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."
Today’s gospel reading begins with some people from Galilee had evidently been offering sacrifice in the temple. And because of some disturbance they caused, or some crime against the Roman authority, Pilate had them massacred where they stood. From the Jewish historian, Josephus, we can be sure that Pilate was capable of such a rash act.
After telling Jesus about what had happened at the temple, he asked them a question. This question was asked because it was a very old and common opinion among the Jews that sudden or serious misfortunes were caused by the sins of those who suffered such misfortunes. We know of this opinion from the Book of Job. It was evidently those who brought the news of this misfortune had implied this, but Jesus says no. he does not say they were not simmers but that they were no worse than others.
Jesus reminds all his hearers that they are all sinners and have need for repentance. He tells them that sinners who refuse to repent will perish, and more than the temporal death which all must face one day.
Then Jesus himself refers to another accident which had caused the sudden death of eighteen men, and very likely this accident had also been attributed to the grievous personal sins of those involved. He points out that there were many other citizens of Jerusalem who were just as guilty, if not more so, than those unfortunates. And again he urges repentance unless they wish a worse fate to befall themselves.
After these, Jesus tells a parable about a man and a fig tree. Although he does not apply the parable, the meaning in the circumstances is clear. The Jews were God’s fig tree; he had planted them and cared for them and expected fruit but they produced none. He now decides to cut them down. But the gardener, evidently a figure of Christ himself, pleads to give them one more chance, one more year in which he would do everything possible to change their attitude. If they then failed God could deal with them. We all know the result.
There is one theme and lesson running through in today’s gospel. It is the need for repentance. Some sinners are punished in this life but an earthly punishment is no proof of greater sin, nor is it the real punishment that must be feared. The parable of the useless fig tree is applies directly to the stubborn Jews of Christ’s time, has a lesson for all time and for all sinners. God’s mercy is infinite but man’s earthly, during which he can obtain that mercy, is very finite. God’s mercy can forgive sins no matter how grievous, but it cannot forgive even less serious sins unless the sinner is sorry and asks for forgiveness.
Christ, our rue mediator with God, is continually interceding for us, but unless we do our part by repenting and changing our behavior, his intercession will be of no avail to us. No man is lost because God so wishes it, but no man is saved unless he himself wishes it and works for it.
Think on this parable of the fruitless fig tree today. If your conscience tells you that it applies to you, think also that Christ is interceding for you. He has obtained for you a moratorium, a period in which you can prove yourself fruitful. Use that gift of God with gratitude and you shall obtain the result that God wants, and that in all good sense, you should want as well. Amen.