The Fruits of Faithfulness, Obedience, and Penitence
                                                 Luke 13:  1-9
 If one read only the Gospel lesson for today without any regard for where we are in the church year, it would be easy to conclude that it was Advent
Christ sounds just like John the Baptist: “unless you repent, you will all perish.”   Now to be sure, just like Advent, Lent is a penitential season; that is why the liturgical color for both seasons is violet.
But there is a subtle difference between the two penitential seasons.
  
Advent calls us to be penitent as a grateful response to the gift of Christ's birth.

But Lent calls us to practice penitence as a part of a larger effort to reflect on Christ's suffering and sacrifice for our salvation.

Stated differently, Advent asks that we amend our lives in appreciation for Christ's birth and all that it promised, while Lent suggests that we make an effort to imitate Christ, to practice self-denial as He did, as an appropriate response to His death and its guarantee of eternal life.

But the call to penitence is only a small part of the message of today's Gospel. There are two other aspects of Luke's account that are worthy of our reflection, for they transcend the season of Lent and give us great insight into the nature of God.

The first is Christ's response to a timeless question: is misfortune an indication of sinfulness?

We should keep in mind that during the centuries preceding Christ's birth, that was the premise which Jews believed.  The entire Book of Job addresses this topic as Job's friends argued that even if he didn't recognize his sinfulness, Job's misfortune had to be linked to it.

And yet the narrative tells us that Job was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”

In more contemporary terms this question might be: why do bad things happen to good people?

Human suffering, whether from natural disasters or from man-made violence, always raises questions about God's role in the calculus of life.

Our Lord addresses this question in Luke's Gospel.  “Do you think that the Galileans whose blood Pilate spilled were worse sinners than others?”

Were the eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them worse offenders than others in Jerusalem?”

 “No, I tell you.”

With this emphatic “no,” Jesus proclaims that God does not work his judgment in such ways.  God does not arbitrarily punish some human beings for sin while sparing others.

Instead, God created a world that runs by natural laws, that for all its beauty and goodness, is still subject to extremes of weather and nature.

God gave humanity free will that in spite of all human generosity and compassion, is still subject to pride, greed, and self-aggrandizement that lead to violence.

And that brings us to the second point of the Gospel.  God is involved in the world through His Holy Spirit and that involvement is always geared toward giving human beings a second chance.

Consider the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree.  Now the prophets Micah and Hosea referred to Israel as a fig tree, so Christ's metaphorical use of a fig tree cites the Jews in particular and humanity in general as the fruit of the tree.

Now the fig tree having been given life by God had been in the vineyard long enough to bear fruit.  By fruit, the Lord means faithfulness, obedience, and penitence on the part of humanity.

The owner of the vineyard, who represents God's judgment, complains that three years is long enough to expect fruit and that therefore, he is directing the gardener to cut down the unproductive tree.

The gardener, who represents God's mercy, pleads with the owner to give the tree one more year before he cuts it down. 

The parable explains the dynamic between God's judgment and His mercy. God's judgment will ultimately hold us accountable for our sinfulness, but God's mercy invariably gives us second chances to be penitent.

It also instructs us that the opportunity to repent is not without limit.  The parable's message is double edged.

A merciful God grants us a period of grace during which we have the opportunity to be penitent, not just to express regret for past sins, but more important, to practice an amendment of life.

But the other edge of the blade is that unless we take advantage of God's grace, we will perish.

Now perish does not mean that God will make us targets of natural disasters, disease, or human violence.  By perish, Christ means that we will not enter eternal life, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

By warning that the unrepentant will perish immediately after referring to Pilate and the tower of Siloam, Jesus is not suggesting that sudden calamities are of God's design.

Rather the Lord is warning that since life can be ended suddenly by violence or disease or disaster, it is essential that we not delay penitence.

In the Great Litany we ask God to deliver us from dying suddenly and unprepared. For judgment follows immediately after death, and death cannot always be anticipated.

Christ is clear, calamities are not of God's making.  But calamities do stand as graphic reminders that life is fragile and we may stand before God's judgment seat without warning.

The parable of the barren fig tree reminds us to consider the gift of another year of life as an act of God's mercy.

Christ is not only the means of our salvation, He constantly encourages us to practice penitence, without which we may lose access to that salvation.

The present is a time of grace and divine forbearance.

Saint Paul wrote in Romans that God's patience and forbearance are intended to lead people to repentance.  In other words, they are second chances.

Unfortunately, they can also be misinterpreted as God's limitless indulgence.

The whole notion of penitence in the calculus of Christian salvation is summed up by Miguel Cervantes:  “He who errs and amends, to God Himself commends.”

Amen.

 


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