+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Streams will not curb their pride
The just man not to entomb,
Nor lightnings go aside
To give his virtues room
These lines, written by Matthew Arnold in his poem Empedocles on Etna, get to a truth which we know all too well: bad things happen to good people. We know this so well that while we may still struggle to see God’s hand in such situations, we would nonetheless be shocked to find that the average Jew of Jesus’ day believed something quite the opposite.
This is why they come to question Jesus about those “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” Most of Jesus’ contemporaries believed in something called a deuteronomic view of history. Some of you have heard me mention this before, but for those who haven’t, such a view holds that the righteous are invariably rewarded by God and the wicked invariably punished by God, and if you’re experiencing pain or sorrow in this life it’s likely that you did something to bring it on yourself. Those who were slain by Pilate were presumably of the righteous sort. They were making proper sacrifices to the God of Israel, which from an Old Testament perspective embodied righteousness. This should have led, according to the deuteronomic view, to prosperity and security rather than death at the hands of a tyrant.
Of course, this isn’t how it works. Job had figured that out, and Jesus knew it all too well, as he, though sinless, was drawing ever closer to his passion and death. But Jesus makes an interesting move in this morning’s Gospel. He acknowledges that bad things happen to good people, but instead of trying to explain why this was the case he proceeded to call those around him to repentance, warning them “except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
You see, even though good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people, our actions are not without consequences, in this world and the next. This is because as moral creatures, as beings made in the image of God, our own thoughts and actions affect us at the deepest level, which is to say that what we do affects our very souls. We prayed in this morning’s Collect “that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.”
While we can do good and not necessarily experience God’s beneficence any more than the next person, while we can do ill and not necessarily feel the wrath of God within our lifetime, both courses have profound effects on our souls. In an 1819 letter to his brother and sister-in-law, John Keats wrote “Call the world if you please, ‘The vale of Soul-making.’ Then you will find out the use of the world.” In other words, life and all of the choices it throws at us gives us the opportunities to harm or help the growth of our souls, to either stagnate (thanks to sin) or to grow (thanks to love) into the fullness of Christ.
Jesus doesn’t use such a modern term as “Soul-making”, but he gets at the same thing by use of a culturally significant metaphor:
A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then he said unto the dresser of his vineyard, ‘Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none. Cut it down! Why cumbereth it on the ground?’
Here, Jesus is commenting on the soul of a society, as it were. The soul of Israel, cast as a fig tree (then a popular symbol of Jerusalem) had withered. The tree of the culture had not born the good fruits of righteousness. For three years the gardener had seen no fruit. For the three years of our Lord’s earthly ministry he had been rejected by the children of Israel and was about to be crucified. For the next few centuries the Roman Empire, which executed our Lord, was to live in relative peace and prosperity, while faithful Christians would be assailed by those who wished them dead.
Yet it is not the body so much as the soul whose health is most important and whose salvation is paramount. The withered tree may be spared up while the fruitful tree is cut down by the merciless vine-dressers of this world. Even so, the good vinedresser, our Lord Jesus, cares for the spiritual fruit, which is the faith, hope, and love borne by the souls of the faithful.
And thanks be to God, that the gardener in the vineyard of the faithful is a patient gardener. Here again the words of the gardener to the vineyard owner:
‘Lord, let [the fruitless tree] alone this year also, till I shall dig about it and dung it. And iff it bear fruit, well; and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.’
Just so does our Lord Jesus plead to the Father on behalf of wayward souls. The patience and unbounded mercy of God will give us a little longer, another year, another twenty, in hopes that we too may bear the good fruits of righteousness. He is kind in giving us sustenance in the Sacraments, as the gardener fertilizes the soil around the tree- sustenance our souls require to bear the fruits of faith, hope, and love.
God is patient, but we’ve not all the time in the world. As the psalmist put it:
The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
We have only a limited time in which to permit God to let us grow, in which to take heed of our souls and the fruits we are capable of bearing with God’s help. May we then, “deeply aware of the shortness and uncertainty of life” but sincerely thankful for the same, be ever mindful of our need and of the power of Christ to tend our souls and help them grow if with humility and repentance we permit him.
Let us pray.
O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered: Make us, we pray, deeply aware of the shortness and uncertainty of human life; and let thy Holy Spirit lead us in holiness and righteousness all our days; that when we shall have served thee in our generation, we may be gathered to our ancestors, having the testimony of a good conscience, in the Communion of the Catholic Church, in the confidence of a certain faith, in the comfort of a religious and holy hope, in favor with thee, our God, and in perfect charity with the world. All this we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.