A season of redemption: Sunday reflection

Theophanes the Cretan / Wikimedia Commons.

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.’”


I have always been a master of one skill my entire life: procrastination. Never do today what can be put off until tomorrow, or so it sometimes seems. I have improved matters over the course of my life, but usually anything unpleasant gets low priority for my attention. Usually I hope that such tasks or responsibilities will disappear on their own; as I grow older, their resistance to that strategy has become ever clearer.

On certain other matters, I have far more discipline. Writing and studying subjects of interest to me are among them, but I find that my proclivity toward procrastination affects those as well. Sometimes a nap sounds a lot better than paying the bills, or a movie much more fun than fixing a toilet. Which, of course, they are, but that’s not really the issue. The issue is that the bills will still need to get paid and that toilet won’t fix itself.

That comes to mind in today’s Gospel reading, especially at the end, when Jesus tells the parable of the fig tree. Unlike many of Jesus’ parables, this one does not entail immediate judgment, such as when the bridegroom arrives like a thief in the night or the wheat gets separated from the chaff. The fig tree that bears no fruit gets another season to prove its worth, even though it has slept through three growing seasons already. This sounds like great news to procrastinators! I have a whole year to get around to it, and I usually don’t even take that long to get through my honey-do list. Sweet.


Well, not so fast.

Jesus leads into that by reminding us that not everyone will get that kind of extension on their spiritual bill-paying, so to speak. We live in a dangerous world, as we are currently realizing the last few weeks, and that was more true in the times of the Gospels. Pontius Pilate had gone on a campaign of building infrastructure in Galilee to support the occupying forces, and seized the temple collections of the Jews to fund it. When those people demonstrated to get the funds returned — so that they could seek repentance and mercy at the temple — Pilate had them slaughtered, Flavius Josephus writes in Antiquities of the Jews:

But Pilate undertook to bring a current of water to Jerusalem, and did it with the sacred money, and derived the origin of the stream from the distance of two hundred furlongs. However, the Jews (8) were not pleased with what had been done about this water; and many ten thousands of the people got together, and made a clamor against him, and insisted that he should leave off that design. Some of them also used reproaches, and abused the man, as crowds of such people usually do. So he habited a great number of his soldiers in their habit, who carried daggers under their garments, and sent them to a place where they might surround them. So he bid the Jews himself go away; but they boldly casting reproaches upon him, he gave the soldiers that signal which had been beforehand agreed on; who laid upon them much greater blows than Pilate had commanded them, and equally punished those that were tumultuous, and those that were not; nor did they spare them in the least: and since the people were unarmed, and were caught by men prepared for what they were about, there were a great number of them slain by this means, and others of them ran away wounded. And thus an end was put to this sedition.


The days in which Jesus’ disciples were perilous. Waiting for a year to make an Augustinian decision to finally leave sin behind and repent would have been a dangerous gamble with eternity.

So what is this season of redemption mean in Jesus’ parable? Clearly Jesus wasn’t letting us procrastinators off the hook (more’s the pity!), which his reference to Pilate’s atrocity in Galilee communicates directly enough. Jesus means that we are already in the season of redemption. The fig tree represents fallen humanity, which has proven fruitless in its stewardship of God’s creation and in restoring our connection to the Lord. We are ourselves unworthy, born into the material world and deadened to our spiritual life.

Jesus has come to provide us that redemption and sacrifice Himself for our spiritual salvation. The atrocity at Galilee is, in one way, a reminder that sacrifice on its own under our terms is still insufficient. The people of Galilee died for their defense of their identity as Judeans and Galileans against the might of Rome, and according to some interpretations did so near the temple area where sacrifices were being made. That alone was not a sufficient sacrifice to restore their relationship to God. Nor were they any worse than the disciples surrounding Jesus at the moment of this Gospel teaching either; they died in sin, and so will those who do not recognize Jesus as our season of redemption from it.

So far from offering hope to the Society of Procrastinators, whose first meeting has been postponed yet again, Jesus is preaching the opposite. Time is of the essence, Jesus emphasizes, as death is not just an ever-present reality in this material world but also an entirely arbitrary event. The time to form ourselves for our eternal spiritual lives is right now, before weak towers or powerful tyrants can prevent us from doing so. And as we have unfortunately discovered, that truth remains constant throughout the ages right down to the present day.


How do we form ourselves as the clock ticks? Paul’s warning to the Corinthians still rings true today, as he describes the fate of those in the Exodus’ first wave out of Egypt:

These things happened as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil things, as they did. Do not grumble as some of them did, and suffered death by the destroyer. These things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.

What did they desire? They wanted a god that they could control (the golden calf), to make their own decisions, and in some cases to return to the captivity of their enslavers. What makes us so different? We create our own material gods to distract us from our spiritual being, gods that we think we can control but which often end up controlling us — money, sex, exploitation of others, and so on. We often walk ourselves right into the chains of these addictions, enslaved to our material passions and too ashamed to ask to be freed from them again. Paul’s advice turns out to be another constant truth through the ages; only the gods and the enslavers have changed, and for the worse.

This is why we procrastinators are at such a risk for these traps. We wait until a point in time when we think we’ll simply have enough sin to be satisfied. The nature of sin, however, is addictive — and its rush is never enough. Christ calls to us now, in our sinfulness, to take those first steps away from our addictions and toward His light and sacrifice on our behalf. This is one call which we cannot afford to leave on hold.


Note: I will post the rescheduled meeting date of the Society of Procrastinators, um … when I get around to it.

The front-page image is a detail from “Jesus Before Pontius Pilate,” a fresco by Theophanes the Cretan at the Stavronikita Monastery, c. 16th century. Via Wikimedia Commons

“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.  

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