Dear Sisters and Brothers,
God never ceases to call us. He called us into existence in our mothers’ womb and continues to coax us into life. At baptism he called us into the life of the family of God, giving us the chance to share his very own life with the Son and the Holy Spirit. From then on he has faithfully called us to live a life of holiness and intimacy as his sons and daughters. Time and time again throughout the history of his chosen people, and even in our time today, he calls us back to him when we stray. He is ever patient, ever faithful, ever loving.
But if you cast your mind back to the Mass of Ash Wednesday, there was a change of tone in God’s call to us. Suddenly, everything began to move into a higher gear and a real sense of urgency was placed before us all. Remember?
Now, now come back to me with all your hearts
Well, now is the favourable time;
this is the day of salvation.
Jesus, in today’s Gospel, continues in this same urgent way. He wants us to understand the important message that we are to repent. Two signs are given by Jesus. The first is the incident of the Galileans whose blood is mingled with that of their sacrifice. According to the accepted belief of the time – and perhaps our time, too – if there is no tragedy in a person’s life, then there is no reason to repent. Tragedy was a way of God punishing a person for their sin. If there is tragedy in someone’s life, then it is because they have sinned, and so God punishes them for their sinfulness.
But, Jesus says: Do you suppose these Galileans who suffered were greater sinners than any other Galilean? They were not, I tell you. In other words, human tragedy is not God’s way of punishing sin. Likewise, the absence of tragedy doesn’t imply the absence of sin. In this case, tragedy was due to a human cause – Pilate.
The second sign given by Jesus consists of those eighteen people on whom the Tower of Siloam fell. Here we have an example of tragedy caused by a natural disaster. And Jesus asks again: Do you suppose they were more guilty than all the other people. And the answer: They were not, I tell you. God does not use natural disasters to punish people’s sin. Natural tragedies are simply that – natural tragedies. They do not measure sinfulness.
But, here comes the crux of the first part of our Gospel: Unless you repent, you will perish as they did. All people need to repent for we are all sinners. And the greatest tragedy of all will be brought about by lack of repentance – no admittance to the Kingdom of God!
So we all need to repent, and this is quite an urgent call to one and all. But God is patient and long-suffering. He will give time and opportunity to all, but there is a limit, there is a time-scale. And that is the point of the next part of the Gospel, the story of the fig tree.
Fig trees are great plants. They will grow in all sorts of soil. As long as there is some basic nourishment, they will just get along with life and flower and fruit to their heart’s content – and more importantly to the heart’s content of their owners. They fruit for about nine months of the year and need little tending. However, at the beginning you have to be patient. It takes at least three years of growth before they are capable of bearing fruit, then it is necessary to leave them for another three years to gain strength. Then, and only then, after six years could you begin to enjoy the fruit of the fig tree. This man in the gospel had waited another three years to eat the fruit and nothing had appeared.
It was not unreasonable of the owner of the vineyard to want the tree cutting down – why should it waste further time and effort when so much work had been put into its growth and to no avail? However, the Gardener – Jesus – asks for one more year. With more cultivation and some fertiliser (which was not usual) it might bear fruit. If not, then it can be cut down by the owner. So there is time for repentance, but this time is not unlimited. St Paul reminds us of this at the end of our second reading:
All this happened to them as a warning, and it was written down to be a lesson for us who are living at the end of the age. The man who thinks he is safe must be careful that he does not fall.
And that goes for you and me!
Yours in blessed hope,
Bishop of Middlesbrough