The very first night I was on campus my freshman year, the dorm staff showed us the movie Animal House. Which probably shows you how they, at least, viewed what I was supposed to do the next four years. Or seven, as the case may be.
In any event, there is a place in the movie where mean, nasty ol’ Dean Wormer lowers the boom on the fun-loving party guys of the Delta Tau Chi fraternity. They’ve crossed the line, and because they were on what Dean Wormer calls “double secret probation,” he can now expel them. Since this is totally unfair, they decide to destroy the homecoming parade.
Dean Wormer also tells one kid that “fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.” One horrifying rite of adulthood is admitting Dean Wormer was right about that.
But anyway, there’s something to this “double secret probation” that sounds like some of the ideas that Jesus is talking about in this passage.
Knowing what we do about the way people seemed to think of religion in those times, we can be pretty sure of a couple of things people were thinking when they started this conversation with Jesus. They probably thought that the people Pilate killed were somehow less religious, or maybe just worse people all around. They must have sinned more than other people to meet such an awful fate.
“Is that what you think?” Jesus asks them. “That’s not how it works. Are the people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell worse sinners than the people who weren’t killed? Repent or you will perish just like they did.”
Of course, Jesus wasn’t suggesting these people would literally die in a tower collapse or at Pilate’s hands. But it’s a safe bet none of those people thought they would die in the time and place they did, either. Nobody woke up and decided to skip going to work that day because they knew they’d die that afternoon.
They didn’t know – and neither do you and I know – when and where they would die. They did know, if they ever thought about it, that one day they would die. They were probably more aware of it than we are, because they encountered death more often.
So, Jesus tells them, your death will be as unexpected for you as theirs was for them. You may be a good person, or a middling person, or a bad person. And none of that will have anything to do with when and how you die. Being a pious and proper person who says and does all the right things won’t lengthen your life, so don’t expect that you’ll have time to repent later. Do it now if you’re going to do it.
Otherwise, death will come to you like double secret probation came to the Delta brothers (Jesus didn’t use those exact words). You’ll suddenly be out of chances to repent, even though you thought you still had plenty of them.
Now, that sounds like a gloomy message – and probably sounded worse to the people who had a lot of repenting to do. They’d been busy making messes out of their lives, and even if they repented, why would God believe they might do anything differently now? They might not even have much time to get things turned around and make amends for what they’d done.
But Jesus also includes a word of hope, in the parable of the barren fig tree. God might be entitled to think of those people who’d been on the wrong path the way the man thought of his barren fig tree. Worthless, and basically taking up space that could be used by another tree than might bear fruit.
No, Jesus said. That’s not how God sees things. God has the gardener’s view, that if he takes some special care and attention to the tree, the next year it might bear some fruit. If he works with us, we may yet bear fruit even though we never have before.
According to the double secret probation view, God decides he’ll only wait so long before we prove ourselves worthless and then he’ll pull the plug on us. But according to the gardener’s view, God always seeks one more chance to help us grow.
In fact, if God were really going to cause lives to end based on whether or not a person was following him, he’d do everything he could to extend the lives of the people who weren’t following him. After all, they’re the ones who need all the extra chances they can get, aren’t they?
Jesus tells his listeners – and us, for that matter – that God has never given up on us, and is constantly trying to find a way to make us the fruitful and thriving image of God he’s always wanted us to be. The only question is when we’ll make the decision to start helping him work in us, and begin becoming those people.