For a procrastinator, now is the time to put off doing
something. Procrastinators always hope or expect that
circumstances later will be better for accomplishing the
thing they don't want to face now. Frequently,
procrastinators probably have "gotten away" with these delay
tactics; things have worked out at the last minute. For them,
in terms of salvation, the good thief crucified alongside
Jesus supports their hope - or their presumption. It is a
worthwhile thing to ask: Is delaying our response to God's
grace a sign of hope in Him or a sign of presumption? Should
a person who procrastinates allow that habit to influence
something as important his own salvation?
In our Gospel passage, Jesus encounters some people who are
troubled by the tragic and untimely deaths of a number of
people. No doubt we can relate to such stories. We hear
frequently of tragic unexpected deaths, of people we know
and/or of people in the news. The troubled people ask Jesus
if He thinks the victims of the massacre or of the falling
tower were victims because of their own sins. Did they die in
this way as a punishment for the way they were living? Such a
question might have been more common in the time of Jesus
because there were scholars and religious leaders who thought
and taught that there is always a causal link between
people's behavior and the blessings or punishments they
This way of thinking exists today. People not infrequently
look for reasons in their own past choices for the
afflictions they find themselves facing. Am I being punished
by God for what I did? Is this a consequence of my past sins?
Sin, of course, has consequences. Sometimes it is possible to
link a past sin to a current suffering. Nonetheless, it is
not true that each affliction we face now is related to or
caused by something we did wrong in our past. Do we not find
it most confusing and unsettling when we see a little child
with a painful illness? Don't we read in the lives of very
holy people examples of great suffering which we know cannot
be due to anything they did to offend God? Evil and suffering
are present in the world because of Original Sin. All people
suffer. Beyond that, we won't be successful in determining
why or when people suffer or die. God's ways are not our
ways. His Providence is mysterious.
Jesus takes the opportunity of the question to teach the
worried people an important truth. He warns them that they
live with the need to repent of their sins. To live with a
repentant heart makes one secure and protected from the
tragedy of an untimely death. Clearly He is not saying that
one's failure to repent will invite accidents and illnesses.
Rather, He teaches that living in a ready way, always
responsive to God's grace and mercy, makes the embrace of
life's ups and downs a peaceful endeavor, free from anxiety
and fear. Living sinfully, on the other hand, leaves one open
to the worst kind of tragedy for it accepts the real
possibility of losing the opportunity to repent. Delayed
repentance can become permanent unrepentance. Jesus uses the
tragedy troubling the people to remind them of a worse
tragedy they face - and we face.
To reinforce His lesson and to encourage the people, Jesus
offers a parable. The fig tree in the parable should have
been bearing fruit. It was not. The owner, expressing his
disappointment, instructs the gardener to cut it down. It is
there to bear fruit but it is not fruitful. It should not
remain in the garden to exhaust the soil. The gardener makes
a plea on behalf of the barren tree, offering to cultivate
around it and fertilize it. The gardener asks the owner to
give the tree another chance. Jesus, sent by the Father to
save us, intercedes for us in this way. He wants us to be
saved, and He is patient with us.
Jesus' hearers likely knew that they had exhausted some of
the Father's patience with them. Could they tell that they
were already in the "additional year" of patience and mercy?
Can we? Now is a good time for repentance. Now we can seek
God's mercy. Later is for fig trees.
Fr. Zuberbueler is pastor of St. Louis Church in Alexandria.