By Deacon Derick Cranston
For The Catholic Messenger
Why do children die in school shootings and dictators gas their own people with poisonous gas causing them to experience an excruciating death? Why do hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes take the lives of countless people? Why does an all-powerful and loving God let these things happen? Is God punishing us because of our transgressions?
Jesus directly addresses this perception of a vengeful God in this Sunday’s Gospel. He asks his followers whether they thought that the people killed by a tower that fell on them were guiltier than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem. Jesus answers his question stating, “By no means!” He continues, “But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”
Jesus’ harsh statement can easily come off as a fire-and-brimstone admonishment of the people he is addressing. But if you look closely at the underlying meaning of this seemingly severe reprimand, you can find hope for all peoples to enter the Kingdom of God. We are not being punished by a vengeful God. We are being given a second chance.
We have a God who loves us and who will embrace us if we turn away from sin by repenting and asking for his forgiveness. It doesn’t matter who we are or how badly we have sinned. We all have an equal opportunity of entering the Kingdom of God. This theme will unfold in the Gospel readings over the next two Sundays, when we find that the father forgives and joyfully welcomes back the prodigal son and when Jesus does not condemn the woman caught in sin.
Jesus ends his message with a parable of a gardener who asks his master to give him one last chance to bring forth fruit from a fig tree that has been barren for three years, and the master grants the gardener his request. The fig tree is the third tree mentioned in the Bible after the tree of life and the tree of knowledge. It is the fig tree that was allowed to flourish and grow in the world after the Garden of Eden was closed to humanity. It was the leaves of the fig tree that Adam and Eve covered themselves with out of shame after they sinned.
Adam was told by God, “Cursed is the ground because of you! In toil you shall eat its yield.” Eve was told, “I will intensify your toil in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.” Lent is a time to remind ourselves of the barren desert in which we must toil and experience pain. But the ultimate outcome of Adam and Eve’s sin does not mean that suffering will have the last word.
Yes, the labor to bring forth a new life will be intense and very painful. But the agony and suffering of labor will bring forth the joy of a new life. Yes, we must toil and suffer to remove the hardness of our hearts made barren by the taint of original sin. But like the gardener in the vineyard who cares for the fig tree, we are gardeners of our own soul. We are given a second opportunity to bring forth fruit after years of fruitlessness.
During our time here on earth, we will never fully understand why people suffer. But we can take solace in a God who humbled himself to share in our suffering. We can find hope in the punitive overtones of Lent and Christ’s suffering on the cross. It is through the cross on Calvary that we can experience the joy of Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday.
(Deacon Derick Cranston serves at Holy Trinity Parish, Richmond; St. Mary Parish, Riverside; and St. Joseph Parish, Wellman.)