Sunday reflection: Luke 13:1–9
posted at 11:31 am on February 28, 2016 by Ed Morrissey
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 13:1–9:
Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. Jesus said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them— do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”
And he told them this parable: “There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’”
Where do we look for affirmation? What tells us we are on the right path? And most of all, do we have an opportunity for redemption when we stray from it? These questions can keep people up at night, especially perhaps those with a sense of their own predilection toward sin. Our readings today give us hope, but also a need to understand that we have a choice to make, and we make it every day.
As I grow older, I have found two truths that help keep my equanimity. The first is that things are rarely as bad as they seem. As I get older, this becomes easier to accept, for two reasons. First, we grow in our own personal experience, and see that our darkest fears almost always do not come to pass. Overwhelming anxiety about the future never pays off, even when things do go badly. Second, we see the plight of others and learn to put our own concerns into better perspective. It takes a lot of living for most people to begin doing this, and I am no exception to that rule.
The other truth is that things are almost never as good as they look. The windfall has its own consequences; success carries new responsibilities. That doesn’t make those achievements and gifts bad by any means, but once again, one has to keep them in perspective.
So what is the proper perspective? Our readings today show us that our eyes should be on the will of the Lord and not on the material ebbs and flows of our lives. The first reading from Exodus 3 brings us the most famous theophany of the Old Testament — the Burning Bush and Moses. God commands Moses to lead the Israelites out of bondage at Horeb, “the mountain of God.” The time had come to fulfill the Lord’s promise to Abraham and to have his descendants live in the Promised Land, “a land flowing with milk and honey.”
But why — and why then? Israel had been in Egypt for 400 years, and in bondage for most of that time. The Israelites of that time had not done anything specific to warrant the blessings of God, other than keep the faith of Abraham as they had for centuries. The Lord acted at that time because it was His will to do so, to raise up Israel to establish His path for salvation for the world by providing it a nations of priests and prophets.
And what happens with Israel along the way? Paul reminds the Corinthians in today’s reading that many in the nation of Israel rebelled, even though the Lord provided “the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ.” Many rejected the Lord, strayed from the path, and were “struck down in the desert” as a result. But they chose defiance over obedience, even with the powerful signs God worked on their behalf, and it was those choices that led to their destruction.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes clear that the material world is a poor gauge for measuring one’s favor with the Father. After being told of the persecutions of Galileans by Pontius Pilate, Jesus rebukes some for thinking that this form of death signified a particular disfavor with the Lord. Jesus sees into their hearts and recognizes the fear within them, and the way those used those deaths to deny their own sinfulness and culpability. Those who died in persecutions, or because a tower fell on them, did not have a greater sinfulness than others, and believing that puts them at risk of death in sin — a true perishing, not just in the material world but also in the Lord.
But then Jesus stresses that this is no reason for despair. In his parable about the fig tree, Jesus tells the story of salvation — that even those who have borne no fruit can be saved by the intercession of the gardener. The gardener will cultivate the soil and fertilize it for another year, hoping to make it flourish, even though the tree has already exhausted the soil.
This shows the folly of using the trappings of a fallen world as a measurement of our status as children of God. Misfortune and misery are not judgments of the Lord, but are at worst the consequences of a sinful world, and perhaps at times opportunities for greater faith. Wealth and power, even honestly earned and used wisely, does not in itself demonstrate God’s favor. We are all called to be children of God, and to a life in which material wealth and status will mean nothing.
If that is the case, then why should we look upon the circumstances of this life as a judgment of the Lord’s favor at all? Should we not look at those differences in circumstance instead as opportunities for all of us to lift each other up, and to overcome the barriers we put between us to see the spark of divine life within us all? Jesus makes this clear to the crowd, telling them that the real lesson is for all to repent of their sins, and allow Christ to cultivate the soil and bring forth fruit from spiritual barrenness.
That is a message of hope, and of life. The Lord wants to lead us all home to life within the divine, and wants to lift us up out of sin so we can enter it. Like the Israelites of old, we march on through our own Exodus from the bondage of sin, fed by the spiritual food and drink of Christ. Just like those Israelites, many of us at times prefer our former slavery to the effort it takes to walk the path of salvation, but Christ the Gardener is with us, cultivating us for fruitfulness and life with God. Do not fall into despair with misfortune or engage in irrational hubris with success, but keep your eyes fixed on that path and on Christ Himself. The only judgment that matters comes at the end of that journey.
The front page image is the Christ Pantocrator mosaic in the Pammakaristos Church and museum (Fethiye Camii Mosque) in Istanbul.