This Sunday's Gospel Reading for the Third Sunday of Lent in Year "C" is taken from Luke 13:1-9 and constitutes a summons to repentance in the context of God's patient love for his beloved sons and daughters: "Sir...leave it one more year...it may bear fruit next year...."
People came to Jesus with a story of some Galileans (their neighbours?) who had been killed by Pilate while they were offering their sacrifices in the Temple (probably at Passover), expecting that he would comment on this event. Aware that many of his contemporaries would think this implied that these people were being punished by God for some sin, Jesus gave expression to their speculation ("Do you suppose these Galileans...were greater sinners than any other Galileans?"), only to deny it outright ("They were not, I tell you").
Even today, Jesus' teaching that accidents or illnesses are not a punishment from God is difficult for people to accept. And so Jesus repeated it a second time, making reference to another tragedy that had taken place in Jerusalem.
While denying that accidents are divine punishment, Jesus found a lesson hidden in the sudden deaths, namely a call to repentance: "Unless you repent you will all perish (spiritually) as they did (physically)". Sudden deaths in this world challenge those still alive to a reformation of their lives, a coming to terms with their status as sinners loved by God.
Clearly then, biblical teaching asserts that God does not permit accidents to happen to people in order to punish them for their sins. According to Jesus' parable, neither does God lie in wait for the sinner to be caught in sin. Instead, the key point of the parable suggests that God, under the image of the owner of the fig tree (which stands for any man or woman), is infinitely patient.
A mature fig tree should produce fruit every year, just as human lives should bear the fruits of good deeds. This fig tree had been barren "for three years" and, not only did it not bear figs, it seemed to be draining nourishment from the other plants in the vineyard.
Some human lives seem to produce little and indeed may even seem to cause damage to others. But like the owner of the garden, God listens to the gardener's appeal for patience with the unproductive (and hurtful) and the suggestion of further treatment ("give me time to dig round it and fertilize it"). And God does give people the time they need.
Still, there will be a day of reckoning and, if a person, instead of bearing fruit, continues in procrastination and unproductivity, he or she must be ready to face the fate of the barren fig tree. Here we find echoes of the warnings that Paul noticed in the history of Israel (second reading).
Pilate's malice may have occasioned the deaths of some Galileans and the eighteen people from Jerusalem may have died by chance. But the fig tree (some men and women) will die spiritually because of their own inactivity and unresponsiveness to the divine appeal so clearly proclaimed by Jesus and His Church: "Unless you repent, you will all perish."
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CCO FUNDRAISER FEATURES CARDINAL LEVADA AS SPEAKER
After speaking at the Consecration of the new seminary for the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), who are present in our archdiocese at St. Clement's Parish, Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has come to assist with the evangelizing work of Catholic Christian Outreach (www.cco.ca) headquartered at the Diocesan Centre (and on whose board I am pleased to serve).
Last evening he spoke at the St. John Fisher Dinner to benefit CCO at Queen's University on Anglicanorum coetibus, the Holy See's proposal of a Personal Ordinariate (a type of diocese on a larger scale, somewhat akin military ordinariates) in response to the request by bishops of the Traditional Anglican Church around the world (Bishop Carl Reid heads up a diocese in our city).
Tomorrow evening, His Eminence will preside and preach at Holy Mass in our Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica at 4:30 PM, open to all. Afterwards (5:45 for 6:45), he will address a fundraising gala (tickets $125, with $60 tax receipt) at the Westin Hotel, "The Catholic Faith: Why Is It Worth Passing On?" (for info, tickets: firstname.lastname@example.org).