Last week, I purchased a birthday present for my wife. I searched for it online, in the course of which I discovered I could arrange to collect it on a stated day from a location near to where we live. In due course I received a text message telling me to check my e-mail, which would contain a bar code, which I was to print out and take to the collection point, along with some form of photo ID.
So far, so efficient; but also so impersonal, and so super-contractual. For although I had agreed to purchase the item, and paid online, I could not receive the package into my hands unless all the paperwork was in order. The bar code was useless without the photo ID, and vice-versa.
It set me thinking about how much of our interaction with others is contractual. Every day we enter into binding arrangements which impose obligations – to provide goods or services in exchange for payment, or to incur penalties in case of default. Our society makes intensive use of the discourse of entitlement, and much of our interaction is predicated on a system of rewards and punishments – every quid has a quo.
Even some of our intimate relationships with family and friends can have contractual character: ‘If you give up smoking, I’ll take you on a cruise to the Bahamas’ (‘and if you don’t, I’ll take you on a cruise to Rockall and leave you there’).
But God doesn’t make contracts with us, nor should we try to make contracts with God, even though we do it all the time, especially in Lent: ‘If I give up wine or chocolate for six weeks, can my daughter get that place in university she has applied for?’
True relationships, relationships of value, between humanity and God, and among human beings made in God’s image, are not contractual but covenantal. A covenant is a relationship of support and trust, in short, of love. We speak of marriage as a contract, and in respect of its legal status it is. But as an interpersonal commitment to lifetime fidelity, patience and support, it is, or should be, a covenant.
The trouble is, we go on thinking of our relationship with God in contractual and legal terms. So sin is thought of as the infringement of a rule, for which we have to pay a penalty. Today’s gospel provides a good example of our tendency to assume that evil and suffering are punishment for sin: those whom Pilate killed, and those on whom the tower of Siloam fell, must have been very wicked. Most of us can remember the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when many people professing to be Christians were only too eager to say that this devastating illness was ‘the wages of sin’.
If our relationships, with God and with each other, are truly covenantal, impairment of any relationship is primarily a failure of trust and love. To be sure, there are occasions when restitution (say, of improperly obtained wealth) is a contractual necessity if the relationship is ever to be healed. But this is only the first step, and real restoration of trust and love can only happen through repentance and forgiveness.
Repentance is not quid-pro-quo restitution, but an acknowledgement of failure. It involves trusting that we shall be forgiven; it means dropping our defences and accepting our vulnerability. Jesus’ statement in today’s gospel (‘unless you repent, you will all perish as they did’ [Lk. 13:3, 5]) is not a threat or a statement about punishment or penalty, but a recognition of the destructive effects of lack of repentance, which is essentially the refusal to trust, to acknowledge our failure.
But what is the parable of the fig tree doing here? It provides a strange and seemingly irrelevant coda to the passage, but it is one of the many expressions in the Bible of the theme of the second chance, of the new beginning, of God’s patience. Time and time again, the Old Testament shows God ‘repenting of the evil which he had intended to do’. Even at the very end of the last book in the Bible, Revelation, that favourite of many a fundamentalist, with its dire warnings and terrifying images, the angel says (Rev. 22:10-11): ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.’
Rowan Williams has said somewhere that hell can be envisaged as a place where God is trying to push the door open while those inside struggle to keep it shut. What these words from Revelation suggest is that up to very last second of time, God holds door open to our repentance and return, for God’s generosity and patience are infinite. If we want to enter into true Christian freedom, we have to realise this, not just in our minds, but in the depths of our being.
Lent, then, is not a time of ‘doing things’ or imposing mortifications in order to redress the contractual balance, but a time when we reflect on whether we are living as people of the covenant, a covenant of love and trust in one who is infinitely generous and patient:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts (Is. 55:8-9).