Third Sunday of Lent
Our Gospel for the third Sunday of Lent is another call to focus on personal behaviour. The passage is in two parts. First a general discussion between Jesus and the people followed by remarks about the fig trees. St Luke does not tell us the circumstances that provoked the discussion but it is possibly the Jewish historian Josephus’ recording of the murder by Governor Pilate of Galileans who had objected to his theft of Temple money, gathering on the holy mount Gerizim seeking divine vengeance. Popular feelings at the time believed this was a divine punishment. The Galileans like the eighteen killed in Jerusalem by the collapsing tower of Siloam, must in some way have been blameworthy. Jesus does not get involved in the “blame game”. Condemning wickedness in others, Jesus says, is a distraction from looking at ourselves. “Do not look at the speck on your brother’s eye when you have a plank in your own”. [Matthew 7;3] “Let anyone without sin, cast the first stone.” [John 8;7] Now, his words are, “those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell, do you think that they were worse sinners than all others; I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” [Luke 13;4-5]
”The Lord does not engage in judgement of others and he does not share the same idealised model of society. He teaches that society is the sum total of a humanity with the same flaw running through all from one generation to another. Over and over again his own model of rightness with God is beautifully revealed in the image of the publican who prayed “Lord have mercy on me a sinner”. An individual like that is aware of self delusion and therefore capable of reconstruction simply because he was honest with himself. Blaming others is alive and well in every age, maybe more forcibly today, as people are almost encouraged to blame parents, the government, economic or social policies for every ill.
C.S. Lewis makes the point when he said “Christianity does not aim to make better people in the old variety but a new kind of person”. The attitude of Jesus depends upon believing that a weakness runs through the heart and soul of every individual but is capable of a cure and this is the connection with the fig tree.
Anyone who has a small orchard will be familiar with the poor fig tree, Jesus uses in his teaching on the deep disorder that runs throughout humanity and in past times was called “original sin”. Trimming branches will often reveal the ominous dark stains of canker that blights a tree causing it to slowly perish from the inside. The owner will do everything possible to cut out the disease to bring about a cure, and enable it to bear fruit, but when all else fails the tree must be uprooted to avoid the spread of the disease. God in the Old Testament acts towards His people as the keeper of the vines giving them all His love and care in the hope of a plentiful harvest.
With this background we can only imagine the sadness of Jesus looking at today’s culture, that having dethroned God and the wisdom of Christ, is empty handed in dealing with mass psychosis of fear and despair that sweeps through the human vineyard. No psychology, social or political theory by itself can produce the new creation envisioned by Jesus, but only a willingness to start again to partake in His divine nature. The Greek writer Aristides (117-138) saw this at work when he described at length early Christians in a letter to the Emperor Hadrian, “they labour to become righteous, truly a new people with something divine in them”. Christians were in times past distinctive and must be so again.
Fr. Geoffrey Neal