Fig Trees and Repentance

Photo by Kristof Rasschaert on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”

If Jesus didn’t ask this question, others surely would have, or at least hinted at the idea somewhere along the way in the conversation. We are well aware of those who view tragedies as deserved, those who link calamities with hidden sins that need avenging. After all, those louder than life, self-professed preachers say this often enough, and likely have convinced more people of this connection than we would like to admit — maybe, sometimes, even convincing ourselves.

Because while we know it is not true, we also know that there’s a place deep down inside us all, that space where secrets reside, that wonders, that questions, what did I do? Could I have done something differently? Why is this happening to me? What justifies this suffering? What did I do wrong? The issue of theodicy will never go away. But, the hard thing is, we just never know when we will have to face it yet again. It comes to the surface when we least expect and certainly, never when we are ready, as if we ever could be.

There has been plenty of late in our world to go down this road, trying to make sense of disasters and devastation and heinous acts of hate. And in our attempts to understand, to put these events into a perspective that somehow makes them more palatable or comprehensible, we all too often find ourselves doing the very thing we despise — locating explanations for such ruin and wreckage in that which provides more convenience or comfort. Everyone else is more in line for divine judgment, right? Everything else can be explained by divine judgment, right? Furthermore, humanity’s history of casting blame on victims is well documented. People’s penchant to find fault in that which ignores the obvious is a constant.

And so, Jesus does not leave us to ponder the question of theodicy very long, likely because it won’t get us anywhere. It’s an unsolvable, or, it’s an issue of our own making because of our need for an explanation; our need for a reason. The inclination is understandable, of course. Where is God in these instances that expose the worst of the sins of humanity? Where is God in these instances when we come to the full realization of just how unpredictable life is, how quickly life can come to an end? Where is God in these instances where it seems that the world itself has turned against God?

So instead, Jesus turns the conversation to an issue we likely use theodicy to avoid — the need for our own repentance. It’s a move that should catch us by surprise. We likely do not see it coming. And, it probably makes us uncomfortable. For what do we need to repent? What does repentance have to do with theodicy? What does repentance have to do with the inexplicability of disasters, whether natural or human-made?

The massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, this past week reveals just how desperately we need to repent; how determinedly we need to repent, especially in the midst of and in response to tragedies such as the shooting at the Al Noor mosque. In the many articles about and commentaries on the unspeakable horror at the Al Noor mosque, was the following analysis:

“Upon learning about the massacre in Christchurch, a Muslim friend messaged me, ‘How will we keep our kids safe?’ I didn’t have a good answer. But I know the threat we’re facing isn’t just individual terrorists. It’s the global ideology of white nationalism and white supremacy. We have to take it seriously, and call out politicians, academics and media personalities who give it a platform under the guise exploring of both sides, fostering debate or avoiding political correctness.”1

Repentance is necessary for our silence instead of calling a thing what it is — and then actually doing something about it.

Repentance is necessary for how we keep on making excuses for horrific acts such as this instead of getting to the real issues that perpetuate environments in which events like the shooting in Christchurch can keep on happening.

Repentance is necessary for how we continue to ignore the truth and refuse to connect the dots.

Repentance is necessary for our complicity and complacency, for our explanations and enabling.

Jesus knows this about us. We will always find a way to justify ourselves before seeking justice for others. We will always find a way to protect power over people. And we will always find a way to turn the spotlight on others before taking a good, hard look at ourselves.

In the end, we need to repent for the ways in which we consistently take advantage of God’s patience and God’s grace, as the parable of the fig tree suggests.

The world cannot afford our barrenness any longer.