Recently, there was a very troubling report in the newspaper. A politician who held elected office in a local municipality had been accused of a minor ethics violation. The politician claimed that it was the result of a thoughtless mistake. The person making the accusation was not satisfied with the politician’s explanation and continued to pursue the matter. During the investigation, it came to light that the accused politician had a long history of misusing the power conferred by public office. Eventually, it turned out that the politician’s colleagues knew about all the politician’s misdeeds and had, in fact, been covering up the politician’s crimes for several years.
The whole situation is deeply disappointing; every voter should feel utterly betrayed by the dishonesty, corruption, and cronyism that is endemic in politics in this country. Every voter has the right to protest these injustices; we deserve better! Every voter should feel righteous indignation and demand the harshest punishment possible for all involved!
Or perhaps not.
The parable of the fig tree in today’s Gospel reading had its origins in the prophet Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard. In Isaiah’s song, God condemned the people of Judah and Jerusalem for their failure to grow in virtue; the people had been given countless blessings by God, but they remained faithless. The fruitless vineyard in Isaiah’s song represents the faithless lives of the people.
The parable in Luke’s Gospel refers to the faithless residents of Jerusalem during Jesus’ lifetime; Jesus likened them to a fruitless fig tree. They were “planted” by God and given meticulous care. Despite God’s attention, however, they failed catastrophically; they were neither faithful to God nor to their neighbor.
In the parable, Jesus suggested that those faithless people might respond to mercy, that is, to further care. The gardener in the parable offered to fertilize the barren fig tree with manure. I’m certain that the crowd who heard this parable were very entertained by the gardener’s suggestion to spread manure on faithless sinners. Wouldn’t we love to be able to do the same with those we judge to be morally deficient? Unfortunately, the desire to shame or harm others comes at an enormous cost.
In order to understand Jesus’ parable, it is necessary to understand its surrounding context in Luke’s Gospel. The parable of the barren fig tree follows immediately after references to two recent tragedies in Jerusalem. Evidently, Pontius Pilate had executed a group of Galileans who had come to Jerusalem for a religious feast. The crowd seems to have been gloating over the deaths and speculating that Pilate’s harsh justice was Divine punishment for the Galileans’ sins. Then, Jesus adds the story of the tragic deaths of a group of construction workers. His perspective on both tragedies was summed up in his words to the crowd, “Do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?” (Lk 13:4) He continued, “By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” (Lk 13:5)
Jesus wasn’t suggesting that the crowd ignore injustice in the world. Rather, he was pointing out the cost of gloating over other people’s failings. As the only way to condemn a person for her or his sins is to ignore one’s own sins, condemning another is possible only at the cost of becoming indistinguishable from the person one has condemned.
It is normal to be offended by injustice; further, it is normal to want to see injustice redressed. The Christian Faith requires neither that we live in denial about evil in the world nor that we despair of seeing injustice rectified. Rather, the Christian Faith requires both that we do not live in denial about our own injustice and that we strive to repent of our moral failings. If we are to take seriously the Faith we profess, then we must be offended equally by our own injustice and the injustice of others; lacking this, our indignation about moral evil is empty and false.
It isn’t possible to condemn another person without bringing condemnation on oneself. Jesus knew this; he also knew that human nature loves to ignore this obvious truth.
Do you think that corrupt politicians are the only corrupt people on the planet? Do you think that the people whose behavior offends you are the only offensive people alive today? Do you think that the people who elicit righteous indignation from you are the only ones not living decent, just lives?
When Jesus told this parable castigating the people of Jerusalem for their many failures, he hoped that his hearers would take responsibility for their own moral and religious failures. He said, “If you do not repent, you will all perish!” (Lk 13:5) If you are offended by injustice in the world, you should be more offended by your own injustice; and if you are offended by your own injustice, you should do what’s necessary to rectify your failings.