During the season of Lent, we are repeatedly warned in the readings in the sacred liturgy that a general and continuing attitude of repentance must characterize and condition our lives as Christians. Always, but especially in Lent, are we to live that third luminous mystery of the rosary, that is, we are mystically to hear loudly and clearly our Savior's continuous proclamation of the kingdom and call to conversion.
In the Gospel passage which is assigned for the Third Sunday of Lent in Cycle C of the Latin-rite liturgy (Luke 13:1-9), we again hear our Lord call out to us to repent. Saint Paul, in the second reading assigned for that Sunday and Cycle (1 Corinthians 10:1-12), prepares us for that call with the reminder that, although the Chosen People of the Old Testament all had experienced the special and quasi-miraculous help of God in their epic journey to the Promised Land, "yet God was not pleased with most of them and they were struck down in the desert", a Lenten lesson for each of us.
Jesus, the Christ-event, is the decisive and final intervention of God in human history. Though there could be a delay even lasting centuries, it remains true that "the great judgment and final decision are at hand." Our Lord tells His listeners that, when that judgment comes, full punishment will be exacted "to the very last mite", the mite being the smallest of all Greek coins. The words "until you have paid" in the Greek language clearly mean an eternal condemnation (Luke 12:54-59).
The Gospel story begins with the news about two sad happenings. The first of these incidents recounted by Saint Luke was about some ruthless action taken by Pontius Pilate in regard to a group of Galileans who had come evidently to offer sacrifices in the temple of Jerusalem and there fell afoul of Pilate, perhaps by their causing some kind of disturbance. This incident does not seem otherwise to be known to secular history. However, as the Jewish historian, Josephus, tells us with many examples, Pilate was a murderous Roman Procurator, quite capable of horrible acts of base cruelty.
The second sad event, the collapse of the Tower of Siloam and its fatal consequences, is also unknown to us from other historical accounts. However, during some archeological diggings in 1914 near the Pool of Siloam, south of the temple area, the foundations of a large tower dating from the time of our Lord had been discovered, and perhaps that was the fallen tower spoke of in the Gospel story.
Jesus used the recounting of those two tragic events to teach that the people who suffered death in those incidents "were not necessarily greater sinners than others", but that those massacres and that destruction were foreshadowings of the destiny of all Israel unless they were viewed as calls to repentance ("metanoia"). Moral evils, such as the actions of Pilate, as well as uncontrollable natural disasters, such as the collapsing tower, are the result of original sin, and are permitted by God for man's sanctification. "Suffering only crushes and is not salvific unless accompanied by a humble spirit of repentance and faith."
The fig tree is one of the most common trees in the Holy Land (Deuteronomy 8:8), Sacred Scripture speaks about that species usually being planted in and amongst the grape vines (1 Kings 5:5; Micah 4:4; Zechariah 3:10). The Bible also tells us that even in olden times figs were eaten both fresh as well as dried and pressed into cakes (1 Samuel 25:18; 1 Chronicles 12:41). The fig tree was used by the prophets as a sign or symbol of Israel (Hosea 9:10; Jeremiah 8:13). Our divine Lord occasionally spoke about fig trees and used them as an example. Their blossoms were a sign of springtime (Matthew 24:32; Mark 13:28; Luke 21:29-31). He warned us that figs cannot be gathered from thistles (Matthew 7:16).
It was probably in the line of the Prophet Jeremiah, who spoke of a sterile fig tree symbolizing the unfaithfulness of the Chosen People of the Old Covenant, that Jesus at one time cursed a fig tree which He found was all leaves but no fruit, and which because of the curse then withered up and died (Matthew 21:18-22; Mark 11:12-14). The incident of the cursed fig tree is not told in the Gospel according to Saint Luke. However, Saint Luke, who is sometimes called the "writer of the mercy of God", in next Sunday's Gospel passage, tells us of Christ's parable regarding an unproductive fig tree, which the owner of a vineyard wanted cut down, but which was saved, at least temporarily, by the pleas of his gardener, who begged him to spare it, so that he, the gardener, could dig around it and manure it. Then it might bear fruit in the future. If not, afterward the owner could cut it down.
It is clear that our Savior Himself is the pleading gardener of the parable, giving not only ancient Israel, but all of us, another undeserved chance for salvation. Hearing this parable during Lent, should strongly stimulate us, of course, to realize the eternal peril in which we stand unless we become and remain people of repentance and continual conversion. The Gospel pericope reminds us rather solemnly that it is quite possible for the time of God's grace to run out in our regard. In the parable "the urgency of the hour is stressed and the warning is plain."
The Apostle to the Gentiles tells us to "work out your salvation in fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). The reason for this requirement is stated by our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, who tells us, "The Christian Faith holds that creation has been damaged. Human existence is no longer what was produced at the hands of the Creator. It is burdened with another element that produces, besides the innate tendency toward God, the opposite tendency away from God. In this way man is torn between the original impulse of creation and his own historical inheritance."
Our need for a period of penitential practice such as Lent each year becomes more apparent in that context. Our wounded human nature cannot save itself. God's grace must be sought and invoked. The extra prayer, self-denial, and generosity to others that should mark our Lenten practices are themselves external graces of the Almighty, allowing us in our cooperation with them to regain and-or maintain the balance of our Catholic life, and avoid being numbered among those with whom God was not pleased, avoid being a fig tree destined to be cut down. A divine Gardener pleads with His Father for us, giving us an opportunity to bear the fruit God expects from the grace He gives us.