On this day in 1924, the infamous “Tri-State Tornado” ripped through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, killing 695 people and wreaking $16.5 million in property damage. The one-mile wide monster, the most destructive twister in U.S. history, cut a 219-mile path over three hours, leaving thousands of survivors without food or shelter. Describing the aftermath, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, “The scene resembles that of a World War battlefield, except that on a battlefield the victims are men. Here they are mostly women and children.”
Naturally, such disasters raise imponderable questions about God. Luke 13 opens with Jesus addressing the divine justice behind two tragedies that grabbed the headlines of his day. Was God condemning the victims because they were worse sinners than the rest of the masses? In emphatically answering “No,” Jesus took out his theological scissors and cut the cord between cause and effect. In the algebra of life, every sinful deed is not balanced with a divinely-sent act of judgment.
But if there were listeners that day who drowsed in spiritual complacency, Jesus delivered a rude wake-up call. “Unless you repent,” he warned, “you will all perish as well.” Jesus could have launched into a sermon, but instead told a story—a parable about a fig tree that wouldn’t yield figs. The tree kept taking from the soil, but wouldn’t give what it was created to give. The lesson was clear. Like a doting nurseryman, God has nurtured us with spiritual fertilizer and given us ample time to produce something that matters for eternity. Three years is the usual period for a new fig tree to set fruit. In the parable, after the tree misses the deadline for bearing figs, even more patience is shown as the swing of the ax is delayed.
Lent is associated with penitence. But mere regret won’t cover our sins. Jesus commands that we repent— radically turn from our selfish ways or perish. It sounds harsh, but actually is a statement of love. Christ is using this hard saying as a shepherd’s crook to guide strays into the fold of God. This isn’t so much the threat of hell, but a dire promise that those who refuse to be fruitful for God will be fruitless for all time, according to the direction they themselves have chosen.
The story of the fig tree provides salient lessons for all of us as we have been put on pandemic alert. Are we hunkering down with no thought of others, hoarding supplies we don’t need while others are going without, grabbing but not giving – or are we imparting encouragement, serving others, rallying people with hope and courage? The latter group will flourish; the former will perish.
They say, “The truth hurts.” Maybe so—but Jesus said the truth will also set us free (John 8:31-32).