Third Sunday of Lent
Today’s Gospel opens commenting two bits of local news that give Jesus an opportunity to talk about the need for reform or conversion. Jesus starts by mentioning two recent disasters familiar to his listeners. One was an atrocity perpetrated by the hated Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. A group of Galileans was put to death by Pilate, who had taken their blood and mixed it with the sacrifices offered to the gods. The text suggests that the Galileans were pilgrims who were butchered by the Roman governor, either on their way to Jerusalem with the animals they intended to offer, or in the temple precincts as they offered their victims. When Pilate ordered the massacre of the group, it was tragedy enough. But after they were killed, their blood was collected and mixed with the sacrifices offered to the Roman gods. To any Jew, blood was sacred; it represented life and the covenant with God. So, the incident was a double human tragedy for them.
The other disaster was a construction accident where eighteen people were killed. The people who heard Jesus assumed that the victims of such disasters were being punished by God for their sins. Judaism had a firm belief that any kind of tragedy was a God-given punishment for sin, while any kind of prosperity was a reward from God, a blessing for one’s righteousness. Jesus, however, does not share that opinion. According to him, tragedy has nothing to do with sinfulness, nor prosperity is a sign of God’s blessings. The point Jesus is trying to make is this: All people are sinners. Consequently, all need to repent. It makes no difference whether you have experienced tragedy or you have been granted blessings -all of us are in need of reform, in need of changing the direction of our lives: You will all come to the same end unless you repent. Constant repentance is the distinguishing mark of authentic discipleship, it is the cost of being a disciple of Jesus.
But lest his call to repentance proves too discouraging, Jesus adds a short parable that reveals the merciful patience of God. All of us are given another chance -like the fig tree three years in a row. The owner of the vineyard has come looking for figs year after ear in. A fig tree is supposed to reach maturity and start producing fruit in three years. If there are no figs after three years, in all probability there will never be any. So, the owner is ready to cut the tree down. [Perhaps the three-year period in which the owner (God) of the tree has looked for figs is a reference to Jesus’ ministry.] But the caretaker asks for one more year. He will hoe and spread manure around the fig tree. This, however, is the last chance.
The parable contains both a warning and an encouragement. God is like the owner of the vineyard, and therefore of the fig tree. God looks for results. There will be a day of reckoning. That is the warning. But God is also patient. He is willing to wait. Behind the figure of the hired hand in the story, pleading for one more growing season, we glimpse Jesus himself, our elder brother who knows our weaknesses and who pleads on our behalf for more time.