At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 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. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
This passage touches on one of those BIG QUESTIONS. The problem of suffering, or: "Why does God allow terrible things to happen to innocent people?"
The Old Testament contains many passages (the Prophets) that warn that if people did not turn from wickedness that judgement would come. The Psalmist too tells us that while wicked people may flourish for a time, the day of reckoning eventually arrives. Jesus says this too--"Stop trying to figure out if someone else is sinning and look to your own selves, because if you do not, God will not look the other way. " So sometimes bad things happen as a consequence of our actions. (I experienced that one just yesterday when a man with flashy lights on top of his car stopped me, and I did not like it one bit.)
Then there is that tricky book of Job, where along with some New Testament passages, we learn that sometimes there may be a reason behind bad things that happen, and that sometimes these testings and trials can be a learning opportunity or work something good in us. (And sometimes not. Bad things don't always make me "bitter or better." Sometimes they just make me tired. Careful of those cliches that can hurt people.)
But these questioners were not so much asking with genuine sorrow or perplexity. It seems that, once again, some were hoping to trap Jesus, to trip him up with a trick question--especially one with political overtones. If Jesus was not sufficiently scornful of the hated Romans, maybe the Jews would stop listening to him. Or if he did criticize Pilate, even better, because they could tattle on him.
This passage is one of the reasons we'd best be careful when attempting to assign reason to disasters (as happened in Haiti and Chili most recently). Perhaps there is some cause and effect, perhaps God's judgement does play a part...but Jesus is having none of it. He gets to the heart of the matter. It is not whether good or bad things happen. What really matters is how we choose to live, to respond, to be. The poor people who were victims of Pilate's horrible act, or those who were the hapless victims of a bad accident are not really what Jesus' questioners should have been concerned with.
Then the unsettling parable. It was long past the day when the owner should have been enjoying some of his wife's homemade fig newtons and his patience is gone. And yet, the servant shows "mercy" to the tree--just a little more time, a little more care, a little more tenderness. We tend to focus on the lack of fruit in this story. God is the owner and Jesus is the gardener.
But what if we are the impatient owner? Read it again with that thought in mind.
II Pet. 3:9:
"The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance."
If justice is what we really want, we would all be finished. Mercy is what we need. One more year. Finally, however, we have the goal of the wait--fruitfulness.
By reframing the original question, Jesus brings us to the heart of God--a God who will judge, but one who is persuaded to grant a little more time. It is not our responsibility to figure it all out. It falls to us to live our lives humbly before our Creator and to show love and care. God, and only God, will decide when, or if, judgement will come. Don't presume on the kindness; embrace the mercy; wonder about the justice, but we must not bad things be an excuse for failing to change our own hearts and embrace the surprising mercy of God.