Are my troubles a punishment from God?

Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree by Alexey Pismenny

(The icon above by Alexey Pismenny depicts all three scenes in today's gospel passage: click on the image for a larger version.

Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent
(Scriptures for today's Mass)

Audio for homily

Although we live in the 21st century we can, at times,
revert to a rather primitive view of the universe.

Over the past month, for instance, in spite of our understanding
of high and low pressure systems in the atmosphere,
some folks spoke and acted as if snowfall is the work of storm gods
whom we’ve angered and who are punishing us in return.

I don’t exclude myself from this tendency.
We’ve had three weekends in a row of bad weather,
paired with school vacation.
I consider the impact of all this on:
the weekend Mass attendance;
on getting out our Lenten materials out to everyone;
-- and on the collection!
and I find myself wondering “Whose side is God on?”

It’s so easy and primitive to think that the hand of divinity
plays the weather for us or against us.
But I’m snapped back to scientific reality
every time someone asks me, in the face of a snow storm,
“Hey, Father – can’t you do something about this?”

A similar reverting to the primitive can happen
when difficulties and distress weigh heavy upon us.

The more critical the situation, the more easily we’re tempted to ask,
“Why is God doing this to me?
What did I do to deserve this?
Is this happening because of the time when I… (fill in the blank…)”

Does God punish us for our sins by sending us
disease and disaster?
trials and tribulations?
disappointment and distress?

Jesus answers those questions in today’s gospel
and his answer is, “No.”

Did those particular Galileans suffer because their sins
were greater than their neighbors?

Were those who were killed by the tower that fell in Siloam?
more guilty of sins than others who weren’t harmed?

Problems, accidents, illness, crises, disappointments, hurt and pain:
these visit every human life precisely because every life is human
which is to say
that every life is fragile, weak, vulnerable and mortal.

My difficulties are not punishment from God – even though,
and Jesus is clear on this as well -
it’s certainly possible that some of my pain and problems
result from how I live my life:
how I fail to care for my mind, my body, my soul;
how I fail in faithfulness to others;
how I fail in being honest and just;
how I fail in respecting and reverencing life and its gifts;
how I fail in being generous with what I have.

God doesn’t punish our infidelities with infirmities.

But there are times when our infidelities
lead to pain and distress.

Jesus calls us here to look at our failures, our sins,
and, with his help and mercy, to have a change of heart.
The word he uses is “Repent!”
What he means is, “Turn things around. Turn back to me.”

And the parable of the fig tree here reminds us that he’s patient,
that he understands how hard it can be to do this.

Here’s this fig tree that bears no fruit
and the owner wants to cut it down.
But the gardener wants to give the tree at least one more year
to “turn around,” to produce good fruit.

Jesus is the gardener, giving us yet another opportunity
to repent.

Jesus is teaching us two things here.
our difficulties are not punishment from God.
we are called to bear fruit and we’ll be held accountable if,
even with God’s help, we fail to turn our lives around.

This is something for the cardinals gathering in Rome to remember.
And it’s something for bishops and pastors
and for the people of the church around the world to remember.

It’s always the year, the season, the day to repent,
to turn things around, to turn back to the Lord.

Lent is a particular time for us to look at ourselves
and do some pruning, some cultivating, some fertilizing,
and to see where and how we need to repent,
where and how we need to ask God to help us “turn around,”
to turn back to him and what he asks of us.

In a few moments we’ll turn to the Lord’s Table
and there he will cultivate us with the help of the Eucharist,
with the grace of his Body and Blood in Communion.

To keep us from being cut down for our sins,
he allowed himself to be cut down
and nailed to the Tree of the Cross
that he might bear fruit
and feed us with his mercy and pardon.

Pray with me that this Lent will be a season for repenting,
for cultivating, for turning our hearts around,
for turning back to the Lord.


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