God offers forgiveness and new life is not the same as taking it. Many people understand that God is a God of love, and that he wants to forgive them. But do they then take him up on it? Do they ask for forgiveness? Do they invite God into their lives and commit themselves to him? If not, then that promise is unclaimed.
Each person needs to make a positive decision to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus. It doesn’t happen by default or by inheritance. Jesus says, ‘unless you repent, you will perish’. It is our choice, which Jesus makes very clear in the second part of today’s gospel.
I have a fig tree just like the one in verses 6-9. It was bought at some expense from a smart garden centre and for the first year it did nothing. Fair enough, I thought, it’s only new. Throughout the winter I kept it cosy indoors and come the spring little figs appeared. But in the Autumn one by one they dropped off. I lavished care upon the tree: repotted it, fertilised it, kept it warm under a fleece. Fig fruit, of course, take two years to mature. In Spring, there were lots of baby figs, but come the Autumn, they fell off until nothing remained.
It’s been doing that for years and years. We’ve decided in the end that it’s an ornamental. But last week there was a significant moment. Wandering round the garden centre, gift vouchers in hand, we saw a different variety. Well known for producing. And now we know that we shall be in Stanton for the time being – we have another tree. So I wait with interest to see what will happen. Will we enjoy our first figs? Or will that one turn out to be a dud?
At one level this could be a parable about patience. If we put ourselves in the shoes of the master or the gardener in the parable, can we identify a project in our lives which isn’t bearing fruit? Does it need more time and resources? Or do we need to set a deadline so we’re not throwing good money and effort after bad?
But there’s a deeper way of looking at this story, which is closer to Jesus’ original meaning. In Jesus’ parables, the authority figure, the king or the boss, usually represents God. If we read verses 6-9 in the context of what has gone before, on repentance, then I think it’s pretty clear that the fig tree stands, not for projects, but for human beings.
God looks for repentance, he is the gardener looking for good fruit. What happens if he finds none? Perhaps he will give us another chance. But Jesus says don’t try his patience. Don’t take his mercy for granted. Jesus says make sure you respond to God. Repent, be sorry for what you have done wrong, change your ways and do good.
It’s a Lenten message. Produce fruits in keeping with repentance. And don’t delay! The message of this parable is: If you don’t act now, it may be too late.
Quite a lot of people take the attitude that I might get round to following Jesus sometime later on. It sounds interesting, but I’ve got other things on my mind. I think of myself as a Christian but each Sunday there’s something else to do. Or, like St Augustine, make me chaste Lord, just not yet! I’ll enjoy myself now and I can save religion for when I’m old and close to death.
But one never knows when the end may come. I’ve been in a bad car crash. There’s no time to put your spiritual affairs in order. It’s too quick. In the split second before impact my thoughts were: ‘Car! Brake!’ And, bizarrely, ‘If I survive this, it’s goodbye to the no-claims bonus.’ And then the airbags went off. Not very spiritual thoughts if that had been my last moments.
So let’s not wait for our dying day before making our peace with God. Even if we are granted plenty of time to prepare, the danger in delaying making a commitment is that every time you put it off your heart becomes a little bit more hardened. One becomes less likely to respond.
Perhaps that’s the negative side of the message. But there’s a positive side as well. There is so much to enjoy in following Jesus now. He came to bring us life in all its fullness, a life that we can enjoy on this earth, here and now. In the parable, a fig tree which isn’t bearing fruit isn’t really fulfilled as a fig tree. Making figs is what fig trees do. It’s their purpose. Similarly, only when we are in relationship with God will we find a deep and lasting satisfaction.
There has been a challenge in today’s reading: we all need to repent. No matter who we are, we need to say sorry and return to God. There has been a warning too – and Jesus isn’t above that. He speaks the truth, isn’t afraid of the hard word: don’t delay, it may be too late, don’t try God’s patience. The possibility of spending eternity without God is a terrible thing. But no one needs to. It is our choice. Do we accept God’s offer, commit our lives to him or not? I’m going to pray in a moment… For if we do there is also a promise: Come back to God, and you will find new life, a fruitfulness, forgiveness and meaning with him.