Today’s gospel begins with two warnings about the need for repentance and ends with a parable about a non-productive fig tree and a faithful ‘gardener God’. The warnings include two examples of untimely deaths, one reported to Jesus and then used by him to illustrate the urgent need for repentance, the other reported by Jesus as a further illustration of his point. With respect to the first example, Jewish history documents instances of Pilate’s cruelty, but makes no mention of his execution of Galileans and the mingling of their blood with their sacrifices. Neither is there any other record of the collapse of the Siloam tower and the resultant death of eighteen people. Jesus insists that those killed are no more sinful and no more deserving of death than any of their fellow Galileans or Jerusalemites. They are certainly not being punished for their sins and those who make a link between suffering and sin have got it all wrong.
So why does Jesus twice assert, ‘If you do not repent you will all perish in the same way’ or ‘as they did’? The answer seems to lie in the constant need for self-reflection and the missed opportunity for conversion or reconciliation in the case of sudden and unexpected death. In other words, don’t be caught unawares. Turn your life around in the direction of the gospel while you are alive and well.
The parable of the non-productive fig tree in the vineyard approaches the same topic from another perspective. The owner of the vineyard wants to get rid of a fig tree that fails to bear fruit after three years. His position is perfectly reasonable: why should a non-fruiting fig-tree continue to sap the goodness of the soil? Why not go for more vines, more grapes, more wine, and forget about the fig tree? The faithful or constant gardener, on the other hand, is like the womb-compassionate God of Israel, prepared to give the fig tree another chance, to turn it around and assist it to bear fruit, if the owner will give him the chance. It may be worth getting in closer touch with our compassionate ‘gardener’ God in this third week of Lent, especially if we are not finding it easy to turn our lives around!