Gospel: Luke 13:1-9

The Tough Question

Why do people suffer in this life?

The problem of suffering is more than existential. It tests the very core of faith. Why does God allow so much suffering in the world? A loving, merciful God should not rule such a cold, ruthless world. "Something is wrong," critics of religion tell us. "Either God is not loving and merciful. Or, he does not have the power to control what he created."

Of course, we Christians have an answer. But it does not satisfy the critics. Simply, the answer demands change of the listener. God allows suffering to give we sinners time to reflect and change. Jesus gave this answer to those who presumed a different reason.

Popular Translation

1 At the same time Jesus taught the people, some people who were there told him about the Galileans Pilate had killed. 2 "Do you think these Galileans were greater sinners than all the other Galileans just because they suffered this fate? 3 I say, 'No!' Unless you turn back to God, you will also lose your lives. 4 What do you think about those eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them. Do you think they hurt God more than all the people living in Jerusalem? 5 I say 'No!' Unless you turn back to God, you will also lose your lives."

6 Then Jesus told them a parable. "A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard. He looked for fruit on the tree, but didn't find any. 7 So he said to the gardener, "Look at this tree! For the past three years, I've come looking for fruit on this tree. But, I don't find any! So, cut it down. Why does it waste good soil?'

8 'Sir,' the gardener replied, 'leave it alone for a year. I will dig a trench around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit, great! If it doesn't, then you can cut it down.'"

Jesus challenged his audience with some regional news and a parable. In his speech, he called upon his contemporaries to change.

Literal Translation

Jesus was teaching the crowds.

1 About the same time, some were present informing HIM about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate mixed with (the blood of) their sacrifices. 2 Having answered, HE said to them, "Do you think these Galileans were sinners beyond all (other) Galileans because (they) have suffered these (things)? 3 No, I say to you. But unless you repent, you will likewise perish. 4 Or, those eighteen on whom the tower in (the neighborhood of) Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were offenders beyond all the men living in Jerusalem. 5 No, I say to you. But unless you repent, you will likewise perish."

13:1 "About the same time" is literally "in the same moment" The word for moment, "kairos," usually means "at the right moment," and has theological overtones of God's judgement or metanoia. In this case, however, the word has a general sense of time.

"whose blood Pilate mixed with (the blood of) their sacrifices" This is a Hebraism. On pilgrimage, Jews would come to Jerusalem in order to offer sacrifice at the Temple. Many times they brought their own animals for sacrifice. When Pilate "mixed human blood with the blood of animal sacrifice," he had Jewish Galileans murdered or executed. Where they revolutionaries on their way to Jerusalem to cause a riot? Or, was this just a phrase to describe fellow Jews? The context does not tell us how literally or figuratively to take this saying. We do know Pilate moved against some from Galilee for an unknown crime or threat.

13:4 Siloam is neighborhood in Old Jerusalem, to the south of the Temple in the Lower City.

The regional news referred to a series of executions and an accident. The Galileans were executed most likely for revolutionary activities. The ruthless Pilate made sure they made good on their sacrifices [1-2]. Eighteen citizens of Jerusalem suffered from a building collapse [4].

At the time of Jesus, Jews believed that their fate was God's punishment for their sins; conversely, good Jews would escape such punishment. When those in the audience related news about his fellow countrymen, they assumed Jesus would agree that the fate of the Galileans matched their crimes. Through Pilate, God judged their actions swift and sure. But, Jesus compared the execution of the criminal with the tragedy of the innocent. So, Jesus preached otherwise. The bad were evil by choice. But, are the good were evil by presumption? Didn't the guilty and the innocent suffer the same fate?

Ultimately, Jesus implied, people cannot read the mind of God and understand his sense of justice. Nor should they try. Both the good and the evil suffer. God was God. And, his ways were mysterious.

People cannot understand why suffering exists, why divine providence works the way it does. But that does not mean they lack a means of action. The only option people have to face God's judgement was repentance: placing one's focus upon and trust in God.

6 HE told them this parable: "Some (man) had a fig tree, having been planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit, but did not find (any). 7 He said to the vine dresser, 'Look! (It has been) three years from (the time) which I (first) came looking for fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why does it waste (good) earth?' 8 But, having answered, he said to him, "Master, leave it one year, until (the time) when I can dig around it and spread manure. 9 And, if it indeed bears fruit in the future... But if not, you can cut it down.'"

13:9 " And, if it indeed bears fruit in the future..." This sentence, while incomplete, assumes a positive response. (See the popular translation above for an example)

The parable of the fig tree counterbalanced gloomy news with the hope that time had not completely run out. There was still time to change and that change should produce fruit. But the change would be painful and require help. The time to begin was now!

Not only was delayed judgment a glimmer of hope, the story implied the mediation of a helper. The gardener or vine dresser pleaded for a delay. So, Christians have always believed, Jesus interceded for the world with his Father. This was also part of the answer to the critic. Justice delayed allowed time for the sinner to repent and revealed the merciful mediation of God's only Son.

Catechism Theme: Suffering and the Test of Faith (CCC 163-165)

Faith gives us the first taste of the afterlife. In faith, we have a vision of life with God. An existence in pure justice and, at the same time, pure mercy. We will know ourselves as we truly are, but through the divine eyes of Love.

This time on earth, however, is a time of test. Not just against evil. But for faith. The problem of suffering presents us with such a test. Suffering is more than an intellectual puzzle to be solved. It challenges us to act. Either we reach out in the belief that God will help us on the path. Or, we fade into in cynicism.

Others have walked the path of test before us. Abraham, Mary, and Jesus himself. If we only look to their example, we can find inspiration and real help. Yes, suffering may shake us. But others have suffered and remained faithful. So can we.

What story of suffering and faith has inspired you? Why has it inspired you?

When we suffer, when others suffer, the choice of faith arises. Jesus used two reports of death to show the choice given. We might not know why suffering exists. But we can use suffering as a bridge to change. A chance to get closer to God.

As the parable of the fig tree implies, we not only have a choice. We have a helper. Someone to care for us during our struggles and our suffering. Someone greater than we, who came to serve us.

How do we answer the critic in the problem of suffering? With the choice of faith and the face of Christ. God does not abolish suffering to keep us at a distance. No, he allows suffering to bring us closer. And so his Son may be revealed to all.

So, the next time the problem of suffering raises its head, let us look the cross. The sign of faith. And the sign of the Savior.

What pain do you suffer from? Place that hurt in God's hands just for a few moments this day. And see what happens.