20 mars 2022
Third Sunday of Lent, Year C
Today’s Gospel passage (Lk 13:1-9) consists of two parts. Both revolve around the theme of conversion and, at first glance, both seem to be in opposition to each other.
In the first part (Lk 13:1-5), people go to Jesus to tell him about a painful event: some Galileans who were visiting Jerusalem were killed by Roman soldiers while performing their sacrifices in the temple. This is a disturbing fact, which can be interpreted religiously: violent death was a sign of God’s punishment for a sin that had been committed.
Based on this fact, Jesus tells another in the same vein: eighteen people died when the tower of Siloam collapsed.
According to common religious thinking, these people had made themselves particularly odious to God by committing a fault that justified their fate. It was therefore legitimate to think that those who had not suffered such a fate were considered to be just and acceptable to God.
Jesus distances himself from this thought, asking two questions to which he himself provides an answer: Were these people more sinful than others? No, says Jesus, because God is not a God who punishes and eliminates evil in this violent way. And if these people were not more sinful than others, it means that evil dwells in the hearts of all, in the same way, and that no one can consider themselves excluded from the need to convert.
This is the first part.
In the second part (Lk 13:6-9), Jesus tells a parable that in some ways seems very strange.
A man has planted a fig tree in his vineyard, but the fig tree produces no fruit. The man thus asks his vinedresser to cut it down so that it doesn’t drain the land unnecessarily. The vinedresser hesitates and promises to do things that are unusual for a fig tree, such as hoeing the land around it or putting manure on it (Lk 13:8). The owner of the vineyard is convinced and agrees to give the tree more time to see if it will eventually bear fruit.
At the center of this parable are two verbs, in the imperative: the first, “Cut it down!” (Lk 13:7), is spoken by the master to the vinedresser; the second, “Let it” (Lk 13:8), is spoken by the vinedresser to the master.
The first verb is, in fact, the expression of that common religious thought of which the first part of the Gospel passage speaks of: if one is unfaithful to one’s religious duties, the Lord God intervenes and eliminates the sinner. We also find this image at the beginning of the Gospel, on the lips of John the Baptist, who says that every tree that does not bear fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire when the Messiah arrives (Lk 3:9).
The second verb, “Let it”, expresses the heart and mind of Jesus: the whole story of salvation is nothing other than a continuous offer of God’s love for his people, an offer to which people always respond in an insufficient and inadequate way (the fig tree that does not bear fruit). But man’s response in no way conditions God’s gift, who responds, on the contrary, with ever more heart and attention, in a sort of excessive way, just as it is excessive to hoe and fertilize the soil around a fig tree.
God also responds by giving time. Not, therefore, by a sudden and tragic death, which interrupts the time of a possible conversion, but by the gift of a new delay, of more time. And here, while some translations say: “let it alone another year”, others prefer: “let it alone this year also”.
This second translation is particularly significant, because it recalls the beginning of Jesus’ preaching, when he announces a year of grace and mercy (Lk 4:19): this is the moment when man can finally experience the love of the Lord, the year that is given to us now, and which was inaugurated in the last times, our times. No fruit was possible outside of this year, because the fruit is nothing other than an astonished response to the ultimate and definitive gift that God the Father has given to man, that of his Son. The time is therefore given again, and the fruit is expected.
It is therefore important to read these two texts carefully together. The first part is a pressing and urgent invitation to conversion, while the second is a contemplation of God’s mercy and patience, as if to say that true conversion is that of those who experience the goodness of the Lord. Those who do not convert to this image of God will all perish in the same way (Lk 13:3,5), that is, by needlessly believing in a God who punishes or rewards.