“Do you think they were more guilty than everyone else?”

On this third Sunday in Lent, we have an interesting reading in Luke 13:1-9.

Some people told Jesus about the Galileans
whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way
they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!
Or those eighteen people who were killed
when the tower at Siloam fell on them—
do you think they were more guilty
than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!”

And he told them this parable:
“There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard,
and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none,
he said to the gardener,
‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree
but have found none.
So cut it down.
Why should it exhaust the soil?’
He said to him in reply,
‘Sir, leave it for this year also,
and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it;
it may bear fruit in the future.
If not you can cut it down.’”

On reflection, it seems to me that this reading reveals three important lessons.

First, Jesus the Christ responded to what people were reporting to him about what had happened to people and supposed it meant that those people must somehow be greater sinners because of what had happened to them. He assured them they were not. And that reminds me of preachers and their followers today who insist that people who suffer terrible things must do so because they are horrible sinners or that the world suffers great calamities because God is punishing the world for its sins. Yet in this very reading Jesus assures us that this isn’t so.

Second, Jesus tells these people and, thus, these very same preachers and their followers, that if they don’t focus on their own sins instead, they will be the ones to suffer the wrath of God. Reminds me of Jesus’ “remove the plank from your eye before you try to take the splinter from mine.”

And then Jesus gives us all the parable of the fig tree owner and his gardener, in which Jesus expresses the Father’s patience with the sinner. Yet also implied in this parable is that even the fig tree owner grows impatient with trees that refuse to bear fruit. At least we are trees that can bring forth our own fruit — if we are self-aware and willing.

So, do you believe that people who suffer more do so because they are guiltier sinners? Jesus says no. Do you believe that God brings calamity on people because they are sinners? Jesus says no. Do you believe that God gives sinners every chance to change their hearts? Jesus says yes. And he seems to say you should tend your own garden to bear fruit instead of worrying about someone else’s garden.

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