Jesus, hell, and the parable of the fig tree

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3rd Sunday of Lent, Year C: March 7, 2010
Exod 3:1-8, 13-15; Ps 103:1-4, 6-8, 11; 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9

In today’s Gospel reading, we hear that the people came to Jesus with a question that could hardly be more timely—for now or for any other time. They ask, in effect, “Did you hear how many people died in the terrorist bombing? Did you hear how many protestors were killed by the dictator’s soldiers? Or how many died in the latest school shooting? Did you hear how many died when that bridge collapsed? When the building burned down? When the earthquake struck? When the tsunami swept in? Did you hear how many died?”

The question they did not ask aloud was, “Did this happen as punishment for them having committed some really big sins?” They did not ask it aloud, but they surely were asking it within. And this also is an ever-timely question. Although some people today believe that there is no God, or that God is just like an indulgent grandfather who has no moral expectations of us but will spoil us with candy no matter what we do—yet, on the other hand, there are others who wonder: Is the suffering that I am undergoing right now, God’s punishment upon me for something I did in the past? And, of course, there are also some people in our society who believe in reincarnation, who therefore believe that someone’s present suffering is punishment for sins in their past life.

And let me quickly note parenthetically that reincarnation is not and never has been Catholic or Christian belief. The Letter to the Hebrews says [9:27]: it is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment. And we should understand that the ideas of reincarnation are incompatible in all kinds of ways with what we know about our salvation in Christ.

But that unspoken question that the people are thinking as they encounter Jesus, he hears; and he hears the distancing that is involved in that question: “Did this happen as punishment for their having committed some big sins?” Were they big sinners, while I am not? Were they punished by God, whereas I will not be? Or even, in a different version of the question: am I being punished for things I did in the past, and now there is nothing I can do about it? All of these versions of these questions put things at a distance from where the people who are talking to Jesus feel that they are right now. And so Christ’s answer takes that distance away and brings it right back to them, in the present. Twice he says to them: “By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!

The sin is not just in them; it is in you. It is not just in your past; it is something you are doing right now. And the punishment is not just for them; you also are heading right toward it. But there is something you can and must do. Repent. Change your course. Turn away from the sin and toward the way that I am opening to you, Jesus says. Turn inside, in your thoughts, desires, and decisions; turn outside, in your words and actions.

And so, all these centuries later, the Church continues to repeat Jesus’ message, Jesus’ call to repentance, especially during this holy season of Lent each year. As we heard in the verse in the Gospel acclamation: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” [Matt 3:2]

Now we know it is not popular to say, “if you do not repent, you will all perish“; but our Lord Jesus Christ had to warn people that it is possible to choose this course; and so do we. The Catechism tells us:

[1033] We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves … To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”

And the Catechism continues:

[1037] God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance”

And we will pray that prayer today: “save us from final damnation, and count us among those you have chosen.”

Now perhaps many here are thinking, “Father, we have all been baptized. Our sins have been washed away. We’re part of the Church. We attend Mass. We receive Holy Communion.” And, yes, you’re right; that does make a huge difference. But it doesn’t automatically cast aside the question. And this is exactly the point that St. Paul is addressing in our second reading, which is from his First Letter to the Corinthians. He addresses this very question by setting up an extended comparison—a comparison in which he says, in effect: Consider how the People of Israel journeying through the desert are like us. Consider:

  • The Lord loved them, had compassion on their suffering and slavery in Egypt, and he rescued them with incredible miracles. And Christ loved us, had compassion on our suffering and slavery to sin, and acted to save us through his Incarnation, Passion, death, and resurrection.
  • In leaving Egypt, the People of Israel all passed through the sea. And we all have been baptized into Christ.
  • The People of Israel were all under the cloud that showed God’s presence with them. And we have been sealed with the Holy Spirit in confirmation, and he dwells within us.
  • The People of Israel were fed supernaturally, eating manna and drinking water that flowed from the rock. And in the Eucharist, we are fed supernaturally with the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
  • The People of Israel were headed toward the Promised Land. And we are headed toward the blessedness of heaven and the Resurrection.

