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Friday, March 9, 2007

Third Sunday of Lent C: "Hope for a Tree"


The Text: Luke 13:1-9 (NAB)
Some people told Jesus about the Galileans
whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.
Jesus said to them in reply,
"Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way
they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!
Or those eighteen people who were killed
when the tower at Siloam fell on them—
do you think they were more guilty
than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!"

And he told them this parable:
"There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard,
and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none,
he said to the gardener,
'For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree
but have found none.
So cut it down.
Why should it exhaust the soil?'
He said to him in reply,
'Sir, leave it for this year also,
and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it;
it may bear fruit in the future.
If not you can cut it down.'"
Commentary

Angeles, Baguio & Ormoc
In 1990 a killer earthquake with a magnitude of 7.7 in the Richter scale devastated the City of Baguio. The year after, 1991, two major natural disasters struck the country -- the eruption of Mount Pinatubo and the floods in Leyte, particularly in Ormoc City. Those were the worst of times.

I remember hearing a comment, certainly insensitive, that divine punishment has visited three sin cities, Angeles (vicinity of Mt. Pinatubo, had been notorious for its night spots), Baguio (city that does not respect Holy Week), and Ormoc (in Leyte, associated with the ostentatious wife of a dictator). These cities were then baptized with a punitive acronym "ABO" (Tagalog, "ash") and were compared with the biblical twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Bible and Natural Disasters
The thought that moral transgressions bring about natural disasters in a kind of cause and effect could be traced back to the Bible, especially in the prophets of Ancient Israel. In the middle of the 8th century B.C., the prophet Amos (chapters 7-9), in a series of vision reports (a form of delivering a prophetic message in Antiquity), warns that natural disasters will certainly strike and destroy the northern kingdom of Israel as proofs of God’s wrath over the former’s actions of injustice against the poor and the weak: "Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground!"(Amos 5:7)

Locusts, fire, epidemic of skin disease, famine, and earthquake, all coming from God, will devastate the land. By affirming that divine punishment is to be carried out by means of natural catastrophes, Amos laid the basis for a certain understanding of divine action in history that would be immensely influential but also very problematic.

Divine Punishment
We feel the same problem when we begin to interpret the Gospel text for this 3rd Sunday of Lent, Luke 13:1-9.

The writer Luke informs us of 18 people who were killed by accident when the tower in the old wall of Jerusalem near the pool of Siloam collapsed (13:4), perhaps due to an earthquake. Jesus uses this unfortunate accident to teach repentance in order to avoid divine punishment of a similar kind.

Although this accident is known only in Luke's Gospel and was not even mentioned by historians at that time like Josephus, it would reflect, however, a prevailing concept of divine punishment like that in Amos: natural disasters/accidents happen due to human beings' sinfulness.

Hope for a Tree
The moment we begin to question if such equation is reasonable, Luke has Jesus narrating a parable of a barren fig tree (13:6-9). The story seems to be an anticipated answer to a possible question on God's love and the meaning of natural disasters.

The parable is very simple. A farmer's fig tree remained fruitless for three years so he decides one day to cut it down. But his gardener makes a wise appeal: "Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down" (13:8-9). Patient is the gardener indeed. It's not difficult to imagine the "gardener" in Resurrection Narrative in the Gospel of John who apparently was the …. Risen Jesus (John 20:15).

The tree is given a fourth chance, quite unlikely in the book of Amos where sure punishment comes on the third offense. Note the common expression there: “For three transgressions and for four, I will not revoke the punishment” (see, for example, Amos 1:3).

Hope in Genesis 1-11
That such a chance does happen, not only once, not twice, but all the time is attested in the first eleven chapters of the first book of the Bible, in Genesis.

After Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they are driven out of paradise (chapter 3). But God makes clothes for them and puts the clothes on them (3:21). That's a simple gesture of care but it does show that God does not abandon them. They have been punished, but God does not abandon them.

In Genesis 4, we read the first violence in the Bible. A brother kills his own brother. Blood is not thicker than water. God condemns Cain, but the murderer complains that his punishment is too great to bear which includes himself being killed. God relents and puts a mark on Cain’s forehead and says nobody is allowed to kill him. God gives the murderer a chance.

Genesis 6 begins the grim story of spread of the sin of human race. "Every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually" (v. 5), as the author of the Book Genesis describes. God was even sorry that he created human beings. He decides to destroy humanity including the earth with a flood. But again God gives a chance. He saves Noah and his family and the animals.

Then we have the famous story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11. The people want to build a tower. There’s nothing wrong with that. Towers are common in ancient Near East. But a tower ("ziggurat") is not meant for human beings but for the gods and goddesses. That's why when the people build the tower of Babel to "create a name for themselves" (11:4), God is not pleased of such a human pride and self-aggrandizement. God and his council decide to confuse the mortals' languages and they did not understand one another. Yet God does not abandon these scattered peoples. He gives a chance. He chooses a particular group of people.

The rest of the Book of Genesis down to other four books of the Torah will be the story of a chosen people beginning with the story of Abraham and Sarah.


As the Book of Job says, "There is hope for a tree even if it is cut down" (14:7).


Reference:
Charles Conroy, Journeys and Servants (Quezon City: CBAP, 2003), pp. 1-22.

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