Forty-two years ago this week, Archbishop Oscar Romero's blood was mingled with
Christ's when he was gunned down behind the altar during Palm Sunday mass.
Was it because he was a more sinful priest than others in El Salvador?
Or the ones who will not escape the hospital that was bombed in Ukraine: do you think they were worse offenders than surviving citizens of Mariupol?
Jesus emphatically says no, which is both comforting and disturbing.
It's reassuring to know that God does not run the world like an efficient dictator or
mafia don, whacking the disobedient with precision.
When a child dies, it's not because God wants another angel in heaven or a message sent
to the parents.
When tragedy strikes, it's not because God has prioritized a divine plan over human life,
though that is how we often interpret the cross.
What if Jesus died, like Father Romero and so many Ukrainian civilians, senselessly,
This is part of what disturbs us about Jesus' no: he shatters our dogmatic faith in cause
and effect, our certainty that every effect must have a cause, and God must have a
plan, because God has to be in control, because someone has to be.
Our need for order, our yearning for meaning, our hard-wired insistence on life making
sense refuses to stare into tragedy and accept that it is random and pointless.
But Jesus defies and frustrates our frantic search for a predictable pattern or easy answer.
Asked about out-of-towners slaughtered by a ruthless politician, he reminds the
crowd about the locals who died in a no-fault accident that even the insurance
company claims is an "act of God."
No, I tell you.
No, I tell you, Jesus repeats.
And then he rudely changes the subject by holding up a mirror.
He pre-empts speculation about the fate of others with a call to self-reflection.
If you don't fundamentally change, you will die just like them.
Why did they die and Who's to blame is now How are you still alive?
Why me, Lord?
Why have I lived?
Why have I survived this long through no fault or worthiness of my own?
Life can't be entirely cause-and-effect, because I'm still standing.
Maybe Jesus flips the question so that we will stop asking it.
As soon as we hear repent or die, we're not so hot to trot on cause and effect
Our arguments about why we're not that bad and why we deserve to live, even if valid,
ring hollow beside the corpses of saints and children.
Turning over the question turns our stomachs so that we will throw it out.
Jesus is clearing out our thoughts and mental ruts to make room for new growth.
He moves us from altar to vineyard.
He moves us from fallen tower to standing fig tree.
He moves us from the horrors of yesterday to an impractical hope for tomorrow.
He moves us from making judgments to noticing irresponsible grace.
Both the fig tree and the vineyard are symbols of God's people.
Jesus mixes his metaphors, further frustrating our attempts to hold on to the
beloved illusion or desire that people get what people deserve.
Because we don't, except when we do.
Because we are sinners, who are also beloved saints.
So what's our owner supposed to do with us?
The vineyard was planted to produce fruit, and so was the tree, which doesn't
belong in a vineyard, since it steals water and soil and casts unhelpful shade,
as many of us do.
The plantings seem to be at cross purposes, and this diva fig tree that takes too much
and gives back nothing of value should indeed be cut down for the good of the
It's sensible stewardship, good gardening, along the lines of the pragmatic wisdom of the
leaders who ordered the hit on Father Romero.
It is summarized in John's gospel by the high priest Caiaphas: it is better for you to have
one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed. (John 11:50)
So the gardener got whacked.
And when he did, he still refused to cut down the tree, which now hangs over our
altar, the place where the gardener still digs in, year after year after year, to keep nourishing a hopeless people with hope.
Christ keeps saying no, I tell you, I will not cut them down.
Christ keeps saying no, I tell you, I will not abandon love and mercy and
forgiveness and second chances as my approach to lost causes.
Christ keeps refusing to give up on us...not because of how fruitful we are, not because of
how fruitful we might be, but because of who he is.