In the Gospel for Sunday Jesus sounds angry and threatening. “Repent or you will perish.” cursing a fig tree, the tower at Siloam falling on eighteen people; etc. Is the loving Lord we have known actually furious and offended?
Let us look.
News comes to Jesus that Pilate has murdered a number of Galilean people. Still worse, Pilate has mixed their blood with that of sacrificed animals. This is a terrible, gruesome story, worthy of denunciation. Jesus as we know him should object.
But he draws a point from it:
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!
What is the logic here? It seems you don’t have to murder people in order to get punished. You can qualify just by failing to repent!
Why is Jesus so harsh? Is he an angry savior? Was he punishing in the same way that a lot of people think the God of the Old Testament was? Unforgiving, warlike, furious, demanding an infinite sacrifice to make up for humankind’s sins against an infinite God?*
No. On the contrary, when we look at the First Reading, we do not find an irate God at all. Instead, we find a tender one, grieving over the troubles of his people.
I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt
and have heard their cry of complaint
against their slave drivers,
so I know well what they are suffering.
Therefore I have come down to rescue them.
Miraculously, God speaks these words to Moses from the midst of a burning bush that is not consumed by its own flames! He begins to instruct Moses about how to rescue God’s people. Great compassion from the depths of the transcendent God.
Didn’t Jesus have the same kind of compassion for his own people?
He tells a parable in the second half of the Gospel that might help us understand.
An orchard owner orders his gardener to chop down a sadly unproductive fig tree. The laborer advises him to leave it one more year and see if, with some tending, it will bear fruit. Give it one more chance.
Who does the heartless orchard owner represent? We always assume that it is God. We half-remember the story in Mt 21:18-19 of Jesus actually cursing a fruitless fig tree.
But, on the contrary, Jesus is not the orchard owner at all, but the gardener, asking mercy for the disobedient fig tree.
Isn’t this exactly what he is doing when he warns that the people will perish if they don’t repent? Isn’t he shouting at all of us to turn back to God in order to avoid destruction? Yes. He is “startling the poor sheep back” from the edge of the cliff (to paraphrase the poet Hopkins), and you and I are the sheep.**
There is still reason to fear God, of course, since he is infinite and infinitely more fiery than the burning bush. But the closer you come to the real center of God, the more your fear turns to gratitude. You are not scalded or consumed by the divine fire—you are warmed and gentled at its welcoming hearth.
Jesus’ tough love leads us to that hearth.
* There is a character called an “apteryx (a wingless bird with hairy feathers)” in the American comic strip “BC.” One day it makes a nasty comment to the snake. The snake answers, “How can you treat a fellow creature with such disdain?” The bird replies, “I read the Old Testament, buddy.”
** “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil” (John 3: 16 ff).
John Foley, SJ
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