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Now is late enough

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 receive.

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.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016