We are not selling insurance here
2nd Sunday of Lent
In today’s Gospel the crowd is upset because Pilate, the Roman governor, had killed Galilean Jews in their synagogue during their service. This was a doubly bad outrage because Pilate had profaned their act of worship. The Jewish crowd wants to know from Jesus why God had not protected those who died. Had they been guilty of some grave sins? Was God punishing them?
Jesus reassures the crowd that the Galileans who died were no more sinful than any other Galileans. And he reminds the crowd of another recent tragedy, saying that the 18 who died when the tower collapsed in Siloam were no guiltier than others. Suffering in this life is not necessarily a result of one’s own sinfulness.
But, then Jesus seems to change His mind. He warns the crowd that if they do not repent, they too will perish. It sounds as though Jesus is contradicting Himself by now suggesting that they will in fact be punished for sinning and failing to repent.
Jesus is telling them, first of all, that they should not be thinking that they’re okay with God just because they have not experienced such calamities. Secondly, He is telling them that if they sin and don’t repent, they will perish—but the subtlety is that He is referring to the Final Judgment, not necessarily to a calamity in this life.
I have some important news for you about our faith: We are not selling insurance here. Sometimes people think that if they are pretty good Catholics and listen to God and go to Mass, that God will reward them by blessing and protecting them.
The risk in thinking that way is that when something bad does happen to us, we may immediately conclude that it is because we sinned or failed in some way—or because God let us down. We may become angry with God. We may stop going to Church for a while and even lose our belief in a God who loves us. At the very moment, in which we most need our God, we feel abandoned and alone.
Yet, think about what God the Father let His own Son suffer. Think about the journey of Jesus from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. First, He was celebrated by the people as the Messiah. He had His Last Supper with His closest disciples. He washed their feet as a sign of humility and service. One of those whom He trusted betrayed Him. He agonized and prayed in the Garden. He was arrested, tried, stripped of His clothes, whipped, made to carry a heavy cross, and crucified—the lowest and most painful of deaths. He took on all of our sins—yours and mine. Sin is a separation from God. How horrible and painful that sin must have felt to one who was man and God. He died and was buried, but rose gloriously on Easter.
That walk from Palm Sunday to Easter is a walk that we each make at times in our lives. We have days when everyone is praising us for how smart or good looking or athletic we are; days when we stoop to serve others; days when we feel betrayed by those whom we love and trust; days when we take the responsibility for the mistakes and sins of others; days when we feel that God has abandoned us, and days when we rise again from our worst defeats to new glory.
Being good Catholics does not save us from those ups and downs of life. We are not selling insurance here. We are not saying, “Be a good Catholic and be safe.”
In fact, God may let allow the best Catholics to suffer a bit more. Many of our greatest saints suffered. St. Teresa of Avila once said in a moment of frustration, “God, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.” Suffering can make us stronger. God will allow those who are mature spiritually to undergo tests of faith. After all, as a parent, who would not try to protect a baby or young child more than an adult son or daughter? As a new convert, I received so many graces and direct experiences of God that were like the baby food helping me toward a more mature faith. Now I must take more responsibility.
Look around. American Catholics have the same divorce rate as the US population as a whole. We are as likely to get sick, die of cancer, or go bankrupt. We are no more wealthy or successful in politics. Our Church is not free of sinfulness. We have had our abuse scandals. And as individual Catholics, we are not perfect or protected. If our faith were an insurance policy, no one would want buy it.
I’ll go one step further. I’m not even sure that our faith is insurance for getting into Heaven. I’m guessing that when and if we get to Heaven, we’ll find many Baptists, Lutherans, Jews, and even agnostics there. In fact, I am fairly confident that our God doesn’t want anyone to go to Hell unless they absolutely reject Him. He loves us each personally and individually. God doesn’t make junk, and He doesn’t want to leave any of His precious children by the side of the road.
So, why are we Catholic? What does the tough road that we walk offer us? Think about the parable of the fig tree that Jesus offers us in today’s Gospel. At first it strikes us as a bit off topic. Our Lord’s mind suddenly wandered or St. Luke forgot to put in some transitional language. But, of course, Jesus wants us to think about how the parable relates to what He was saying. We must connect the dots.
Jesus uses the parable of the fig tree to emphasize that God wants us to bear fruit—that is, good works. The Jews at the time of Jesus identified a decaying fig tree with evil deeds and spiritual decay. The prophets depicted the languishing fig tree as signifying the calamity of Israel due to her unfaithfulness to God. OK, so this seems again to be another sign that sinfulness leads to calamity and punishment.
But, Jesus says, He will be patient with us if we go a few years without producing fruit, although He expects us to produce good works eventually. Jesus Himself is the gardener pleading with His Father for more time for us to produce, offering to fertilize us with His Word and cultivate our ground with His Sacraments, most especially the Holy Eucharist. We don’t know how much time we have left to move from being that unproductive, dead fig tree to one abundant in good works.
So, again, what makes us special as Catholics? Good Catholics have a resiliency about the ups and downs of life. They credit God, not themselves, with the good that happens to them. And they know that if they are faithful to God, He will draw good out of an evil and painful situation. He will guide them. And good Catholics respond to the sufferings and calamities of others with their good works. How very often have we seen a good Catholic or Christian forgive someone who harmed them? How often has a good Catholic expressed faith in God’s Providence even in the face of disaster? And when tragedy strikes, such as that horrible earthquake in Haiti three years ago, how often is it that Catholics—such as Catholic Relief Services and Food for the Poor—are the very first there on the spot to help? For all the flaws of our Church, which is run by flawed human beings, there is simply no other organization on this planet that does more for justice and helping the poor.
The impact of all three stories—the Galileans, the people in Jerusalem who died when the tower fell, and the fig tree parable—is to call on Jesus' listeners and us to stop procrastinating and to start producing good works immediately because our lives are short, and we don't know when the end will come. The stories call upon us to weather the ups and downs of this life with faith that God sees the big picture.
In some mysterious way, too, being good Catholics in this life helps prepare us better for the eternal life to come. Jesus Himself talks about the greatest and least in Heaven. Will God reward us with a penthouse suite in His Mansion? Will we get a closer seat to Beatific Vision? Will Jesus have us over for private dinners? I have no idea. But I do trust that following God’s Will more closely now will help us live more joyfully in this life and in the life to come.