At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”’
Suffering raises questions – such questions are often raised in my chaplaincy encounters. Suffering challenges what we believe about how life works. It is part of our nature that we want there to be a pattern – we want to know the reason this has happened. We want there to be a simple cause and effect, so we can avoid disasters striking us. However life is rarely like that.
Were the Galileans killed in the temple and those killed by the fall of the tower just in the wrong place at the wrong time? They want to know ‘what did they do to deserve this? Were these preventable deaths? In his reply Jesus encourages his questioners to repent. The words seem harsh and probably aren’t those I would use in a pastoral encounter! s he making a link between what happened and their state of grace? I think Jesus wants them to make sure they are ready to meet their maker should they be in a similar situation, rather than gloat about those who suffered. He disputes that those killed were somehow more deserving of their fate than those who survive. Would repenting have protected the victims from suffering or is life more random than that?
Then Jesus tells a story – what should the owner do if the tree doesn’t bear fruit. What does the tree deserve? Is it a waste of space and resources? How patient should its owner be? The gardener advocates for one more year to bear fruit. For those who have survived or avoided suffering, the close encounter with mortality can be life changing – life is precious and to be used well. We have a God of second chances, welcoming us even if we change our lives in that final year. For who knows when the final year will be – let’s seize the chance whilst we have the opportunity to do so.
Today we need this story to help us think again, when some are set for failure, whilst others just condemn. Let’s reconstruct our nurture, let’s give each fig their chance let’s show all fig trees matter, let fruitfulness advance.
John Campbell in ‘Sunflowers & Thistles’, URC June 2020.
The Revd Viv Henderson, Minister at Minehead URC and Chaplain at Wellesley Hospital