Consider all those parallels. And St. Ambrose observed: “In their case everything that happened was symbolic; in yours it is real.” But then, having set up that comparison, St. Paul comes to his point: “Yet God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert. These things happened as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil things, as they did,” says St. Paul. Baptism, confirmation, first Holy Communion, bound toward heaven: these are not the end for us; they are only the beginning. And it is possible to receive these sacraments and yet then to fall away from the Lord and travel down the wrong path; and if we do this, then we too are heading toward this punishment.

So what does the Lord desire for us? What does the Lord ask of us? Again and again through the Bible we find the image used of a vineyard or of a tree that bears fruit—such as the fig tree in Jesus’ parable in today’s Gospel reading. The Lord wants us to be like a thriving tree, strong in holiness, healthy in joy, well nourished by his grace and love—and bearing abundant fruit, those actions that bring glory and praise to him, and love and support to others. And so we find this concern in Jesus’ preaching as well as John the Baptist’s, as well as the apostles after them: a concern with those trees that are not bearing fruit.

But Jesus’ parable is a source of hope. Even though it presents the picture of a fig tree that has not borne fruit during three years, and the owner wants to cut it down, yet it will not be cut down immediately. At the request of the gardener, it will be given another year, and extra care in cultivating the ground around it and fertilizing it—so that it may be transformed into that healthy, fruit-bearing tree that the master intends for it to become.

So what will this additional care be like? If we think about it, if this tree, in not bearing fruit for three years, has been resisting all those normal gifts of grace for those years—resisting those pricks of conscience, or the reminders of friends, or hearing homilies or other Christian messages; perhaps being touched by the innocent words of children, touched by unexpected acts of love, even moments of prayer—if all of these normal gifts of grace have not moved the person who is like that unfruitful tree; well then, what will do it? What would this special cultivation be like? Our Lord Jesus, out of love, out of compassion for this sinner, for whom he gave his life and whom he desperately does not want to perish—is going to have to turn to stronger measures.

Now this phrase in our lectionary reading—cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it—is a sort of smoothed-over summary, when the original Greek is actually much simpler and also more vivid. In Greek, the gardener says simply, “I shall dig around it and put in manure.” That’s what he says. And what a good choice of words that is. If in your life you find that everything around you is in upheaval, as if it is being dug up and turned over and moved around; and if a lot of foulness is getting mixed into it, as if you are being packed in with manure—then it is time to ask: is this a case of the Lord Jesus turning to stronger measures in order to get through to me? Am I the rebellious, unfruitful fig tree; and is this, in his love, his stronger effort to penetrate my heart with the nourishment of his grace that I desperately need, and have not been allowing to penetrate up until now?

St. Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, counseled that, if we are experiencing what he calls “desolation”—which pretty well corresponds to that feeling like you are being dug around and filled in with manure—if we are experiencing that, then we need to examine whether we are on the wrong path. Because, St. Ignatius says, in that case, “desolation” is God’s way of shaking us out of complacency and motivating us to repent, to change direction, to turn.

Of course, if in that examination we find that we truly are living in communion with the Lord and in line with his will, well then those experiences could be something else. For St. John of the Cross and other spiritual writers tell of the experience of “dark nights,” by which the Lord is working to free someone who is in communion with him, to free them further: to free them from being attached even to good things—like sense experiences, or the praise of others, or even being hooked on the rewards of certain spiritual experiences in prayer. In that case, it can be a way of purifying and strengthening the love that we are already living out.

Christ gives us a profound summary of all of this in his words in John chapter 15 [vv. 1-2, 5-6], when he says:

I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned. … I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and everyone that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.

What is the end result of repentance? A year and a half ago, speaking to the young pilgrims who went to Australia for World Youth Day, our Holy Father Pope Benedict said: “The world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”

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Published in: on March 7, 2010 at 12:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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