Luke 13: 1-9
Judgment and mercy
Disasters have a profound impact on the human psyche. They hang on the mind, and they plague it with questions as to why the events occurred. They become a point of reference and, in many instances, a seat of judgment. Such are the two disasters mentioned in today’s Gospel, one apparently accidental and the other a political/hate crime. (Luke) is the only one to make any reference to these events.) It is implied that the people judged the victims of these events as unrepentant sinners, and their deaths as a punishment from God.
Jesus is quick to point out that the people killed in these disasters are no worse than anyone else. Then he adds a disturbing note, that the same could befall anyone else who does not repent. Is Jesus giving a nod to the notion that God punishes the unrepentant? Paul is certainly making a case for that in his letter to the Corinthians, citing Old Testament examples of God striking down the unrepentant.
What do we do with this type of statement? For some it becomes the perfect justification for their condemnation of victims of disaster as sinners who had it coming to them. For others it gets spiritualized, explaining that Jesus is referring to the calamities that will befall the spirit and the soul if we do not repent.
And, yet, for others it remains an enigma. Perhaps it’s a redaction, an editorial comment by the writer who lived in a culture where the understanding of God rotated around repentance and punishment.
Whatever it is, it does not explain Jesus. The pattern of his life explains Jesus. His admonishments to us to be merciful and not to judge, his pattern of welcoming the stranger and those condemned by “righteous” custom, these are what explain Jesus.
The story of the fig tree that follows the discussion on repentance and punishment helps to explain Jesus, because it fits the pattern of his life. The owner is the powerful one, but is not deaf to reason and an appeal to clemency. The gardener is the God-image who understands what the tree is lacking. This tree needs more nurturing in order to be able to produce. The soil in which it stands is lacking the nutrients it needs, and the gardener knows she/he must fertilize that clay of the earth. Numerous people languish in our prisons, judged and labeled “criminal”, because they never met the God-image gardener who knew their need and gave the nurturing. Instead, they met too many who judged and condemned them from childhood because they never walked in their shoes or enriched the clay of their earth.
Which one am I – the judge or the God-image gardener? And in which of these personas do I see Jesus?
Elizabeth Ferguson, O.P.