Christ and the Barren Fig-tree, Giandomenico Tiepolo (1727–1804); private collection via Christie’s

Fr Neil’s homily for the Third Sunday of Lent, 20 March 2022

Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.¹

In the gospel reading we are introduced to some our Lord’s thoughts on suffering.

The events in Ukraine raise all sorts of questions about the nature of suffering which are difficult to address. “If God is good and loving why does he allow suffering in the world?” is certainly a question we might have asked ourselves or heard someone else do so in the light of difficult events.

Christ addresses three forms of suffering. The first is the suffering of the innocent at the behest of the powerful. The example brought to Christ is Pilate’s murder of the Galileans² and the act of desecration by mingling their blood with their sacrifice. Putin and the war in Ukraine has similar overtones.

Of course we are aware of the spiritual principle, ‘what you sow is what you reap.’³ In general, if one is generous and kindly one seems to get kindliness in return, even though a smile doesn’t always guarantee a smile in return. Yet if we go about growling at people we are certainly more likely to get negative responses in return.

When things do go wrong we cannot help but ask, “What did I do to deserve this?” Or perhaps more sadly we conclude that the bad things that happen are a punishment from God for previous mistakes and sins.

At the time of Christ, many saw any prosperous blessing and any disaster as a consequence of either virtuous or sinful acts of living. One has only to reflect on Job’s comforters⁴ and the reaction of the disciple to Christ’s teaching that it was easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven⁵. They were bewildered because if the rich — who in their minds were blessed by God — couldn’t get into the kingdom, what hope was there for the rest of us?

Christ directly addresses this simplistic and wrong way of thinking. The Galileans suffered not because they were somehow worse sinners than any other Galileans but because they were victims of other people’s sins. In this case they suffered at the corrupt political hands of Pilate, the same Pilate who would wash the same hands when Christ was before him, in an attempt to evade the responsibility for an innocent man’s life.

Quite simply, some people suffer because of the sinful acts or omissions of other people.

The second form of suffering is contingent on being a physical creature in a world of time and space. The tower of Siloam which fell and killed eighteen people⁶ happened, most likely, through faulty engineering and gravity. There is no moral cause; yet at times we feel it to be unjust and cruel. We might indeed shake our fists at God and ask, “Why me?” Often diseases, disability, accidents and some fatalities fall into this category. Quite simply I might walk out of this church and get run over by the proverbial bus and it be no one’s fault.

Yet our often misapplied sense of injustice in these cases reveals a deeply held notion of a moral code of good and evil, right and wrong. It points to something which lies above and beyond ourselves to which we might appeal.

The pure materialist and atheist cannot logically rail against such incidents and must feel no sense of outrage or injustice, grief or sorrow, but an emotionless acceptance of mere physics. To be such a person would appear, to most other people, to be acting in a sort of sociopathic manner showing no empathy for other people’s grief and sorrow.

Christ wishes to lead us through this maze of human experience and point us to a deeper truth that we are in danger of missing. He wishes us not to see God’s judgement where actually it isn’t and look at the things that do fall under God’s judgement. The third suffering and death is where we need to focus our attention. Christ uses the parable of the fruitless fig tree⁷ to make his point.

It is a powerful image that resonates with the language of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah speaks about the nation of Israel as a fruitless vineyard⁸ despite every thing that God has done to enable the plants to flourish and grow, yet they bore no fruit. The parable speaks of the fig tree that, bearing no fruit, should be dug up and thrown away, yet the gardener pleads for one last chance; and if still after another year it bears no fruit, then it can be dug up.

Christ wants us to ask ourselves whether or not we are bearing the fruit associated with the kingdom of God. For a fig tree to be itself and fulfil its true being then it needs to bring forth fruit. The death that we need to truly fear is the second death that comes when God calls all of us to account for the manner in which we have lived our lives.

Have we turned to God with sorrow for our sin? Are we making reparation and amendments for our failings? Do we call with tears upon God for his merciful love that transforms our lives towards holiness or do we just presume upon his grace?

God desireth not the death of a sinner but rather that he turn from his wickedness and live⁹. Christ has revealed upon the Cross the heart of the Father, who longs for our salvation. To be open to receive the Holy Spirit enables us by his grace to be blessed with the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Love. The Spirit also strengths the cardinal virtues of Justice, Wisdom, Courage and Temperance. To feed these virtues is to bear fruit in keeping with our calling to eternal life and makes ready our soul for heavenly glory.

¹ 1 Corinthians 10:12
² Luke 13:1
³ Galatians 6:7
⁴ eg Job 4:7
⁵ Matthew 19:24–25
⁶ Luke 13:4
⁷ Luke 13:6–9
⁸ Isaiah 5:1–7
Divine Worship: Daily Office; from the Absolution in the Introduction to Morning and Evening Prayer (p373)