In the Gospel for Sunday, Jesus, sounds angry and threatening and we must talk about that.
“If you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” “The tower at Siloam fell on them”; “Cut down the fig tree,” 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. Such a gruesome story is worthy of denunciation.
Instead Jesus draws a point from it:
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!
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!
So, is Jesus truly an angry savior? Angry in the same way people think that God was in the Old Testament? Unforgiving, warlike, furious, demanding an infinite sacrifice to make up for humankind’s sins against an infinite God?*
But 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.
Lovely. God instructs Moses about how to rescue the people. Great compassion from the depths of the transcendent God.
Didn’t Jesus have the same kind of compassion for his own people? Yes. He gives 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 gardener 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 here, on the contrary, Jesus is not the orchard owner at all, but the gardener, asking mercy for the disobedient fig tree!
When he warns the people that they will perish if they don’t repent, he is shouting at all of us to turn back to God in order to avoid destruction! He is “startling the poor sheep back” from the edge of the cliff (to paraphrase Hopkins, the poet**).
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 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.
Finger of a tender of, O of a feathery delicacy, the breast of the
Maiden could obey so, be a bell to, ring of it, and
Startle the poor sheep back!
is the shipwrack then a harvest,
does tempest carry the grain for thee?
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).