27 October 2012

Repentance: the first good fruit

29th Week OT (S)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Pastors and theologians of every stripe and flavor immediately recognize the questions that the crowd poses to Jesus: why did God punish the Galileans using Pilate's sword? Why were those poor people killed when the tower fell on them? Generations of Jews had been taught that God directly or indirectly punishes the nation's infidelity to the covenant with foreign invasion, plague, enslavement, or some other tragic ordeal that pushes them to repentance and back to fidelity. So, it's only natural that Pilate's massacre of Jewish worshipers in Galilee and the accident at Siloam provokes raises questions about what these people had done to deserve punishment. Unlike some modern pastors and theologians, Jesus resists the temptation to find a scapegoat for these disasters and focuses his attention on the need for both personal and national repentance, saying, “Do you think that those Galileans or those killed at Siloam were greater sinners than anyone else? They weren't! I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” The clock is ticking; the calendar is advancing month by month, and the day to be weighed and measured is coming. Repentance is our first good fruit. 

To drive home his point about the need for repentance, Jesus tells the crowd a parable. A fig tree has failed for three years in row to produce a single fig. The frustrated owner of the orchard orders his gardener to cut it down, saying, “Why should it exhaust the soil?” The gardener begs the owner to give the tree one more year, promising to nurture it. He says, “[I]t may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.” The owner relents and grants the fig tree one more year to produce good fruit. If that fig tree could talk, it might follow the example of the crowd and ask Jesus, “Lord, Why were the other fruit trees cut down while I was spared?” Jesus would answer, “You're missing the point, Fig Tree, and wasting your time asking why you were spared. Get busy producing good fruit. You've got one more year before the ax falls!” If that fig tree is smart, it will do everything it can to cooperate with the gardener and give the orchard owner the good fruit he wants. Pondering esoteric questions like “Why me?” diverts time and resources away from the final goal: produce repentance and return to fidelity! 

In August of 2005, I was living in Irving, TX, serving in campus ministry and teaching at the University of Dallas. I'd been a priest all of three months. You might remember a little natural disaster at that time called Hurricane Katrina. Dallas took in hundreds of refugees and the university housed as many of them as we could. The question everyone needed to ask was: why did God allow Katrina to cause such destruction to good ole Catholic Nawlins'? Some said that God punished NOLA b/c of the debauchery of Bourbon St. Some said He wanted to disrupt the homosexual party known as Southern Decadence. Others said that God was demonstrating His disapproval of the Catholic Church. All of these miss the point entirely. Katrina was a weather disaster that produced both natural and supernatural fruit—some good, some bad. The message of Katrina was crystal clear: the clock is ticking; the calendar is advancing month by month, and the day to be weighed and measured is coming. In fact, very natural disaster, every terrorist attack, every house fire, murder, fatal car accident, fall from a ladder, case of terminal cancer, or still birth sends a bright, shiny message: we live on gifted time, a reprieve from death counted in days, in hours; therefore, repentance must be the first good fruit that we produce. 

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  1. “You're missing the point, Fig Tree..." (chuckle)Hence the Holy 2x4!

    I enjoyed your take on this. Good point...that we often miss the point...

  2. Well said. All too often, we, as a society, and especially within the Christian subset, are focused on who is to blame for whatever evil we perceive, shaking our fist at this person, that group, or even God Himself. Each event, instead of producing a blame-game, should be a prompt for action; a chance to look at own lack of fruit or a chance to give the fruit we have to somebody else.