By Femi Aribisala
Jeremiah has probing questions for God: “Why are the wicked so prosperous? Why are evil people so happy?” (Jeremiah 12:1). Habakkuk also interrogates God: “Why do you fold your hands and do nothing while the wicked oppress the righteous?” Indeed, why are some people blessed while others are troubled?
The common assumption is that we get what we deserve, and our sins are responsible for our pains and sufferings. But often, people suffer because of the sins of others and not because of their own sins. Jesus was not wounded for his own transgressions. He was not bruised for his own iniquities. He suffered because of our sins.
Sin often hurts the guiltless. Many suffer not because of their sins, but because of those of others. David committed adultery, but it was his innocent child that died. He transgressed by numbering Israel, but it was the Israelites and not David that were killed.
Call to repentance
The people of Jerusalem came to Jesus and asked him about the Galileans that Pilate massacred. “Did these people die because of their sins?” Jesus sidestepped their question by bringing it nearer home.
“What about the eighteen people here in Jerusalem who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Did that calamity happen to them because they were worse sinners than other people in Jerusalem?” The answer is emphatically: “No!” Nevertheless, Jesus insists the same thing would happen to his interrogators if they don’t repent of sin.
But if the tower did not fall on the dead because they were worse sinners than others, why then will others perish if they remain in sin?
They will perish because there is a purpose to disasters, even as there is a purpose to everything under the sun. Every disaster we see or hear about is a reminder of the judgment of God. It is not designed to tell us we are special or exempted. It is designed to bring us to repentance because it did not happen to us: “The goodness of God leads you to repentance.” (Romans 2:4).
God has a one-track mind. Sin, sin, sin. Jesus calls sinners to repentance. In this fallen world, disasters are routine. God insists we should respond to them by repenting of sin.
In Jesus’ parable of the unfruitful fig tree, the gardener was fed up with the tree. He says: “Let’s remove it and plant another tree in its place; it is just taking up room that could be used more productively.” “No,” replies the owner, “give it another year. Add manure. See whether it will respond to some goodness.”
Trees often represent men in scripture. Therefore, Jesus is saying to God: “Let’s wait for another year to see if this man will finally repent and become fruitful.”
God did not create us for ourselves. He created us for his own purposes: “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10).
We are created to bear fruit. However, a fig tree does not eat its own figs. When a tree bears fruit, it is for others to eat. Our good works are not for our own benefit. Don’t expect to get any reward from God for any good work you do. Don’t expect it to earn you exemptions from the rigours of life. Don’t even expect any thank you.
Jesus says: “When you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’” (Luke 17:10).
Blessing of goodness
There is something strange about this parable, and about all Jesus’ parables. The fig tree is unproductive. The gardener would have it cut down. But the owner of the vineyard is patient and merciful. “Let us give it some special attention. Let me dig around it and put some manure to encourage it. Then if it still does not produce any fruits, we will cut it down.”
This means: “Let us take special care of the unprofitable man. Let us shower him with love. If after all that he still does not respond, then we will cut him down.”
And so you have a peculiar situation where in the garden, it is the unproductive tree-man that is getting all the attention. He is the one receiving the blessings of goodness. (Psalm 21:3). He is the one always giving testimonies in church.
The other trees in the garden may become jealous. What they don’t know is that the blessings he is receiving are not rewards for good behaviour. As a matter of fact, they result from his bad behaviour. They are designed to lead him to repentance.
Jesus’ parable challenges some common assumptions. People don’t always get what they deserve. People undergoing trials may have been fruitful believers. It may be that they are simply being pruned by their trials so that so that they can bear even more fruit. However, pruning is unpleasant. It is painful.
“But why should I have to go through all this trouble just so that some people can eat more of my fruit?” Because it pleased the Lord to require it. Because: “we must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22).
On the other hand, the people enjoying blessings may be the unfruitful ones. They are being fertilised by the merciful God in the expectation that they also will become fruitful. When we see them getting such special attention, we become like the brother of the Prodigal Son. We complain bitterly to God.
“I did not leave. I remained faithful. I did not spend my inheritance on riotous living. And yet, it is this ingrate that you are throwing a party for. It is because of him that you are killing the fatted calf. There is no profit in being faithful to you.”
But the irony of the situation is that once the Prodigal Son himself becomes fruitful, the special attention he has been receiving might also cease.
Grace of God
When we receive God’s blessings, we would like to believe we are being rewarded for our works. But this is hardly ever the case. Even worse, when we receive God’s blessings, we tend to look down on those going through trials. But the tree receiving fertilizer is not necessarily better off than the one being pruned.
We must stop judging by appearances. The prosperity gospel now popularly preached in our churches is arrant nonsense. It is the word of men of the world who have their portion in this life. (Psalm 17:14).
It is easy for people who receive God’s blessings to conclude that they are given so they can have a good time. But it is not the will of God to make us selfish and self-centred. Blessings are given to us so we might produce more fruit. If we don’t, we are asking for trouble.
Blessings are signs of God’s grace. They are his goodness to us even though we never deserve them. They do not automatically denote God’s approval. Instead, they are given to provoke us to: “abound for every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:8).