Ever wanted to ask Jesus why bad things happen to good people? Well, some of the crowds that listened to him teach and preach wanted to know the same thing. So they brought the worst possible case they could find, and it is a pretty terrible one. The history books aren’t exactly clear on all of the atrocities committed in Jesus’ day, but there are plenty to chose from. It seems that this was a fairly minor incident in the big scope of things, but it was shocking enough to get folks talking. Pilate killed some Jews while they were in the midst of making sacrifices to God, thus mixing their blood with the blood of the sacrifice. They are even noted to be Galileans, perhaps friends or kin to some of Jesus followers, the majority of whom are from Galilee. This is a pretty gruesome incident. Violence in the middle of God’s house, in the middle of worship. Jesus answers part of their question, saying these bad things did not happen because of some specific bad sin on the part of the folks who were killed (note that Jesus does not say they were good or sinless, but that they are no more sinful than anyone else). This was not some kind of retribution by God, but that simply amplifies the part of the question Jesus doesn’t answer because now we know these people really were decent people to whom bad things happened. Then Jesus ups the ante, in an effort to circumvent arguments about evil (ie the role of Pilate), and he mentions a natural disaster where a tower fell and crushed some people (where he again affirms the relative innocence of the victims). Instead of laying out some sort of systematic way of handling the question of theodicy (God and the problem of evil) Jesus swings the conversation in a totally different direction. He warns the questioners that they must repent or face demise. At first it appears Jesus is suggesting that they will die specifically like the others. But physical death is not something repentance spares us from, and even Jesus, who has no need of repentance, dies a physical death. So he must be talking about the spiritual and eternal here. It is not enough to live a generally good life, no more sinful than our neighbor. Instead Jesus calls us to a higher level of existing in the here and now, and it starts with repentance. A powerful theme for the season of Lent.
Jesus then uses the fig tree parable to demonstrate that all is not lost, there is time to repent, but beware of waiting because the ax will fall. Most importantly he says that repentance will lead to fruitfulness. This isn’t the way we usually think about fruitfulness, but the imagery is almost unmistakable. When we repent we, by God’s grace, get rid of the crap in our lives. The gardener gets rid of crap by burying it in the ground around the tree. But repentance leads not simply to emptiness and a lack of wrongness, but fullness so great that fruitfulness is the result. This also is the lesson of Lent. We do not fast and repent simply to avoid the negative, but so that the positive characteristics of our Lord may become more vibrant in our lives.