In the first, Jesus is talking about people who died too soon. One group was unjustly killed by Pilate. The other died in a freak accident. The question Jesus addresses is, why? Why did those particular people die, and not others? Did they do something to deserve their fate?
We struggle with the same question today. When bad things happen, we look for some explanation, some reason. We want to understand. We want life to make sense.
Last week, I read a newspaper article by a Christian woman on the so-called “prosperity gospel.” The basic idea of the prosperity gospel is that God will give us whatever we ask in faith, including health and wealth.
The prosperity gospel has some truth. God does invite us to pray in faith. God does promise that prayer is powerful and effective. God does offer us abundant life. God sometimes works miracles.
But people can take the prosperity gospel too far. People sometimes imply that faith guarantees a good outcome, that faithful prayers essentially compel God to give us what we ask. And the flip side of the prosperity gospel is the belief that bad outcomes are the result of a lack of faith.
But that is not true. Contrary to the prosperity gospel, bad outcomes are not the result of weak faith. The fact is, God does not offer us any guarantees. Good people sometimes suffer. Bad people sometimes prosper. We want the world to make sense. But that is not how God works.
So, in our gospel reading, Jesus asks, “Do you think that because the Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all the other Galileans? . . . Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Do you think that people always get what they deserve—good or bad, that people always deserve their fate—good or bad?
And Jesus answers, twice, in case we miss it the first time, “No, I tell you.” That is not how the world works. There is no guarantee. Sometimes bad things just happen.
The author of my article knows this all too well. She was recently diagnosed with stage four cancer. She is thirty-five years old and has young children. Unfortunately, we all know people like her, good people who face terrible situations.
And that is scary because it takes away our sense of control.
If everything were always fair, if people always got exactly what they deserve—good or bad—I could be safe. I would just have to be good. But since bad things sometimes happen for no obvious reason, I am at risk. We all are.
Jesus is teaching us a hard truth. We all live with radical uncertainty. We are all living on borrowed time. That is the warning in the first half of our gospel reading.
The second half of our gospel reading is a challenge, with a promise attached. It takes the form of a parable.
A man plants a fig tree, hoping for some figs. But after three years, he has still not seen any fruit, so he decides to cut the tree down. His gardener asks for a little more time. The gardener promises to fertilize the tree, in the hope that the tree might yet produce fruit.
That is the end of the story, and Jesus does not offer an explanation. Like so many of Jesus’ parables, it is a little cryptic.
But in context, it is not too hard to see what Jesus means. We are the fig tree. Like the fig tree, we may be cut down at any moment. Like the fig tree, we are living on borrowed time.
The challenge of this parable, the question this parable poses to us, is, what are we going to do with the time we have?
Life is an incredible gift. But there is no guarantee as to how long we will be able to enjoy it. So, how are we going to live? What kind of fruit are we going to bear? Will we bear good fruit in the time that God gives us?
Thankfully, we have help. Jesus does not promise that everything will be easy.
But Jesus promises to be with us, no matter what happens.
In our parable, we are the fig tree, and Jesus is the gardener. Jesus prepares the soil around us. Jesus gives us fertilizer. That is, Jesus showers us with grace and love, particularly when we are struggling, particularly when we seem least capable of producing fruit on our own.
The good news is that Jesus provides us with what we need. And then Jesus calls us to produce the fruit of faith and hope and love.
What does that fruit look like?
I have told some of you before about a man I met in the hospital many years ago. This man thought he was dying. This man did not need to be reminded that we all live on borrowed time. This man thought of his time as very limited indeed.
The man had asked to see a chaplain, so I paid him a visit. He volunteered that he had a son, but that he had not spoken to his son in a long time. Apparently his son had said something to him that he considered unforgiveable. And yet, this man clearly felt keenly the burden of being alienated from his son.
I do not know what happened to that man and his son.
But I do know that man was wrestling with the challenge of Jesus’ parable. He was like the fig tree. He had limited time. Whether he knew it or not, he was surrounded by Christ’s grace and love. And the question that he faced was, could he put down his burden? Could he let the love of God flow through him? Could he open himself up to the possibility of reconciliation? Could he produce the fruit of faith and hope and love in his life in the time that remained to him?
That is our question, too. We do not know how long we have. But Christ is with us, working in the soil of our lives, giving us the help we need, inviting us to more abundant lives even if we do struggle, even when we are afraid.
Our gospel reading invites us to open ourselves up to the love of God, to experience God’s grace and love in our lives, to share God’s grace and love with others, to know God more intimately. That is good fruit.
And as our lives bear that fruit, we can make the words of our Psalm our own. We can say, “My soul is content. . . when I remember you [God] upon my bed, and meditate on you in the night watches. . . . My soul clings to you; your right hand holds me fast.”
My prayer for us, this Lent, is that we will all bear good fruit, that we can all remember God upon our beds and meditate on God in the watches of the night, and that we can know the joy of clinging to God and, better still, of being held fast by God.
I pray this in the name of the one who gives us the grace we need. Amen.
 Kate Bowler, “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me,” New York Times Sunday Review, February 14, 2016.
Passage: Luke 13:1-9