Here we are, already half way through Lent and I suspect that many of us will be struggling to maintain whatever Lenten discipline we set for ourselves. The first couple of weeks are usually OK, we can keep up the momentum and the focus but by this stage in the journey we can begin to feel a bit weary and to wonder why on earth did I decide to do that? And anyway, what’s the point? At the end of yet another week of news that is almost unbearable to watch, a week when we’ve watched in horror as an entire country has been devastated and left changed for ever, what does it matter that we are struggling with some small and probably temporary change in our own lives?
This morning’s Gospel doesn’t at first sight offer any encouragement. It is essentially a question and answer session. We’re confronted with the issue of bad things happening, we’re warned against making differences between people – and then we’re given a rather impenetrable steer towards a way forward.
The fundamental question Jesus points us towards is: why do bad things happen indiscriminately. Notice that this isn’t quite the more usual question in our society of why bad things happen to good people, this is a broader question, why do bad things happen and impact on whoever happens to be in their way. The reading reminds us very starkly that tragedy doesn’t impact on people in any hierarchical way according to their past behaviour, tragedy impacts on the good and the bad; the flood waters or the cyclonic winds or the terrorist bullets – none of those discriminates in any way, shape or form. The devastation is real regardless of the back story for the victims. The popular press may be quick to try to identify the most innocent of the victims, or to create a hierarchy of sadness, but the blunt truth is that the needless loss of any human life is a tragedy and should be mourned.
So what does Jesus say? In his translation of this morning’s Gospel the Jesuit scholar Nicholas King adds in a small word – King’s translation reads: unless you all repent… That additional word gives a clarity, an emphasis; it makes sure that none of us imagines that we are let off the hook.
This first half of this morning’s reading is clear about two things – there isn’t a hierarchy of victimhood and there isn’t a hierarchy of repentance. We could all be victims; and at the same time, we all need to repent. So let’s think about that word repent for a moment. Those of us who were here on Ash Wednesday were marked with ash and the priest used a form of words. Those words have changed a little in our current liturgy – we used to say ‘repent and turn to the Gospel’ and we now say ‘turn away from sin and follow Christ’. That phrase gives us our church’s definition of repentance – turn away from sin. This is about something more than feeling sorry that we did this or didn’t do that, this is about amendment of life, a change in direction, perhaps even a shift in our focus. It’s about both personal and collective repentance – things happen round about us and we are not divorced from them. They may happen in other, far away parts of the world. But they happen to people like you and me. They happen to communities like yours and mine. They happen to people at prayer and people at play. And it is so easy to feel helpless and hopeless.
Yesterday, I went to George Square to participate in an Edinburgh University response to the shootings in Christchurch. About 200 people came together; a Muslim student sang the call to prayer; shoes were laid out to remind us of the lost lives; words were spoken and silence was kept. What was really moving about the event was the gratitude expressed by the New Zealanders and the Muslims amongst us. People who have never been to New Zealand; people of other faiths and no faith came to support and show care and grief and respect. Nothing a terrorist does can ever take that away. The human to human response that was evidenced at that vigil gives us hope that goodness is inherently strong, that there is a collective desire to turn away from sin.
And that brings us to the second half of this morning’s reading. The fig tree that isn’t managing to bear fruit. The fig tree that is in danger of being cut down and replaced by something more productive. That fig tree is perhaps a good example of how easy it is to sink into victimhood – to look elsewhere for reasons we’re not flourishing. To play a blame game.
And we’re then reminded that the tree might not manage to reach its potential without help. The suggestion is that tree may be lacking in nutrients, may be longing for the food of life that will enable it to flourish.
The fig tree is an illustration of the parts of ourselves that have not yet been sufficiently nurtured and nourished, the parts of ourselves that need more time. The parts of ourselves that lack nutrients, that long to be filled with the food of life. And God, the gardener, God the creator and architect is offering that opportunity. Let’s give it some more time. Let’s wait and see whether there are any promising shoots emerging. Let’s see what difference the right nourishment might make.
The tree may not emerge into full fruit within that first year, but what a difference there will be if we simply begin to see the signs of growth. The signs that the care and the nourishment, the attention that has been paid to that rather sad fig tree might just be enough to turn things around. Slowly and painfully – bud by bud – but a move in a positive direction, a move away from sin and towards Christ.
Returning to the question of our Lenten discipline – whatever form that takes. Our thinking about the fig tree offers some help here. The tree of our intentions may well be needing a bit of water and TLC. And we may still feel as though nothing much is happening. The result of our efforts is not just in picking the fruits, there is perhaps even more value in the journey towards that end, the journey that forces us to pay attention, to be consistent, to care.
We care for ourselves; we care for people we know; we care for people we will never meet. And in so doing, we make a small impact on the potential for those shoots of hope to emerge.
Standing alongside our Muslim sisters and brothers won’t of itself change the world, but it might change how just one person sees us and equally importantly, it might change how we see them, and in turn how we see ourselves.