There is no nice way to say this. We are all going to die. And that is that.
Lent is a little about thirst and hunger. People discuss what they may eat and what not, how to fast and why, compare notes and feelings.
And people want to know — or at least say so — what the professionals in trade will say about what is right. That happens all the time.
So the people ask Jesus, their teacher, the great question of why people die violent deaths, who is to blame, and what the right answer is. They know Jesus is from Galilee, they would like to test what this new teacher says.
They told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices (13.13). And watched his reaction.
Jesus does not mince words here. He went full-blown prophet on them.
He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. (13.2-3)
It is always easier to think about them, whoever they might be: occupation forces, religious extremists, white supremacists, you name it, as the ones who do evil things to other them, preferably far far away.
Jesus turns this question inside out and upside down. It has never been about them, it has ever been about you. All have sinned equally much or equally little to merit death, sin is not the measurement here. Grace is.
Jesus says — unless you repent, you will perish,– and says it twice in the passage (13.3,5). Stunning words, echoing the great prophets through the ages, reminding God’s people that there is a way out of perishing. Isaiah speaks much about that in Chapter 55.
Jesus tells a story. Of horticulture, it seems, tending a fig tree.
The tree has an owner and a gardener, and no fruit for three years. Such an unproductive tree. Like an unrepentant heart, it bears no fruit. The owner is quick to pass judgement. Cut it down, he says. It consumes the resources, not giving anything back. Maybe plant an olive tree there, or a pomegranate. The owner has the power of life and death over the tree.
How do you think the fig tree feels now? How does it feel to be a tree, unable to run away, and hear the words — cut it down? And there is nothing, nothing at all the tree can do.
Then the gardener pipes up. Have mercy on the tree, he says to the owner. I will feed it, and water it, and tend it. You lose nothing, you stand to gain something, figs in this case. The gardener offers a period of grace to both the owner and the tree.
Imagine the relief the tree feels. Silently, it resolves to bear all the fruit it can the next season, and probably all the seasons in the world.
That is what repentance does. It opens the heart towards God and His grace. It allows the heart to be fed and watered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus quietly reminds his listeners of the words John spoke at the river of Jordan, — Bear fruits worthy of repentance (Lk. 3.8).
In a Christian’s life, repentance means returning to the purity of Baptism, when the water of grace washed the sins away.
Baptismal vows — rejecting the devil and all rebellion against God, renouncing the deceit and corruption of evil, repenting of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour;
turning to Christ as Saviour, submitting to Christ as Lord and coming to Christ, the way, the truth and the life — call us higher up and deeper in into communion with God, by the grace of whom we live, even if we die.
Lent is the time to ask the question: do you hunger? do you thirst for the grace of God? Will you stand still for the time your gardener needs to dig around you and to feed your roots? He will dig up the hard ground of your heart, and put the manure of your pain and hurt underground, turning that into a source of strength by His grace.
And then, you will bring forth fruit in season.